How To Break Down Big Hairy Goals Into Achievable Steps

Reinder de VriesProductivity

Just do it! Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Some people dream of success, while you’re going to wake up and work hard at it! – Shia LeBeouf’s viral “Just do it” video

But… how do you do that exactly? You’d expect that between Getting Things Done, SMART Goals and a journaling app, you’d have everything you need to tackle that big hairy goal, right?

In this article, you’re going to take a look at big hairy goals that need massive action. What is “massive action”, anyway? Why does Getting Things Done often feel like you’re climbing Mount Everest, one important interruption at a time? How do you fit a SMART-defined goal in the big picture?

Answers to those questions, and a better system for achieving big hairy goals, is what you’ll find in this article. Enjoy!

What’s A Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

So what’s a big hairy audacious goal anyway? Let’s look at a famous example: “Enable human exploration and settlement of Mars”, from SpaceX, the aerospace manufacturer led by Elon Musk, who says they’re going to Mars.

That’s definitely a hairy goal.

The “BHAG”, as it’s often called, is a single long-term goal that’s extremely tough, but not entirely impossible. Unlike the SMART goal (more on that later) it’s almost as if a big hairy goal needs to be unrealistic to be compelling enough to achieve it.

You wouldn’t have the audacity to set your sights on a goal you think you can reasonably attain, right? A big hairy goal helps you to focus. “Enable human exploration and settlement of Mars” doesn’t leave much room for doubt – you’re either walking around on Mars, or you’re not.

Apart from helping you focus, setting a big hairy goal helps you, paradoxically, to achieve more. Maybe you’ve heard of Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, if you take two hours for a task you can do in just one hour, don’t expect to be finished in one hour.

What if you apply Parkinson’s Law on setting goals? Instead of aiming for a realistic goal, you set an unrealistic, audacious goal, that has a high chance of failure. You aim to overshoot your realistic goal, and achieve more than you initially would have by setting unreasonably high expectations. Instead of putting a limit on your goals, you aim higher, and strive to “fill up” an unreasonably high achievement.

When your big hairy goal is too far away, you might lose motivation in the face of an insurmountable mountain. If you set your sights too close, you might get there, but taking Parkinson’s Law into account, you might have gotten further with the same amount of effort.

Parkinson’s Law really cuts both ways. In “The 12 Week Year”, authors Moran and Lennington argue that you can get the same amount of work done in 12 weeks, as others get done in 12 months, simply by limiting the time you spend on work, and leveraging a better structure for work.

Likewise, books like “The Magic of Thinking Big” state that it’s easier to aim for 10x results than to aim for 2x results, comparing the amount of effort they take for achievement. If you’re going to undertake a hard and audacious project, why not overdo it, and enjoy increasingly greater results?

But before we get to setting such a big hairy goal, and breaking it down, let’s look at a few more typical ways of setting goals and managing tasks.

SMART Goals: A Really Dumbed Down System

“SMART” is another one of those management acronyms, and it stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based. SMART helps you to avoid vague and unspecific goals, and forces you to track your progress.

Here’s an example: Lose 25 pounds in 3 months by exercising 3 times a week for 45 minutes. It has all the SMART criteria: it’s specific and measurable, and you can reasonably expect to lose that kind of weight in such a timeframe.

The goal misses a bit of “Achievability” though, which is often the problem with SMART goals – now that you know what you’re going to do, how are you going to do it? Such a SMART goal typically lacks perspective on how it fits in the bigger picture.

Sure, you can drag yourself to the gym three times a week, but is that really realistic, considering you’ve spent last week’s evenings binge watching Netflix? Losing 25 pounds in 3 months by exercising sounds deceivably achievable, but it lacks pointers on how to get it done exactly.

To increase your chances of success, you could incorporate a warm-up period in your exercise routine in which you exercise less, make meal plans to stimulate weight loss, or you could use specific workouts to increase fitness and body strength. None of these things are included in the SMART goal, though.

SMART goals put an unnecessary strong focus on the goal itself. What really matters is how you’re going to get there, and if you can change your circumstances enough to create an achievement-friendly environment.

So, how do you manage the everyday of getting to your goals?

Getting (The Wrong) Things Done

The Getting Things Done methodology (GTD), popularized by David Allen’s book with the same name, is perhaps the most widely adopted method for managing tasks.

The system is simple: you start with an “Incoming” bucket, in which all newly created tasks go. At set times you review this bucket, and categorize tasks in further buckets, such as “Work” or “Project X” or “At home”. You label particular tasks, like “Waiting” for someone else to do something, and “Actionable” task you can complete whenever you want to.

