I read two awesome posts this week on the subject of improving the success rate of long-term goals. One was from Mario over at Debt Blag and talked about the importance of setting short- and intermediate-term goals along the way. The other was from Jason at Hull Financial Planning and stressed the effectiveness of setting hard deadlines for yourself. They are excellent reads and I would highly encourage you to check them out for yourself.
Both of these posts resonated strongly with me because holding myself accountable is something I’ve long struggled with. I am naturally a procrastinator. If I have time to do something I typically make full use of that time. And by full use I mean I delay doing the task until I absolutely have to because the deadline is fast approaching.
Sometimes this works out fine, but there’s a particular experience I went through a couple of years ago that really hammered home the significance of the points Mario and Jason make in their posts above. I learned up close and personal that if you really want to accomplish important things in your life, you have to learn how to properly hold yourself accountable.
My personal procrast-awakening
Back in July of 2010, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in financial planning. I was still happy at my job (which is still my job and still makes me happy), but I loved the world of investing and personal finance and I wanted to use that love to help people. So I decided to begin a path towards CFP® certification.
The first step was completing their education requirement, which consisted of six college-level courses on the topics of general financial planning, insurance, investment, taxes, retirement and estate planning. Given that I was working full-time and would have trouble committing to any specific schedule, I decided to go through Boston University’s self-study online program. I had 18 months to complete the program and I was completely on my own. Each of the six courses consisted of somewhere between 12 and 18 lessons, and besides the 18-month deadline it was completely up to me how and on what timeline I completed them
This was my first experience with this kind of approach, and let’s just say that I didn’t start off handling it all that well. My original goal was to complete the program in time for the CFP® Exam in November 2011, which gave me about 16 months. With that as my only goal in mind, I started studying pretty much as it felt convenient to me. A little here, a little there, sometimes not at all. I was completely winging it without any kind of structure.
About four months in I had one of those days where I kind of freaked out. I had already used up 1/4 of my self-allotted 16 months and I wasn’t even done with the very first (and easiest) class. Not only that, but I had realized that if I really wanted to pass the exam I should take a review course beforehand, which would shift the deadline for my coursework up by two months. So now I had 10 months to complete 5+ classes. How the hell was I going to do that when I hadn’t even completed one in the four months so far?
One small tweak that doubled my productivity
It was a wake-up call for sure, but I eventually decided to do something I had never really done before: create an incredibly detailed calendar with deadlines for each and every mini-lesson along the way. I set a final deadline of 9/4/2011 and then I did the math to determine that I needed to complete one lesson every 2-3 days. This felt crazy fast and incredibly overwhelming, but the facts were what they were. So I went into my Google calendar and picked a specific date to complete each of my 70 or so remaining lessons.
The next 10 months were not easy. Most of my time out of the office was spent studying. There were times I wanted to give up, there were lessons I was a little late on, others that I finished early, but by and large I stuck to my schedule. I had set those deadlines and I was going to hit them.
Do you want to take a guess on how close to my 9/4 goal I ended up getting? I couldn’t remember exactly, so I took a look back at my spreadsheet and guess what? I finished my sixth and final class exactly on 9/4. Was that some crazy coincidence? Am I that good at figuring out how long things take that I just happened to nail the end date 10 months in advance?
Of course not. I finished on 9/4 for a very simple reason: I had set that as my end date and I had set dozens of mini-deadlines along the way that forced me to get there. It was really no different than all my other efforts at procrastination. I used all of the time available to me, finishing at the exact last minute. The only difference was that this was a self-imposed last minute that allowed me to accomplish my goals of taking a review course and eventually passing the exam in November 2011, right on my original schedule.
Very few of us are responsible enough to accomplish our dreams by simply winging it. Success is a process, a sequence of many purposeful steps that accumulate to a larger outcome. It’s very hard to make all of those steps without a plan in place. In my example, I was given a map of the steps I needed to take (the syllabus) but in order to execute I had to set a deadline for each and every one of them. I used my tendency to procrastinate to the last minute in my favor, creating dozens of little “last-minutes” that tricked my brain into productivity.
To be totally honest, this is not something I’ve been successful at applying in all areas of my life. It still drives my wife crazy when I put something off seemingly endlessly, until something happens that absolutely requires me to take care of it. But at least now I have a framework for approaching these things effectively.
If you’re going to accomplish important things in life you need to learn how to hold yourself accountable. The absolute best method I’ve found for doing this is setting the end goal, setting mini-goals along the way, and creating deadlines for each. You may end up deviating from the plan, and that’s okay. But giving yourself a structure to start with will dramatically increase your chances for success.
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