Three-Step Goal Setting

Long-term projects can be extraordinarily frustrating. This kind of work often involves vague deadlines and no clear plan of action for what to do next. Sometimes it involves redoing work that you have already completed, while other times it can feel like there is no relationship between effort and long-term outcome.

It can feel like a project never ends

My own experience with slow-moving large projects involved a research project that had me reviewing patient records and recording information in a large document. There were several hundred records to review and each record took about 10-15 minutes to review. It was slow going because I needed to read detailed clinical notes and it took me several weeks working evenings and weekends to collect the data. When I finished collecting the data and brought my work to my supervisor I discovered that I had missed an important piece of information from the records (the medications used). As a result I had to start the whole process again.

Eventually I finished the project and collected all the required data – but it was a grind. There were a number of times I felt like quitting the project and taking on an easier project. However, I stuck with the project and was able to develop my own approach for working on large, slow-moving projects.

I call the approach 3-step goal setting. This involves organizing goals into three steps or phases – immediate, intermediate, long-term – to tackle large projects. For example, with my research project I had a large project collecting data from several hundred records, but on a single day I could only review 3-5 records per hour. Therefore, it was easy to get discouraged. It was even easier to procrastinate and tell myself that I would work on the project tomorrow (which I usually did not). The 3-step goal setting process helped me to overcome my procrastination and finish my project.

The first phase of 3-Step Goal Setting involves setting immediate goals. I use an approach similar to block writing in which I set aside a discrete period of time (usually 1-2 hours) without distractions for working on the project and set a small measurable goal for that period. In my research project for example, I set a goal to review 5 patient records during each work period. This was be my focus for the entire work period and I would continue until (a) I had hit my immediate goal, or (b) I ran out of time in my work period. The challenge for the immediate goal is to set a realistic goal for the available time, but also a goal that provides a feeling of accomplishment. The feeling of accomplishment from achieving the immediate goal will motivate you to return to work the next day.

The second phase of 3-Step Goal Setting involves setting intermediate goals. These are goals you set for yourself on either a weekly or monthly basis that allow you to feel that you are making progress on the overall project. For example, in my project I set a goal to finish 25% of the total patient records each month. Each work period then moves you closer to your intermediate goal in a meaningful way (because it is a smaller goal). The challenge for intermediate goals is to not set goals that are overly optimistic. There will be days you make slower progress during your work periods (or even miss them altogether). When setting intermediate goals don’t set them assuming you will be working at maximum productivity each day. From my experience I have found that I need to include some ‘buffer time’ and be slightly pessimistic when setting intermediate goals.

The last phase of 3-Step Goal Setting involves setting long-term goals. This is the final goal for when you want to have the project completed and it is often the source of urgency for completing the project. This is also the only goal that many people have, which causes two problems. The first problem is that a large project can feel overwhelming and no matter how much you work towards your end goal, it feels like you are never progressing. The result for many people is procrastination – and the project is never completed. The second problem is when you set an overly optimistic goal and miss your deadline. This process repeats itself several times and you became more and more frustrated. You either finish the project, but are frustrated because it took so long, or you quit the project entirely. For setting long-term goals, it is important to have some flexibility in setting these goals and you may need to adjust them over time. However, the experience from the first two steps of goal setting (immediate and intermediate) can be used to adjust your long-term goal based on personal experience.

These goals, when applied to large projects can be very helpful. Immediate goals allow you to feel accomplished at the end of a work session, intermediate goals allow you to feel that you are making progress on the project, and long-term goals gives the motivation to finish the overall project. I have found that 3-step goal setting has been an important strategy for improving my ability to take on, and complete large projects. I’d encourage you to try out this process and see how it works for you.

How could 3-step goal setting help you finish a large project you are working on, or not yet started?


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