One of the great things about GTD is that it has the power to turn you into an efficient productivity machine. There’s one thing it lacks though: effectiveness and meaning. GTD tells you to distinguish urgent from important tasks, and it helps you to define things you shouldn’t be doing at all, but it doesn’t have a solution for knowing you’re on the right track.

When you’re getting things done, you can’t help but notice some tasks go in the “Someday” bucket – exactly those tasks that would have helped you move towards your goals. Why put them on the backburner? Well, dinner needs cooking, the lawn needs looking after, and you just got pinged to sit in on an “important” management meeting. Why bother to try to change the things you can’t change, right? That’s not very GTD of you…

In his book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport underscores the value of meaningful, intensive work. A big hairy goal isn’t simply a matter of setting a goal that’s unreasonable – it also comes down to working passionately on a project.

Newport argues that GTD promotes “task universalism” – all tasks are created equal. Even when you prioritize, which is part of GTD, any and thus every task is managed by the GTD methodology. When all tasks are created equal, no task really triumphs.

Meaningful, deep work comes from spending a large amount of uninterrupted time on an intensive task, something that fits the bigger picture of your goals, or fits your purpose. If it really matters that much, the lawn can wait.

A big hairy audacious goal needs “Massive Action” to get done. Not massive in terms of step size, but massive as in decisive, intentional, ruthless action. The only time, really, to take massive action is now. Why would you want to achieve something that’s bigger than yourself, and then put it in “Incoming”?

A Better System: Goals, Milestones, Projects and Reviews

Let’s quickly revisit the requirements for achieving a big hairy goal:

  • You need to deliberately set a big hairy goal, not a small weak reasonable goal. Be intentionally unreasonable. If it’s not crazy, you need a better dream.
  • It’s a great idea to shape your goal with “SMART”, but know that it won’t tell you how to get there. You need to know how to get there, to get there.
  • Big hairy goals go beyond “Getting Things Done”, especially because they’re meaningful and need Massive Action to get done.

You can’t expect to achieve your goals in just one day, no matter how ruthless or massive your actions are. What do you do, then? You break it down! Small steps build up to bigger ones, especially if they build on top of each other.

Here’s what you do:

  • Let’s start with your big hairy goal. Write it down somewhere. Then, think about Why you want this. Knowing what you want to achieve, and why you want it, is more important than knowing how.
  • Limit your plan to 3 months and expect to achieve your big hairy goal in those 3 months. Now, looking at the goal, ask yourself: “What are the parts that need to be in place, to achieve this big hairy goal?”
  • Call these parts Milestones. Ideally, split up your 3-month goal in about three or four 1-month Milestones. Pick three Milestones you can complete in a month, that together amount to achieving your big hairy goal.
  • Then, for every Milestone, create 3-5 Projects. Each Project has a crystal clear end result, and it’s simple enough to complete in about a week.

An example:

  • Goal: Start an online business selling wooden kids toys with $10k in profits
  • Milestone: Have 5 toy products listed in the storefront
  • Project: “Set up Shopify store” and “Get in touch with a manufacturer, make a selection of products, and negotiate pricing”

This is the plan to achieve your big hairy goal. You’ve broken it in smaller pieces, using a smaller perspective for each step.

When you define Milestones for a Goal, you want to think about how you’re going to get to your big hairy goal, but when you’re describing the Milestone, you should phrase it as an end result. Ultimately, achieving your big hairy goal comes down to achieving a limited number of smaller end results.

So, when you’re busy achieving your goal, how do you know you’re on track? That’s where Reviews come in:

  • At the start of any day, you check in with your Goal, Milestones and Projects. You pick 1-5 tasks you want to get done today, and you make sure that they fit within a defined Project. These are your most important tasks for the day. What is the absolute minimum progress you want to make today?
  • At the end of a day, you review your progress. Did you complete your tasks? What are your big wins for the day? Any regrets, fears, worries? Put them in your journal!
  • At the end of a week, you review your overall progress of the week. On which days did you get most done? Do you need to reassess your Goal, Milestones or Projects?

Tracking, reviewing and reassessing is important to stay on track. Our plans change all the time, so don’t worry if you switch out one Milestone for a better one.

So, there you have it: a system for achieving greatness, step by step. Taking Massive Action towards a big hairy goal is often a matter of doing less, well-defined steps, with great intent and resolution, instead of getting a whole lot done. Strange, isn’t it?