How to Increase Productivity by Simplifying Your Goals

by Craig McBreen · 22 comments · Organization

Mixing work with the tonic of everyday life often borders on chaotic.

A not so linear path is an average “day in the life.”

Fortune 500 executive, painter, blogging wunderkind; they all have something in common.

A meandering, fun, but often torturous path.

A zig-zag route where goals are left to wither on the vine.

Big goals. You know, those fat feats you swear you ARE going to accomplish in 2013?

“That” list?

Rigid must-dos that don’t jibe with your sometimes topsy-turvy days and weeks.

How’d they work out for you in 2012?

I thought so.

We often set gargantuan goals without planning the small, actionable steps needed to achieve them.

But even if you plan those baby steps, there’s a big, fat problem. It gets back to our wiring, the craziness of life and all those other brains we engage with daily.

This stuff kinda complicates things. But again, that’s a “day in the life,” right?

In our kinetic, daily bump and grind, big dreams slide into the abyss and a year later you’re wondering, “what the hell happened?”

Been there. So done that.

But you know what? I think your goal-setting solution is anything by complicated.

Why? Well it’s more about creating good habits and eliminating bad ones.

And guess what? A few simple changes have increased my productivity 1,001%, or something like that.


So what do I do?

Well, I’ve embraced some habits that have frankly been a godsend. And if you feel stuck or you’re not seeing those big goals through, I dare you to try the following …

1. Chuck out your mega-list, now!

You heard me. Your colossal, end of year wish list. The one with too many goals.

I used to create lists and then lists for those lists. Big goals. Small goals. Short- and long-term goals.

Daily. Weekly. Monthly. Yearly.

It’s exhausting just thinking about it! Seriously.

I tried everything from “Zen to Done” to that David Allen insanity.

After years of this crap, I realized that just about every goal-setting method resulted in one iteration after another of the good old list. Each a massive waste of time. Especially that giant year-end wish list.

So I “tossed” those time-wasters in the bin.

Again, life is a jumble, and at the end of the year, that monster list stares back at you mockingly, calling you the equivalent of a “Lilliputian, underachieving donkey!”

If you need to write down your goals, you have too many and your list will mock you, daily.

Hey I’m all for planning, but over-planning is unrealistic and can ultimately annihilate your spirit. Plus life is not a to-do list.

2. Instead, focus on how you would like to feel; at the end of today, this week, this month. Visualize that happy camper you want to be. It’s not as nebulous as you think.

Realize that a fat ol’ batch of rigorous boxes to tick won’t mesh with life and the way you process things.

Or better yet, commit a few big ambitions to memory. Your goals will become a mind-set, because you’ll be living them daily. This is how you make those big leaps.

Think about whittling your big goals down to three words, a process detailed by C.C. Chapman and Mark Schaefer.

Again, think about how you would like to feel when these big feats are realized.

3. And then kill the bad habits with a short Not-Do list.

I know there is nothing original about a Not-Do list, but they work. Make your own and burn that into your cranium. Then make those not-dos habits.

My results? More sleep. Less time wasted. More productive. Less stressed. Way more creative.

And I’ve stopped feeling like an underachieving donkey.

I’m a reformed self-help, productivity junkie. But since I’ve chucked the mega-list, I’ve felt like the most productive citizen on the planet.

I have a complicated life (we all do), so why should your unrealistic lists smother you?

Just give this simple, but effective plan a shot …

1. Set several big goals and simply embed them in your noodle. They become a frame of mind that drives what you do.

Those to-dos? Save them for individual jobs.

2. Visualize where you want to be and realize “You Can.” You’ve heard the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” right?

Of course this doesn’t always work, but simplified goals and ingrained affirmations sure as hell won’t hurt. Nor will a good old sustained effort.

3. Instill good habits and work daily to kill the bad ones.

One bad habit: my compulsive list making routine, has bitten the dust.

Stop overwhelming yourself and you soon might eclipse past feats.

Think big, but simplify.

Why not try it and see where it takes you? 1,001 percent ain’t bad, right? …

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Meeks January 28, 2013 at 8:13 am

Now that I think about it, that is sort of how I’ve started the year. I didn’t bother with any lists, but just set out to write. For me, it is the year of the novel, both writing and publishing.

