We live in a time of abundance. At least in the western world we are pretty much free to eat what we want, to own what we want, to go where we want. For any area of our lives, we are free to do anything we want. Complete freedom. And while this is obviously awesome, it also forces us, more than ever, to constantly choose. Doing one thing means not doing a number of others, and it can be quite tricky to know what the “right thing to do” is. So let’s let’s have a look at how to make choices in life. And as it turns out, it all starts with having the right goal setting strategies.
We all have goals – but which are the right ones?
With the abundance of choice comes the abundance of goals. We want. All the time. Unfortunately, these goals are often times quite contrary. We want to earn a lot of money – but we also want to have a lot of free time. We want to do sports and live healthy – but we also want to watch TV, eat fast food and party. We want to have a great family – but we also want the freedom to be spontaneous. There are so many choices that we have to make every single day and if we are smart, we make the choices in a way that brings us closer to reaching our goals. The only problem is: what exactly are our goals? And what if they contradict themselves?
The goal setting strategy
So, we obviously need to bring some structure into our myriad of goals to determine which ones we want to pursue the most. This is where I would like to introduce you to a goal setting strategy that I got from Angela Duckworth’s book ‘Grit’. Duckworth suggests that we put our goals in three categories: low-level goals, mid-level goals and top-level goals. The low level goals are low in time investment and difficulty, but necessary to reach your mid-level goals. The mid-level goals in turn are more time intense and more challenging, but are needed to reach in order to be able to reach a top level goal of yours. You can also reverse engineer the whole thing: take a main goal, then break it into smaller ones, then break those into smaller ones again.
Now, with this goal setting strategy, the only real important thing is the top level goal. And here’s why.
Top level goals
Top level goals are what you actually want to accomplish. The mid- and low-level goals are just means to an end. This means that they can be exchanged, skipped and altered, as long as that helps you to progress and get closer to reaching your top-level goal. As you can already see, the top-level goal can therefore be used as a compass when dealing with mid- and low-level goals. It can help you make choices. Simply ask yourself “Is this helping me to get closer to my top level goal?” If yes, then do it. If not, then don’t.
The top level goal can therefore be considered your compass and your North Star in life. It points you into the right direction. Every decision will be made by answering the question “Does that get me closer to where I ultimately want to go?”
Now, by definition having many top-level goals defeats the purpose. Some say that one should only have one top-level goal in life that is the yardstick for everything else. I consider that to be a bit too extreme, but I believe that you should not have more than one top-level goal per area of life. So one for health, one for social life, one for career…
How to make choices in life based on top level goals
Amazingly, almost any top level goal that we truly care about will force us to make the “right” decision if we take it seriously, in any area of life. Imagine for example that you have the top level goal “I will be the best father I can possibly be”. First, this will lead to some pretty obvious realisations, like ‘I should spend more time with my kids’ or ‘I need to listen more closely to my kids’. But soon, this top level goal will start showing effects when you make choices in life regarding mid- level or low- level goals.
“Should I go to the gym today?” (I dunno, do you want to be a role model for your kids? Do you want to be able to play football with them?)
“Should I eat more healthy?” (Do you want to live a long and healthy life and be there for your children for decades to come?)
“Should I watch TV or read a book?” (Do you want to be a dad that surprises his kids with his intellect and knowledge or do you want to be a couch potato?)
See, suddenly doing all these things make a lot more sense to you. Not because you are more motivated to work out or eat healthy than before; but because now you see the bigger picture! These may not be your main passions in life, but they serve a higher purpose that you strongly feel aligned with. So suddenly working out becomes a means to an end, which makes it easier to accept.
The importance of goal setting when making choices
So as you can see, goal setting is crucial. But you actually don’t have to set a lot of goals. Just set very few, but make them important enough to be your guidance throughout your entire life. Making choices becomes much easier from that moment on, and more, smaller goals will emerge out of the top level ones. Think about what you really want to accomplish in life and then base every choice you have, every decision you make, on whether or not that helps you reaching that goal.