Goals are powerful things.
In 2013, Hampton Creek Foods had a goal. As a whiz-bang startup in the plant-based food category, Hampton Creek’s goal was to make the egg obsolete. Haha just kidding, their goal was to raise hundeds of millions from VCs at a “tech company valuation”. To do so, they had to demonstrate mind-boggling growth. Specifically, they set their sights on an incredibly ambitious target: they resolved that their new pea-based mayo substitute, “Just Mayo”, would be the best-selling mayo at Whole Foods within a year.
They hired a number of contractors to do taste tests and other promotions, but that wasn’t cutting it. Under enormous pressure, they approached their goal with the type of outside-the-box thinking the Bay Area is known for. Their contractors were given a new mission: visit Whole Foods, covertly, and just buy the mayo as if they were customers. Hundreds of jars of it. Over and over. Surprisingly, these contractors found they couldn’t actually eat hundreds of jars of pea mayo per day, and ended up mostly throwing it in the trash. A small price to pay for saving the planet!
On the bright side, we now know how much pea mayo you need to secretly buy and throw away to briefly become Whole Foods’ best-selling mayo: $1.4 million dollars worth in 5 months. While that may seem a high price to pay for a business with only $0.5 million of sales to real customers in that period, it was apparently enough to bag hundreds of millions in sweet sweet VC cash. Sure, this prompted a lawsuit by former employees and investigations by the IRS, SEC, and the Justice Department, but hey, they met their goal!
Results 1, Pea protein 0
Some people would admire the drive and creativity of the leadership at Hampton Creek. They were faced with a staggeringly difficult goal, and they did what it took to make it happen.
I am not one of those people.
I have no love for “growth hacking”, “hustle”, or doing “whatever it takes”. I have a deep skepticism for the “results-oriented culture” that executives exploit to justify hitting their metrics at great human cost. Where there is corporate fraud, malfeasance, or scandal, there is usually a leader blindly pushing some metric without concern for the side effects.
Given this dark side, I’ve long been wary of focusing life on goals and metrics. Sure, they’re super userful in some contexts: How many new users successfully make an account? How many crashes are we seeing on this new build? Are we profitable? I look at numbers every day.
In general though, I’ve always resisted the idea of formalizing and metricizing big long-term goals. They say to live in the moment, right? Who needs to plan? Just do it! Make something! Go go go!
While you’re young, this kind of seat-of-pants-oriented goal planning works surprisingly well. In school, for example, good goals come naturally. Get a job. Finish your degree. Earn enough money to eat something that is not a variety of noodle.
Beyond that, my childhood dream was always to start a company. In fact, a big chunk of my focus from ages 10 to 26 was starting a series of short-lived business ventures, ramping from selling lemonade in the middle of nowhere all the way up to the business that actually worked. If only I’d thought of making mayonnaise out of peas and selling it to myself, I’d have been a successful entrepreneur far sooner.
The dreaded pea soup fog
Whatever path you take though, as you graduate from those early stages of life and start to dig in to the soft chewy center of your career, the goals get subtler and more challenging. At a small company, there’s no laminated corporate ladder specification for you to climb decade by decade. Once you’re in charge, there’s no pre-defined system for improving your business, career, or self. You’ve got to build this life yourself. It’s exciting and terrifying.
Still, I’ve been digging into it. With some obvservation, I’ve noticed that leaders that do great work usually think in terms of goals. Whether they do it for good or evil, they typically make goals, they write them down, and they review them. Whether they make goal spreadsheets or career plan postcards, they treat self-improvement as part of their job.
I first started to come to grips with this three years ago. In the final days of 2013, I was feeling restless. Having the same job for three straight years causes quite a strain on my fragile generation, you know. I knew I needed to begin actually making and tracking goals, so I finally took the plunge with two commitments.
First, I picked up a todo manager and started recording everything I wanted to do. Whatever was on my mind went into Things. If it bothered me, I tracked a task to fix it. I’ve since migrated from Things to OmniFocus but the principle is the same: at any given time, it holds a couple hundred tasks I’d like to get done, and helps me get some of them done every day. Learning how to make good use of a task manager like this has made me far more effective at work and at home. It’s a god damn miracle.
Second, I made a measurable, time-boxed, long-term goal. I decided to publish at least one article every month for a year. Instead of holding back until I thought I had some clever or insightful topic, I just wrote. It’s led to silly posts and serious business, incredibly popular articles and posts that were really just for me. I write infrequently enough that my traffic still mostly comes from social sharing and inbound links – pleaselikeandsubscribe – but despite the death of blogs, my subscribers are way up and I’m getting a lot more feedback about my writing. I’ve since made the goal indefinite, and it’s been pretty great.
So, maybe formal goals aren’t that bad.
As much as writing and task tracking have helped, my regularly scheduled three-year hunger has returned. As it stands, I’m still kind of crap at meaty, long-term goals. While I’m always capturing todos that arise from an idea, request, or problem, they don’t tend to stem from any documented end goal or long-term plan – they’re just the stuff I want to get done.
Because of that, I’ve been doing tons of little things, but the big hairy goals tend to just sit there. They foment guilt, growing hairier and hairier until they’re certified furballs and I delete them unceremoniously. This is especially likely when I make the mistake of publicly announcing my goal, eliciting an empty feeling of accomplishment and sapping the motivation to actually accomplish the thing.
If this sounds like you, it’s time to change.
Pea the best you can pea
If you’re not tracking small tasks yet, that’s a great place to start. Fundamentally, the core todo management skills are the same for tasks and long-term goals: they need to be specific, written down, realistically acheivable, and regularly reviewed. The weird trick for long term goals is that they need to be small in number and ambitious enough to motivate you. Capturing 100 little tasks that will make daily work and life better is good, but you need some big goals that help fuel new tasks, prioritize what you’ve got, and fend off the dreaded fog.
If you’re stuck, there are a lot of good resources online that can get things flowing. The important thing is to set a small number of goals – ones you care about. For example, five 3-month goals and five 3-year goals. Write them down, review them periodically, and we’re rolling.
Let’s get to it.