If I don’t feel like writing, I edit. If I don’t want to edit, I work publishing stuff. If publishing seems tiresome, I go back to writing. That is all I do and I’ve yet to be anything less than happy.
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Craig McBreen January 28, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Hi Brian,

That sounds like a great plan to me, and I like that you mentioned how this helps with your emotional health. So true.

I’ve been going more with the ebb and flow of the day … letting go of control a bit and not being so focused on checking off those boxes. It makes you a happier camper for sure.


Jay Schimke January 28, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Thanks again. These challenging times have been confounding for us ‘achiever-holics’, since former pathways and timeframes for ‘getting places’ and ‘accomplishing desired goals’ so often now fail to fit. Simply focusing on ‘how do I want to Now feel’ opens the way to doable pathways and a more comfortable pace. A long-time amateur harmonica player, I recently realized my ongoing intentions are anchored to a core desire to maintain my comfort & balance as I plug along each day. Seems I have a ‘harmonic cause’ (and lots of harmonicas); and my ongoing actions are best received when delivered as ‘harmonic care’ -*- as ‘well’. Sound suggestions …


Craig McBreen January 28, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Hi Jay,

Yes, a more comfortable place, similar to what Brian wrote above. Now I’m all for embracing discomfort (that’s good stress), but too much to do, and completely unrealistic goals, just lead to more stress and less creativity and quality productive time. Yes, focusing more and more on how you would like to feel and embedding habits/practices really is the best way. Cheers to harmonicas and a bit more harmony in that daily routine, Sir.


Ryan Hanley January 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm


The more I think about this topic the more I realize the only way to get to the BIG idea is simply your life.

Otherwise focus is impossible and BIG doesn’t happen without focus.

Thanks brother,

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Craig McBreen January 28, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Hey Ryan,

Yep. Constantly whittle away, maintain that drive, but don’t get lost with endless list and too many goals.

Simplify and Focus. I like that!

Thank you.


Kaarina Dillabough January 28, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Well you know my feeling about to-do lists…they never get tuh-dun! So I say, set 3 priorities for each day the night before…schedule priorities, don’t prioritize your schedule. Take a step at a time. Dream. Decide. Do. Cheers! Kaarina
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Craig McBreen January 28, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Hi Kaarina,

Ha ha, yes! It took me a while to figure this out, but as I wrote I had that list-making disease ;)

Three priorities a day is perfecto! You get more done and those days are way more enjoyable. Dream. Decide. Do. Cheers to that!


Ralph January 29, 2013 at 1:29 am

If I don’t write ‘em down I forget ‘em. Bad batch o brains, I suppose but then again mine are mostly project based anyway so that’s ok.

I do agree that visualizing where you want to be is a great way to be where you want to be.

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Craig McBreen January 29, 2013 at 3:12 am

Hi Ralph,

Heck I’d be lost if I didn’t write down project-based goals / tasks. I ‘m talking about the big boys. I used to have about 10 of those big goals per year, which was kind of insane. Visualize daily, Grasshopper, Yes!


Sheila Bergquist January 29, 2013 at 9:22 am

When I first started I had so many irons in the fire, I became totally overwhelmed. I finally pared it all down to a few projects and dropped the rest. It helped tremendously. When I start piling on things again, I simply say KISS to myself (keep it simple stupid).
I love this post because it’s such an important aspect. Too many of the “experts” are telling us to do, do, do! You have shared something that will truly help people work better and smarter. Thanks!
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Craig McBreen January 29, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Hi Sheila,

It’s so easy to become overwhelmed in this space, so a big YES to KISS (not Gene Simmons of course ;))

Thanks! I just wanted to share a set of practices that have helped me. Appreciate the nice comments!


Tim Bonner January 29, 2013 at 10:24 am

I’ve got a couple of goals for 2013 that I want to achieve but there’s no to-do list.

I have an idea of priorities I have for each day and I use a Pomodoro app to keep me focussed on what I need to do for the day and not get off track.

It helps me break things down into reasonable chunks and get regular breaks.
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Craig McBreen January 29, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Hi Tim,

Good for you, man! I like the idea of the Pomodoro technique, and I do a variation of this too, taking a minimum of three 20 minute breaks no matter what.

Curious to hear how your method/app works for you.


Mary Stephenson January 30, 2013 at 12:56 am

Hi Craig

At the end of December I had laid out what one course of action I was going to take and figured no problem I could have the whole (474) project done in 6 months. I started on 12/31/2012, no need to wait until the first of the year. After 2 days I became very aware that there was no way with how this was going, that I could possibly get it done in that time frame.

