Personal Goals Are Like Ice Cream
We call lots of things goals. We have financial goals, educational goals, weight loss goals, milestones, goals for work, stretch goals, tasks, and goals for life; the list goes on and on. But are these all goals?
What is a goal?
Goals are creative thoughts about what you want. Goals help you plan, and they motivate you to take action.
If goals are creative thoughts about what we want, how are they like ice cream? Let me explain using SpaceX as an example.
In 2012, Elon Musk started talking about establishing a human colony on Mars. In the last eight-years, one of the projects his company, SpaceX has been working on, is building the world’s biggest rocket to help make that dream come true.
The rocket, called Starship, will be 30 feet in diameter, stand 390 feet tall. It will be able to transport the equivalent payload of a fully-loaded Boing 777 passenger jet into orbit. SpaceX has tested different materials for the hull, started building a launch complex in Texas, and experimented with welding stainless steel. And just last week (as of this writing) successfully completed its first 150-meter hop. Each of these steps is a type of goal.
To organize goals, it’s helpful to put them into categories using terms like vision, milestones, and tasks. A Vision is a goal, a Milestone is a goal, and so are individual tasks. So, goals are like ice cream because they come in different flavors. To help illustrate this, let’s use a delicious ice cream sundae.
The goals called visions and dreams are your creative thoughts about the distant future. Starting out, you may have just a vague notion of what they look like and how to get there. It’s alluring and exciting to think they might come true someday. Elon’s Mars vision has evolved, and he now articulates it as: “to see mankind become a multi-planet species in my lifetime.” That is one, big…vision!
Vision sits on top of our sundae, like a scoop of delicious chocolate ice cream. A vision is often difficult and rare. They can be out there, over the horizon. You can imagine them, but they are beyond reach; today. At the same time, they are oh so tantalizing. Like rich chocolate ice cream, your mouth starts watering just thinking about it. The funny thing about visions is that once you reach them, you start moving toward your next one. Turns out, most of the reward is in the journey and working with others to accomplish it.
Milestones are a little closer, not so far into the future, they’re within reach. It feels good to reach them and often it’s a reason to celebrate. Reaching a milestone triggers reward signals in your brain. The equivalent of “Oh là là là là! Let’s do that again!” Milestones are the second layer in our sundae.
On August 4, 2020, the upper stage of Starship lit it’s Raptor engine and completed its first 150-meter hop. Eight years in the making, SpaceX achieved a major milestone. It was such an important event, that to celebrate, Elon gave SpaceX employees Friday off as a “Crew Mission Holiday”. Oh là là là là!
Tasks are where you spend most of your time. They aren’t that exciting, they’re work. In the case of Starship, just a few of the tasks leading up to the successful 150-meter hop were: Installing storage tanks, wiring the rocket, building the test stand, designing, machining, forming, stacking and welding components, and pouring concrete. The complete list would be exceptionally long, representing eight years of tasks. In our sundae example, tasks are represented by the many scoops of vanilla ice cream on the bottom.
Why Goals Are Important
A three-year study of young professionals published in 2005 found that people who set personal goals experienced improved well-being, work satisfaction, and career success. These are very good reasons to set goals, but there’s even more.
The different types of goals also form a natural order. Tasks are on the bottom and support your milestones. Next up are milestones, their roll is identify the major steps that ultimately lead to achieving your vision.
Another important point about the natural order between tasks, milestones, and vision is the interaction between the different layers. When you organize your goals into vision, milestones, and tasks, you are creating a kind of visual graphic, something your creative mind loves to work on. As your thoughts switch back and forth between the different layers, it spawns creative insights.
For example: The vision scoop on top gives you direction, helps you plan, and motivates you to apply consistent effort. In other words, to have grit. You will need grit because those visions are often years into the future. Cultivating a vivid vision improves the likelihood of success. And creating a vision also causes you to start thinking about what’s needed to achieve it. This helps you identify milestones and tasks.
The milestone layer not only supports your vision, it helps clarify it. As you think about the milestones needed to reach your vision and switch your thoughts back and forth between vision and the milestones, you will begin to see gaps, redundancies, and have new insights. This creative loop adds clarity to your vision and helps you build your path forward.
Finally, there are the numerous, every-day, vanilla tasks. Not only do they play a critical role in achieving your milestones, but they also enable your vision to come true. This time, the back and forth pattern is most prominent between tasks and milestones. This is very helpful in deciding what tasks to spend our precious time on each day. Using goals, leveraging their natural order and interactions helps time from just slipping away.
Once you know the structure of goals, and their back and forth relationship, you can use that knowledge to improve and smooth your path to success.
Pursuing your vision, milestones, and tasks make life fun and rewarding. Its a lot easier to work on boring, everyday tasks when you know how they fit into the big picture. Completing tasks and reaching milestones sets up a cycle of progress that adds variety and anticipation to life. It’s fun and rewarding to accomplish even little tasks when you see how they are powering your progress.
An area that concerns many people is their financial security. Below are the results of a short, five-minute brainstorming session on the topic.
Reaching one million dollars in a 401(k) by retirement is pretty common advice, so is living debt-free, and paying off the car.
By converting our ice cream sundae example into a form, we can start organizing our brainstorming using the vision, milestone, task pattern. (You can download a free copy of the form here).
Let’s pull a few ideas from our brainstorming to start creating a vision. Ideas like: “Live a middle-class life, whether financial challenges and enjoy retirement.” With our vision in place, let’s look for a milestone to work on.
Dave Ramsey is well known for helping millions of people achieve financial security. According to Dave, creating an emergency fund is a critical first step. And the reason is simple. The number one reason people stop working toward financial security is due to a major unforeseen expenses. Without an emergency fund, when faced with a big car repair or surprise medical bill, people are forced to use a credit card, and that just spirals them deeper into debt.
Having a $1,000 emergency fund is a very important milestone on the way to financial security. But how do you find an extra $1,000 when you have a lot of debt? That is where tasks come in.
Here are some tasks that relate to our new milestone of having a $1,000 emergency fund:
1. Create a budget.
It’s impossible to make good choices without basic facts. A budget will give you a firm starting point. It may not be pretty, but it’s a critical task. For a free guide, check out Dave Ramsey’s Guide to Budgeting. Dave also has an easy to use Monthly Cash Flow Plan that can be very helpful.
2. Sell some stuff.
Most of us accumulate a lot of possessions over time. Fishing rods we never use, bicycles, old cell phones, even old stuffed animals, and they all can be turned into cash.
3. Earn extra income.
Turn some of your leisure time into cash. Retailers are constantly looking for dependable part-time help. If you are handy, you could pick up some home repair, painting, or landscaping jobs around the neighborhood.
You might have noticed that “Selling some stuff”, and “Earn extra income”, weren’t on our brainstorming list. That’s because they resulted from thinking about creating a $1,000 emergency fund. It’s an example of the insights created from the back and forth thinking between tasks and milestones.
Setting up a Goal goals boosts your creativity and opens the door to new solutions. Setting up a Goal Pyramid, is like creating your own game. As you organize your goals and allow your imagination to move back and forth between vision, milestones and tasks you will discover new insights and opportunities.
As the game progresses, your vision becomes clearer, and your path more defined. Over time, as you complete tasks and achieve milestones, you will move closer and closer to your vision, until it finally comes true.
I am curious about how you will use the Goal Pyramid. What new insights did you find by thinking about the interactions between vision, milestones, and tasks? Let me know in the comments below.
 Bettina S. Wiese, Alexandra M Freund (2005). Goal progress makes one happy, or does it? Longitudinal findings from the work domain. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, June 20
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