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Projects, Tasks, and the Meaning of Life

I want to say a few things about goal structure (this is part 3 of the Goal Setting Guide). But first . . . a quick story about a man lost in the jungle:

A few years back I was simultaneously trying to finish up my Ph.D., start my own business, and help raise a couple young children. And I was also going through some social turmoil that was emotionally draining. (The details would take too much time to explain and aren’t really relevant anyway.)

Me, lost in the jungle a few years back.

I had all kinds of things I needed to work on, and I didn’t know which way to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any idea which way to go; it was that I had too many ideas. Should I work on my dissertation, work on my business, or spend more time with my kids?

If I work on the business, what should I work on? Should I work on product development, or market the product I already have? If I develop a new product, which of a dozen promising (but risky) ideas should I choose? If I work on marketing, which marketing method should I focus on? Or should I work on building my professional network?

What I tended to do during this time was jump around from project to project, never confident that the project I was working on was the project I should be working on. Often – too often – I would start a project, think another project was more important, and then switch projects.

That left me with dozens of half-finished projects. And half-finished projects are typically no more effective than projects never started.

Clearly I needed some help. Goal setting was not working very well for me – not the way I was doing it.

I was lost in the jungle, and danger was lurking.

Looking back I wish I had understood better how goals work.

Projects, Tasks, and the Meaning of Life

First, let’s take a moment to notice that some goals are big, and some are small. Making a million dollars is (for most people) a big goal. Getting out of bed (again, for most people) is a small goal.

And notice that goals often fit together in a branching structure.

If your goal is to make a million dollars, once you start planning how to do it, the bigger goal will branch into sub goals.

For instance, “make a million dollars” could be decomposed into:

  • do some research to discover how others in my situation have made a million.
  • create a product or service
  • set up the marketing
  • tweak things until they’re profitable in a scalable way
  • and then goose the marketing until I’ve got it made

Sure this plan is nebulous, it might not work as stated, and it is definitely much easier said than done. But it’s a plan. And breaking big goals into sub-goals is almost always better than not doing so.

Each sub goal here should probably (by which I mean “definitely”) be broken down into sub-sub goals as well. And those sub-sub goals should probably be broken down into sub-sub-sub goals. And so on, until you’re working on tasks that don’t tax your mind as you work on them.

This process should sound familiar. You’re just creating an outline. And you’ve been making outlines all your life.

Most plans are outlines, though they don’t have to be. They could have a different structure. Some sub-tasks might share a sub-sub task, and that would break the strict branching pattern. But even then you COULD still represent your plan as an outline. It would just have a little redundancy in it.

So goals are typically nested together in an outline structure. And this is very natural to our brains. We just naturally break complex goals down into sub-goals and sub-sub-goals this way.

And every level of the hierarchy is important, even though it’s only the lowest level actions that actually get done.

Here’s a plan with only the lowest level to-do items.

  • buy the boards and 2×2’s
  • clear the space for the bed
  • assemble the bed
  • soil the bed
  • Dig the grass away
  • dump the grass in the sod heap
  • Get an extension cord long enough.
  • build housing for cord
  • drill hole in wall
  • fill hole around cord
  • purchase an arduino board
  • purchase a raspberry pi processor
  • hook up the raspberry pi to input/output devices
  • hook up raspberry pi to arduino
  • do a simple test to make sure they’re communicating
  • dig hole
  • drop it in
  • secure it with cover that keeps dirt out but allows easy access
  • get pumps
  • hook pumps up to arduino
  • thread hosing from pumps to garden beds
  • Start with regular watering schedule for each bed.
  • Eventually work in moisture sensors, and water only when needed.

It’s a little tough to see what’s going on, right?
Now here’s the plan with all the higher level organizing nodes filled in.

So the lowest level items are very important. They’re the actions you actually take. But the higher-level nodes also are important. They give meaning and context to the lower level actions.

All the lower level to-do items on this page are part of the “improve the garden” project, which is part of the “backyard landscaping” project.

What most people don’t realize is that, by extending this idea, their whole lives can be organized in a single outline.

This one personal project might fit into your larger “personal life” project. And your “personal life” project fits into your “my life” project (alongside a lot of work/professional/business projects). So everything can be fit under the same umbrella of “my life” (in the example it’s “master plan”).

And, just so that I’m not misunderstood, I don’t mean that there is one single outline that can represent your whole life. I mean that your whole life can be organized in any of an infinite number of outlines. You have complete artistic freedom here. And how you choose to describe and structure your life (whether in an actual outline plan or just vaguely in your head) determines, in a very real sense, the whole “meaning” of your life. (I may post more on this later.)

Now there’s something to notice about these planning outlines . . .

“WHY” is Up. “HOW” is Down

“Why” is up. “How” is down.

Plato (pointing up) and Aristotle (gesturing down) in the School of Athens.

Notice that, if you’re working on a project, and you ask the question “why am I working on this project?”, the answer can be found by looking up a level or two in your goal structure.

For instance, if you’re doing the gardening plan, and digging a hole, and you pause to ask yourself “why am I digging this hole?”, you can see that you’re digging the hole, in order to “create a reservoir”, and you’re doing that in order to “set up the watering system”, and you’re doing that in order to “get an automated garden”, and you’re doing that to “have a nicely landscaped back yard”, and you’re doing that to “make your personal life better”.

It gets a little nebulous the higher up we go, but, in general, we figure out the “why” by going up levels in our plan.

So when you look up the hierarchy you can answer “why” questions.

And if you’re at a node and you start to wonder “how am I going to do this?”, you look down.

If you’re looking at the node “set up watering system”, and you ask yourself the question “how am I going to do this?”, you look down and you see that you do it by “getting the control system set up,” “building a reservoir,” “installing the pumps”, and “programming the system”. And if you want to know how to do any of those sub-steps, you look down again.

Raphael (the painter, not the ninja turtle) might have been savvy to this point way back in the early 1500s. In his painting “School of Athens” the central characters are the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato, known for addressing “why” questions, is seen pointing up. And Aristotle, known for addressing “what” and “how” questions, is seen gesturing out and down.

Now it might be that Raphael was actually making a distinction between the “heavenly” and the “mundane”, but it would work equally well were he making the distinction between “why” and “how”. And, really, those two distinctions are not unrelated anyway.

(NOTE: there are actually at least two main kinds of plans. There are HOW plans, and there are WHAT plans. At times it will be important to understand the difference.

In short, a WHAT plan is a structural map of the final creation, and is often the most natural way for our brain to start breaking down a project. A HOW plan is a construction story, and is the best kind of plan to work from when it comes time to actually start executing on the project.

Sometimes you’ll find that you need to convert a WHAT plan into a HOW plan. I plan to write more on this distinction later.)

Just remember to look up for context, and down for details.

What Does This Mean?

“How do I do this?” and “Why am I doing this?” are not the only questions we ask when looking at an item in one of our plans. Another question we are prone to ask is “What does this mean?”

And the “what does this mean?” question is answered by looking up and down in the hierarchy. If you want to know what it means to “automate the garden”, it really helps to look both directions. You will understand that item better if you know what it is or how to make it (looking down). And you will also understand it better if you know what role it plays in the bigger picture (looking up).

This works for defining words as well. If we want to know what a word means, we often want to know both how to analyze the term into more basic concepts, and how the word is used in bigger language games. Both kinds of answers help us grasp the meaning of the word.

OK, so now we know how plans are structured, and how to navigate around inside our plan in order to answer different kinds of questions about particular items in the plan.

The final thing I want to note today is that, while all levels of the plan are necessary, some levels of the plan are more important than others.

The Two Most Important Planning Levels Of Your Working Life

Your goal structure might have 10 or 12 levels going all the way at the top from your life mission all the way down to your lowest level sub-goal.

But I’ve found, and others have found, that it’s useful to treat two of these levels as special in your working life. These two levels are the ones you need to spend the most time getting right.

Get them right, and they will provide you with a pair of points to line up your aim on — in order to make sure the rest of your planning is going in the right direction, and with maximal motivation.

The first most important goal level is your highest career aspiration, and the second most important level is the level of the sprint.

Your highest career aspiration is the highest organizing principle for your whole working life. It will remain flexible, being updated frequently, and evolving with you as you gain skills, knowledge, connections, and so forth.

Your sprints are 1 week to 1 month chunks of work that have certain properties that will help you focus, help you get a lot done, and help you stay motivated. You will commit to these with great rigidity.

(Both Cal Newport and Scott H. Young emphasize the importance of understanding your highest career aspiration. And sprints are emphasized by practitioners of the Agile SCRUM methodology. See also my post Traditional SCRUM in a nutshell and the one following that How I Do SCRUM For One.)

In the next two sections of this guide, we will consider what role these two planning levels play in your working life. And we will consider strategies for determining the content of these goal levels.

As always, constructive feedback is heartily welcomed :)

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