So back to rethinking the plan. Each part of this plan is into a total of 20 sections. The first one was 25 classes and I am pleased to say it is finished today. How long will this all take me? I have no idea and I will just work on it until it no longer serves a purpose. Don’t need the stress of feeling like I have failed.

So my big plans are out the window and whatever feels comfortable I will do. Yet I still don’t want to ignore other issues that need to be attended to. So far so good and it sure feels a lot better than having such lofty goals, that nothing gets done. All so got to take time to have a little fun and take care of stuff around the house also.

Good advice and now I also don’t feel guilty about not doing it all.

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Craig McBreen January 30, 2013 at 3:00 am

Hi Mary,

“Don’t need the stress of feeling like I have failed.”
– And that’s the most perfect part of your plan ;)

I say sometimes you have to throw a few plans out the window, as there is such a thing as being over ambitious and that ends up being counterproductive, unless you have super-human abilities.

Plus, like you said, you now have time for a little fun :)


Adrienne January 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Hallelujah Craig!

I get so tired of these people telling you to write everything down to the minuscule detain of what you want to achieve this week, month, year and the next 10 years. I say to hell with all of that.

Okay, I have a confession to make. Yep, spilling the beans.

Back when I was in my mid to late 20′s my life changed drastically at the snap of my fingers. Yep I had everything planned, I knew where I was going, I knew I would have a family, a house, a great job, etc. Not once but twice the rug got pulled out from underneath me and I never saw it coming. I don’t plan my life anymore.

I don’t know that if what I have planned for this year will pan out or now. Oh sure, I know what I do want but sometimes things come along halfway into those plans and you all of a sudden want to go a different direction. Then you start feeling guilty because you told everyone what you planned.

I say decide what you want today and go after it. If you’re on a certain course and you know for sure you want that then plan it. If not don’t beat yourself up over it. You are the only one who has to answer to themselves at the end of the day.

Great post Craig, thanks for sharing that.

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Craig McBreen January 31, 2013 at 12:09 am

Hi Adrienne.

Yes, your twenties are volatile enough, then having the rug pulled out from under your feet several times. But that’s the thing, life just keeps chucking those curve balls.

So like you said, with planning you just don’t know when you’ll take a sudden turn or what life has in store for you. Over planning is really a recipe for disappointment.

Thanks for spilling the beans and for dropping some words of wisdom. Have a great evening :)


Suddenly Jamie February 5, 2013 at 9:03 am

I love this, Craig!
I am going to give it a try. I could use more simplicity in my life, and I can definitely see how just focusing on the goal of feeling good at the end of the day encompasses everything you need. Brilliant.

I did the “3 words” exercise for the first time in 2012 and found it very helpful. It was almost like magic. I did a lot of journaling and “noodling” around my three words at the beginning of the year, and then just set it all aside. When I went back to my notes halfway through the year, I was amazed at how much I’d accomplished. Pretty cool.

I haven’t had time yet this year to explore 3 new words, but I’m not beating myself up about it. I’ll get to it soon. Until then, I’m just going to focus on bringing creativity into each day … because that’s what really makes me happy.
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Craig McBreen February 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm

The goal of feeling good at the end of the day has done a lot for me.

I like the three words approach and it’s similar to what I do: Just committing a few big ol’ ambitions to memory. This is the best way for me. When I wrote down big lists, I tucked them away and forgot about them or kept changing them … not good!

So … I’m so glad the three words approach has worked for you. That is very cool! And yeah, don’t beat yourself up about that in 2013. I like your focus and thank you for stopping in!


Shaun Hoobler February 7, 2013 at 2:06 am

Thanks for this. I’m just about to start up a new blog and I’m scouring the internet for wisdom like this. Incidentally, your writing style is very interesting. You write with extremely short paragraphs – mostly just one or two sentences. It has the effect of really punching everything you say home – boom – boom. Is this deliberate or did it just evolve?
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Craig McBreen February 7, 2013 at 7:30 am

Hi Shaun,

Glad you stopped by and best of luck with the blog. It will be an adventure, and I mean that in a good way.

Partly, it’s the way I write, but I do edit to make it fairly easy to skim, as most people who read blogs do this.

Thanks for stopping in!


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