26 Jan 2018

Goals: A Systematic Approach to Organizing & Prioritizing Them

A system to organize macro-level and day-to-day goals within your time constraints.

This guide is part of the 5-Part Productivity Guide.

Check out all 5 parts in The Only Productivity Guide You’ll Ever Need.

The Productivity Guide:


Goal organization refers to 2 elements:

  • Awareness of macro-level and micro-level goals and how the two relate.
  • Having clarity in how to achieve both goal levels.

Goal organization is as idiosyncratic as time organization; some people have phenomenal systems using apps like Omnifocus or Wunderlist while others have equally great systems with just pen and paper.

In this guide, I’ll go over my system — again, not necessarily the best one, but one that has worked well for me. If you have useful (or better?) tips, leave them in the comments below.

The purpose of this piece is to lay out different ways of representing goals and action items. If this is a system you’d like to adopt, remember that you don’t have to use all the methods described in this guide – the idea is to do only as much as you need to achieve clarity in what needs to be done at various scales in time – a semester, 3 months, a week, etc.

And that’s pretty much it by way of introduction. So with that, onwards, friend!

Excel Spreadsheets, Ahoy!

As you’ll see below, I do all of my major goal, project, and multi-month planning in Excel spreadsheets. It’s versatile, free form, great for lists, and combined with my multi-month and month views, allows me to centralize all my productivity tools around Google Calendar and Excel.

If you want any of the Excel templates of the layouts below, email me at and I’ll send them right over.

Macro Level Goal Planning

I love macro level goal planning.

It just feels super optimistic/inspiring/awesome — kind of like the start of a semester. Macro level planning is particularly great at the beginning of any new phase – a new semester, before starting a job, before a vacation, etc.

I. Retrospective Reflection

My favorite method of macro level planning is imagining myself in the future, and thinking retrospectively about what I’d feel great having done or achieved. I ask myself:

“Imagine it’s 8 months in the future and you’re thinking back over the last 8 months. You have a wide grin on your face because you’ve accomplished everything you set out to accomplish. What did you accomplish?

Is it cheesy? Yep.

Does it work well? Yep.

I’ll then go ahead and outline some vague goals underneath which might look like this:

  • Newsletter in motion
  • Have a successful website up and running.
    • Works and doesn’t shut down all the time.
    • Has a significant number of viewers/readers (>50-100/day).
    • Incorporated into daily life – I naturally seek to write.
  • (and more goals)

Prioritizing & Organizing

At this point, you’ll likely have a number of goals – maybe as many as 7 or 10 depending on how optimistic you are.

Being really straightforward and honest about why you want to get something done can be an insightful tool of getting to know yourself better and prioritizing goals. So for each goal, I often find it incredibly helpful to dig deeper into each goal with the following chart:

Mission Why is this important? Generic ways to accomplish mission
Build a successful blog    

When creating missions, it’s better if your missions are task oriented rather than outcome oriented. So instead of ‘Give a TED talk’ (something determined largely by the external forces of the selection committee), you could write, ‘Write a TED worthy compelling narrative / story’ or ‘Reach out to 100 TED selection committees’.

You can identify which of these goals are priorities by asking yourself:

“Say you could only accomplish 5 of these. Which would it be and why?”

Other Macro Level Views

Sometimes, in addition to the reflective process above, I’ll lay out vague projects/goals/habits as they occur to me like the example above. Then, at the start of each month or at the end of a project, I’ll pick a to-do/project/thing-to-learn/habit to implement that month, and focus then on hammering out the details during that month.

Micro Level Goal Planning

So, at this point, I have a great sense of the larger goals I want to achieve, but little idea how to actually achieve them in terms of day-to-day tasks. It’s time to make each goals actionable.

Each project has an associated list of actionable to-do items. ‘Build a website’, for example translates into a 100 different action items, from ‘Research and pick a platform to develop on’ to ‘Get the favicon working’ to ‘Fill out about page’.

In other words, we need to streamline action on a project by listing out the more finely grained day-to-day actions that achieve a giant project. These tasks need to be written in such a way that you could physically do them with no ambiguity about how to do them. Below are a couple examples of non-actionable tasks made actionable.

Bad “Actionable Task” Example Good “Actionable Task” Example
Study for Italian test Do 3 sets of Duolingo flash cards, read chapters 4 & 5 of textbook.
Exercise Do the 25 minute Jillian “Killer Buns” workout everyday for the next 6 days.

After a macro planning session I like to lay out goals/action items per project with the following template:

Each project has a set of actionable tasks, arranged by how long it takes to complete each task.

A couple quick notes:

  • You can highlight cells of more pressing tasks in yellow.
  • I usually order the tasks logically, so what needs to get done first is listed at the top.
  • If you have a lot of action items in the 5-8 hour column, it’s likely because they aren’t broken down into actionable sub-tasks. For example, ‘study for Data Structures test’ can be broken down into “Read Chapter 5, read chapter 6, etc.,” each of which go in one of the first three columns.

I like this setup for a few reasons.

It’s great if you have multiple projects you’re managing.

Organized by project/class allows you to pick and choose which projects are more pressing or which you’re more in the mood for.

It’s helpful for seeing what you can get done in a given time period.

Breaking tasks down by the time it takes to do them is helpful when deciding what to do on a day-to-day basis. If I have small blocks of time, I know I can grab tasks from the Quick column and quickly finish them off during those small time blocks.

Plus, if you’re on the go, you can quickly see which projects you can complete on a train or in a different work environment. If you travel a lot, you could even add ‘Mobile Tasks’ as a column for each project.

This view gives you a sense of 2-3 week action items, allowing you to perfectly filter out which of the tasks you want to take care of this week.

Weekly Planning

From the Project Pipeline view above, I’ll usually pick out all the action items I need to get done this week as a sort of free-form list of tasks.

By that I mean, I’ll literally cut and paste the task’s cell from the project view into a separate ‘weekly to-do’ area. From there, I make sure each task is:

  1. Incredibly actionable (e.g. no ambiguity of what needs to be done in order to cross it off the list)
  2. Able to be completed within a 0-4 hour block. If it isn’t, I’ll try and break the task down into sub-tasks.

I don’t have a set platform for weekly planning – sometimes I’ll use paper lists, other times I’ll use my Mac Stickies app, other times I’ll plan each task out per day on my Google Calendar.

Other Cool Views & Planning Tools

A ‘Done’ Category

I maintain a “Done” Column to copy tasks into once I’ve finished them. Even though it’s easier deleting them, it’s nice looking back after a couple months and seeing your progress. Suffice to say, it’s a friendly reminder that achievement is simply the summation of small, seemingly unimportant tasks.

Brain Dumps

Brain dumps involve racking your brain for every existing project and action item, and getting it all on paper. They’re particularly great to do during a macro level planning session or in transitory periods (e.g. start or end of a work/school period).

The benefit of this is simply not having to remember a million tasks in your head. There’s a huge amount of ‘carrying cost’ to store tasks, reminders, and to-dos in one’s head and it’s often times incredibly relieving to just sort of write them down and remove them from one’s internal memory storage. Use this list as a starting point for your brain dump.

If you live a more free-form life. . .

These past few months for me have been interesting simply because I have 8 months off to make progress on whatever goals I see fit before starting work at Microsoft. I’ve taken to listing out the general projects I’ll be working on each month, and then drilling down the actionable tasks that month itself.

This guide is part of the 5-Part Productivity Guide.

Check out all parts together in the Productivity Guide, or see the individual pages below: