Before we dive into goal setting, we should take a moment to consider who we want to be when we grow up. Write down a vivid vision for our life in a few years, then identify the biggest constraint to achieving that vision. Those two steps focus our goals in a way that’s more personally motivating in the short term and more impactful in the long term.
It’s January, and people are setting goals and New Year’s resolutions. But how do you pick the right ones? It can be overwhelming, and you can end up picking no goal at all or just picking ones that are easy to define. In this episode, Richard and Peter share a simple process using the Theory of Constraints to find just the right personal and work goals for 2024.
Richard, have you shopped for toothpaste lately?
What do you mean?
Well, like, have you gone to the store and actually bought toothpaste recently?
Uh, no, I haven’t.
Yesterday I was out running a few errands, and I remembered I’m almost out of toothpaste. I’m doing the final little twist and squeeze thing, so I thought I’d make a quick stop at the store on my way home and just kind of be on my way. And I got to the toothpaste aisle, and I remembered I wasn’t exactly sure what sort of make and model of toothpaste I use. It’s been so long since I purchased it– bought a bunch during the pandemic—and I’ve just been going through my stock, and I never look at it. I just squeeze it on and brush and go. And I wasn’t sure. Where is it? And so, I run in there and I look at the isle, and I couldn’t find—“Is it that? Is it that?” And it’s kind of like the most stressful two minutes of my week, trying to decide “Is that the right toothpaste or not?” which is saying a lot since I’m in the middle of selling a house and buying a new one! And so, I got home, and out of curiosity I looked it up. I was at the Target, and at my local Target, there are 125 toothpaste options on the shelf.
I personally stick with the same toothpaste and have it on reorder on Amazon so I never have to think about it, but I’ve definitely experienced that feeling. I get it most frequently in wine stores, because there are way too many good choices. And I think there’s a bigger thing there. It’s not really about toothpaste or wine.
We tend to think that when we have more choices, when we have more options, it’s a good thing. But research and experience, like this, show that when we’re given too many options, we don’t just find it hard to pick one. We find it hard to pick anything. It’s hard to choose any of them.
So, the listener might be wondering, “What does shopping for toothpaste have to do with setting goals?” which is the topic of this episode. We’re releasing this episode at the beginning of the year when a lot of us are thinking about goals and resolutions. And goal setting often leads to this phenomenon, which psychologists refer to as choice overload. Like choosing the best toothpaste from an aisle with 125 options, picking just the right goal can sometimes leave us frozen with indecision. Out of the many dozens of different things I could set a goal for right now, what’s the right focus for me? And sometimes that’s overwhelming, and as a result we either do nothing—we don’t choose a goal—or we opt for the obvious or easily definable ones. However, there’s a way to overcome choice overload when we’re setting goals, which is this:
Before we dive into goal setting, we should take a moment to consider who we want to be when we grow up. And write down a vivid vision for our life in a few years, then identify the biggest constraint to achieving that vision. Those two steps focus our goals in a way that’s more personally motivating in the short term and more impactful in the long term.
Let’s talk about how to do this.
A few weeks ago, our weekly newsletter was titled: “You Only Need to Change One Thing…but it’s gotta be the right thing.” We’ll link to that in the show notes, and we encourage you to subscribe to the newsletter if you’re not already getting it each week.
In “You Only Need to Change One Thing,” we talked about Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints and how you can use it to find high-leverage changes for your team or your organization. Today, we want to dig into how you can use that same Theory of Constraints idea to avoid choice overload and find the right goals for yourself going into 2024 (or whenever you’re listening to this).
The first step when you’re using the Theory of Constraints to optimize a system—whether that’s a factory line, a team, an organization, or your own personal system—is to get clear on the purpose of that system. That’s usually pretty straightforward for something like a production line in a factory. What do you want to get more of? Probably more parts or more products off of that line! It’s a little trickier when you’re trying to decide what to improve in yourself.
So, using the Theory of Constraints for individual goals, we need to ask: what’s the thing I want to get more of? What’s the purpose of the system that is me (right now)? What should I be optimized for? If I’m more effective at being me this year, at doing my thing, whatever it is, what is there going to be more of in the world?
And that’s a pretty big question, right? Asking it can cause you to put goals on hold, and maybe should cause you to put goals on hold while you do some reflection and maybe capture a personal purpose or vision.
That’s something I do individually and with my family regularly. I personally find vision much more useful for this sort of thing than purpose. It’s just more concrete and specific, for me.
Our friend Hart Shafer has a nice clear personal purpose statement, which he describes as “maximize net human happiness.” So that’s a really nice north star, but it also needs a bit more of a concrete picture to be useful here. So a vision statement that vividly describes that future probably does a much better job than the sort of north star purpose statement.
Yeah, that’s what I have found.
And so, at the end of each year, my wife and I talk through how we want things to look in the future, and we do it in several different areas: like career, relationships, family, church, hobbies, etc. We look back at our previous vision for these areas and then we see what’s changed–how we need to update it.
Let me give you an example: When we did this exercise a year ago, one piece of my vision in the career area was this:
A Humanizing Work newsletter with valuable content goes out reliably every week, and it’s not a scramble for me to write it last minute. I have a nice queue of interesting topics and drafts ready to go and people look forward to receiving the newsletter each week and open it and click on links for more resources.
So with a concrete idea of the future you hope to create, you can take full advantage of the Theory of Constraints. You’ve already done the first step, and can move to the next one, which is “What’s the constraint? What’s limiting how much of that purpose I’m achieving right now?”
Sometimes, I find it useful to imagine having dials on various things in my life, to figure out the constraint, so I’ll consider, “What would happen if I turned this dial way up? Would it increase the overall thing I want more of?”
For example, if I were able to turn up the dial on my writing capability this year so I produced more and better written content, would it increase how much of my purpose I achieve? Or, if I were able to turn up my sleep dial and turn down my stress dial, would that do it? Etc.
As you go through this, you’ll probably discover a number of things where, even if you were able to improve them dramatically, they wouldn’t make a meaningful difference. They’re good enough right now.
But you’ll probably find a few things that are actually constraints for your purpose, places where more capability would produce meaningful outcomes for you. And that’s where you’re going to want to focus for your goals at this time.
So, Richard, back to your vision from last year related to writing the newsletters; what did you decide was the constraint for you? What was limiting your ability to achieve that vision a year ago?
The constraint wasn’t my ability to write. I’ve been blogging for almost twenty years. I’ve written a book. But at that point, writing only happened sporadically, when I was inspired or when I was under a last-minute deadline, like getting out another newsletter. So, the constraint was around the system for getting words out regularly. If I could turn up that dial of regular writing production, the vision was much more likely to happen.
So, that caused me to set a goal related to writing a newsletter or two every week and then, once I had that goal, that caused me to set up systems to support that goal. Like, I created a kanban board with ideas, questions, and snippets for potential newsletters so I always had something queued up to write about. And I scheduled time to write every week, instead of waiting until I felt like it.
As a result, we sent out something like 50 newsletters in 2023, most of which I wrote, and most of which I wrote without any stress. And our open and click rates suggest that the part of the vision about content being valuable seems to be coming true.
If I’d just tried to set a writing goal without thinking about the bigger vision for writing and the constraint limiting that vision, I’m not sure I would have picked a goal that worked nearly as effectively.
How about you, Peter? Let’s play out an example from your life.
Yeah, you shared kind of a work-related one, and so I’ll go more on the personal side on this one, which is; I’ve had a pretty strong vision for the last few years about what I want my life to be like when Molly, who’s 10, our youngest child, turns 18. Without getting into too many details that are meaningful to me but may not be for our listeners, it’s something like this, maybe sort of genericized just a little bit: In 2031, when Molly turns 18, my wife and I leave the comfort of our home and serve somewhere in the world that needs us. We are not concerned about our finances, having spent the previous decade securing enough wealth to cover our expenses while we serve. We spend our days helping others grow and develop, with a particular focus on young adults, who learn the value of sacrifice in service of others. We strengthen local communities by rolling up our sleeves with them and improving what needs to be improved.
That’s a nice example of a bigger, long-term vision that you’d need to work towards incrementally. You’re not going to get that right away, and it even has a future date on it. So, what’s the constraint right now for you with this big vision?
If we use that same metaphor you used, of kind of having dials that we can turn up or turn down, I think there are a few important dials I need to consider here, most obviously the financial one. But there are other dials that matter for this vision to be true. Things like being physically healthy enough to serve wherever I’m needed. A dial around our family relationships being strong enough so that moving away for maybe extended periods of time doesn’t overly strain things. I think there’s something around my ability to lead, in a variety of situations and contexts, since I don’t really know where we’ll feel called to go, and so being able to lead really in any situation is another dial I’d consider there.
And picking one is a little bit tricky because the scale and timing of this vision make it a little nuanced, because it’s not a vision for right now; so you’ll need to think about something like, “What’ll become a constraint in 2031 if I don’t work on it right now?”
Yeah, when you frame it that way, If I didn’t do anything right now, the constraint would certainly be financial. I couldn’t afford to do that today. And we’ve been taking very concrete steps to remove that constraint, including downsizing our home, which I mentioned earlier.
So, what’s a goal in that area you’d set for 2024 to make more progress on that particular constraint?
Financially, we’ve been really fortunate to have stable, really good paying work since the early 2000’s. That allowed us to be oh, maybe somewhat relaxed, maybe even sloppy in our budgeting and finances and things would still mostly work out, most of the time. Kind of like your writing example, we’d make sporadic improvements in those areas when we felt inspired– or stressed out—one of the two.
In order to really take the leap into the type of savings and investments we’d need to fulfill that vision, the constraint today is probably budgeting and saving. So for 2024, my personal goal will be something around making habits around personal budgeting and finance, the same way you did with writing in ‘23.
And that, by the way is the kind of goal that meets all of the criteria of a good personal goal that we talk about in our Goal Setting online course; which is, it feels authentically mine, not like an obligation—something I’m just forced to do by somebody else. It will cause me to grow and allow me to demonstrate competence in that area. It’s still a little fuzzy, which is one of the criteria: How Clear is the Goal? though there’s a pretty obvious path to make it more concrete, and by sharing this with my family we can get frequent feedback on it. And then, the final criterion is around challenge. It’s also challenging but not so much so that it feels unattainable. We often refer to this challenge criteria as we want to have a “4% stretch” on our current capability.
So for our listeners, this year, when you’re thinking about goals, start with a vision, identify the biggest constraint to achieving that vision, and then point your goal at that constraint. Your goals will become both more meaningful and more effective.
Thanks for tuning in! Please be sure to subscribe and like the episode if you’re watching on YouTube, or give the show a quick rating on your podcast platform if you’re listening there. This helps the right people find and benefit from the show, and we really appreciate it!