How to formulate your long-term vision and goals

FormulateMore important than the ability to get things done, is the ability to get the right things done. In fact being able to cut through the noise of modern life and focus on the things that matter is a premium 21st century skill we all need to master.

To be successful, we need to dedicate our precious time and energy to our most important work; but how do we know what is important and what can be ignored?

In order to answer that question, we need to know what our destination looks like. Knowing what we want to achieve with our lives and the key steps or goals required to get there, gives us a valuable reference point for making daily decisions on how best to spend our time.

To look at this another way, think back to the last time you left your house without a clear idea of where you wanted to go. I’m guessing you might be struggling to remember a time when you set off without a chosen destination in mind.

When we know our destination, we can work out the best route to get there. The same thing applies to life. When we have a clear idea of what we want to achieve, it becomes considerably easier to plan how to achieve it.

This is why the most important part of the FocusDone productivity methodology is the Formulate activity; a pro-active and on-going effort to define your vision, set goals and break it all down into executable activities that can be worked on everyday.

Perhaps the best way to explain the Formulate activity is with this diagram, which shows the link between the things you do day-to-day and your long-term vision.

Vision to activities

The key principle here is the need to look beyond the short-term and expand our thinking out to the horizon. Only then is it possible to live with intention and not be pulled in several directions by other people’s priorities.

Naturally in real life there is no way we can plot and plan every activity to align perfectly with our long-term vision and goals, but we can treat them as a guiding North Star for decision making and ensuring we remain on the right path as much as possible.

Creating a vision

The first thing to be clear on is what we actually mean by a vision.

You’ve probably heard of vision statements? This is the corporate practice of succinctly stating what the organisation wants to become and accomplish by some far-future point.

A personal vision statement does the same thing for individuals. I like to think of a vision as an ideal pen-picture of where I see myself at a certain point in the future, outlining:

  • What I will have accomplished
  • The lifestyle I will be living with my family
  • The sort of work I will be doing
  • And the interests I’ll be pursuing

Another approach is to describe your vision as a day in your life ten years from now, something that Debbie Millman says was transformative for her as she managed to achieve many of the things she originally wrote about.

Ideally your vision will be set at a point far enough in the future that you can think big, but at the same time close enough that it is still relevant.

To me a ten-year vision works well, as there is a huge amount that an individual can achieve in a decade, but at the same time it is not too far in the future to lose the tangible link to the world today.

You may want to buy a notebook or use something like an Evernote account to write, re-draft and update your vision in. This way it stays interactive and getting into the habit of journaling your long-term thoughts is a great way to bring clarity to your thinking.

Remember this is not a one-time fire-and-forget activity. I’ve been refining my vision and goals for a long time now (since I started in fact!) and it is still something that I keep coming back to as I learn and discover new things about the world and myself.

In fact, had I had the foresight to do this exercise twenty years ago, I’d most likely still be revisiting and refining my vision as life progresses.

Understand where you are now

A vision gives you a destination to aim for, but to be able to find your way there you need to know your current location. So why not write about your life as it currently is?

This might sound easy, but there is a lot more to it once you scratch the surface and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn about yourself.

Here are some pointers to get started:

  • Describe what you do for a living and how it makes you feel
  • Write about your family and the people close to you
  • Talk about the things you treasure and the things you want to change or improve
  • Note down the accomplishments you are most proud of
  • Note down the things you are least proud of (if you can bear the pain!)
  • Describe your strengths and weaknesses

Remember this is all very personal stuff and you don’t need to share any of it with anyone else if you don’t want to, so don’t be afraid to really open up and be honest with yourself.

Personally I’ve found this journaling process to be very self-affirming, as we often belittle our own achievements and take for granted the many great things we already have in our lives.

The other thing this process does is help you to identify constraints or challenges that you’ll need to overcome if you are going to achieve the future life you have visualised.

People often feel constrained by low confidence or have to overcome a big challenge like learning a new language in order to move forward and these things can be captured as key stepping stones or goals, enabling related activities to be planned.

Goals

If you’ve worked out where you want to get to (your vision) and where you are now, the next thing you need to do is figure out how you are going to get there; which is where goals come in.

Goals differ from a vision as they are more focused on a single outcome and more specific about what that outcome looks like – but importantly –  they don’t go as far as explaining how the outcome will be achieved.

Instead they should be treated as key milestones to signpost you on your journey. For example a long-term goal to move home to Italy would be a milestone for somebody who visualised themselves becoming the owner of an Italian vineyard.

That long-term goal could then be broken down into smaller goals, such as learning to speak Italian and finding the ideal property; with each smaller goal becoming a milestone in the overall journey.

Ultimately you’ll want to break your goals down to the point where you can relate monthly and day-to-day activities to each of your long-term goals. This is an on-going process that will require regular thinking (or Formulation) sessions to plan and adapt to new learning and insights.

The rule of three

As you start to decompose your vision into goals, try to limit the number of long-term goals that you work towards to a maximum of three.

This is purely to help you maintain focus and avoid spreading yourself too thinly across too many things.

Ideally for maximum impact, you’d just focus all your energy on one long-term goal, but I just think that would result in a very extreme (and mentally unhealthy) lifestyle.

Three long-term goals provides a nice balance between focus for effectiveness and variation for personal sanity!

To me a good mixture of goals is:

  • A family related goal
  • A professional / work related goal
  • A personal health or wellbeing related goal

Other examples might concern your personal finances, a quest to travel to a far-off destination or something related to your local community.

The journey towards your vision

With a destination in place, milestones along the way and a better awareness of where you are now, you’ve given yourself a major head start to make significantly better progress with your life (something that few people do for themselves).

Obviously we can plan as much as we like, but life always has a way of throwing both good and bad surprises at us, so the journey towards your vision is never going to be straightforward.

In fact, if you have set the bar high enough for yourself, there will be plenty of twists-and-turns, false starts and complete u-turns along the way.

Perhaps the best way to tackle the journey is to take an experimental approach. Break your goals down, test and experiment different ways to reach them and ensure you are constantly iterating on the new insights that you learn as you progress.

A great way to capture insights and evolve your thinking is to start journaling on a frequent basis. You don’t need to write everything down, but simply capture and think about the most interesting insights and mull over future things to experiment with.

Your challenge: Create a formulation habit

Start off by creating your ten-year vision, then get a better perspective of where you are now, before moving on to define your long-term goals.

Once you have completed these initial activities, get yourself into the habit of regularly taking time out for refining your vision and decomposing your goals into sub-goals and activities that you can work on day-to-day.

Good luck 🙂