You’ve watched every personal development book/ video/ podcast there is. You prepare a game plan. You understand how habits work and you have your goals in place. You also understand that systems are more important than goals.
You understand the need to be patient, that you ought to think long term. You list down your top 5 goals for the year and now you are off to the races. Fast forward 6 months, you haven’t made any REAL progress on any of them.
Like you, I heard a thousand different ways of goal setting.
Warren Buffett’s 25/5 rule, Top 3 goals of the year, etc.
But then I heard about having just 1 goal, your north star… and that changed everything.
This post is about learning something that took me about 1 year to figure out. I heard it first from Noah Kagan and then from Gary Keller, bestselling author of The One Thing.
So what’s this one goal thingy all about?
The One Goal Strategy is the method to achieve your prime goal right now.
Your North Star is the single goal that best captures what you want to achieve above all else.
In Silicon Valley, startups have a single metric they use to judge their growth called the North Star Metric – the single metric that best captures the core value that your product delivers to customers.
For Airbnb, it was nights booked. For Facebook, it was monthly active users. For Medium, it was total reading time.
To uncover your North Start Goal (NSG), you must first find out what is that one thing you must achieve above all else for this period of time.
As Tim Ferriss, bestselling author of the Four Hour Work Week would frame it:
What if done, would make the rest irrelevant or not needed?
What if done, would make your quarter?
From there, you must quantify the goal to make it measurable.
Now you may probably be thinking – why just one, why can’t I do 3 or 5?
Well, the explanation is similar to that of the research found in the field of goal setting.
There was a famous experiment done on getting 3 groups to exercise. One group was told to exercise and nothing else. One group was told to exercise and was motivated. And one group was asked to state where, when and how they were going to achieve the goal to exercise.
Stating one’s intention is termed “implementation intentions.” And the results showed that those who had implementation intentions were 2-3x more likely to exercise compared to the other group.
But here’s the kicker –implementation intentions works if you are mastering ONE GOAL at a time.
Whenever you start building a new habit, it takes a lot of willpower and effort to make it part of your routine. The longer you do it, the higher the likelihood of the habit sticking and become part of your routine.
How long does it take to form a habit? The research shows an average habit takes about 66 days to become automatic. (But don’t take that too literally, to be safe – I suggest going at it for at least 3 months.)
“A lot of people think they need more motivation, but what they really need is clarity.” – James Clear
Now, you might be thinking:
Why bother go through all this? Isn’t a daily to-do list and a bucket list to refer to on yearly basis enough?
It definitely would be enough. But if you already have done this earlier, why hasn’t it worked for you so far? It may be because:
You have your most important things to get done and you do – day-to-day. But… towards what? Is it as clear as day where your tasks are leading you towards or is it sorta getting you there?
You may be writing and publishing every day, but if your main goal is to publish a book — have you started writing the outline for the book yet?
You may be getting traffic to your blog by promoting your blog posts and guest posting as well, but if your main goal is to create a course and make a living off your blog — have you started researching what course you intend on creating or draft different versions of the outline?
Too often, our “most important tasks” appear to be working for us, they do impact the bottom line and they get us closer indeed –but always sideways and in circles.
And considering that life often throws you curveballs, going sideways intentionally will make the zig zag even worse!
No wonder it’s taking us so damn long to get anything done. We aren’t as focused as we think we are.
Your North Star Goal is the one thing that you can count on to help you make your way home. You can use it to navigate effectively every step of the way when you make your to-do list like a The North point of a compass when at sea.
My rule of thumb is to have one goal per quarter.
Yes, you may be thinking to accomplish a whole feat of things within these 3 months. But I urge you to treat one thing as a matter of priority.
Here’s how you can do it in 4 steps:
1. Identify your North Star
Think for a moment – what is the ONE thing that if accomplished this quarter, will make everything worthwhile?
And you have to pick ONE.
The most common areas to focus on are:
1 . Health
For me, my focus for this quarter is to get to more subscribers for my blog (Money).
Pick your focus for this quarter and decide which ONE do you want to pursue.
The point here isn’t to box you in for 3 months and then forever.
The point is to subtract your options to the barest minimum so you have less on your plate and more time to allocate for each.
Especially when building a new habit, you should do just one at a time.
2. Formulate your North Star into a Number
“What gets measured, gets managed.” – Peter Drucker
A lot of people who set goals measure their progress by how it feels.
“It feels or seems like I am improving.”
Don’t rely on feeling.
Ever catch yourself saying “A lot of people do X nowadays huh?” after noticing just 2 people doing X? We tend to exaggerate any kind of information in our heads to suit out narratives.
The beauty of formulating our North Star into a number is because numbers don’t lie. Based on my earlier goal, I will insert a number:
10,000 email subscribers.
3. State the Where, When, How You Are Going to Achieve Your North Star
A lot of us miss the “where” part of the equation when it comes to setting goals. But it is equally important. Our subconscious minds associate certain areas with certain activities.
I can bet that you are focused and productive at your work desk compared to your bed. Your “where” can be your dining room table or the desk in your room.
The “when” comes in two parts – by when you want to achieve the goal (for me, it’s in 3 months) and which time of day/ week do you intend to devote your time.
Adora Cheung of Pathjoy once mentioned at a Stanford lecture by Y Combinator that she found working full days at a time on the weekends to be a lot more beneficial to her startup than working 2 hours a day during weekdays.
Due to my personal choices, I usually put in an hour on weekdays and half days on weekends for my blog.
Remember, these are guidelines, not rules. Try them out and double down on the ones that bring you the most results.
So how do you intend on achieving your goal?
It’s important to have a plan or ritual you can checklist off every day or week.
Here’s how mine looks:
( ) Wake up and scribble on my notebook
( ) Ideas I have for the blog
( ) Create an outline for the post of the day
( ) Draft for 60 minutes / up to 2000 words and rest
( ) Revisit the next day and edit
( ) Publish 2-3 times a week
( ) Submit to 5-7 publications a week and have an email list ready for subscribers
Overall, my North Star goal for this quarter is:
10,000 email subscribers in 3 months.
Where? At my dining room table.
When? At 5 am on weekdays, and at 8 am on weekends.
How? By drafting 2000 words and editing it the next day, publish 2-3 articles a week and submitting to 5-7 publications a week.
4. Keep your North Star in Sight
It is very easy to forget the goal you set 2 weeks in. Have reminders, cues and even alarms to gently nudge to take action everyday. You can –
( ) Set your desktop wallpaper.
( ) Stick a piece of paper on your wall.
( ) Set your new tab on your browser to remind you of it.
( ) Set your smartphone wallpaper to have that goal, you can install widgets too if you’d like.
( ) Set your clock app to vibrate at the times you should be working on your North Star.
The point of reminder is to set up an environment whereby you can’t fail.
Sustaining momentum from day 1 is very important.
Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, said that if he could give startups just one piece of advice – it would be to make sure that they (the startup) keep their winning streak, no matter how small.
So, if you aim to write every day – make sure you do – even 1 page of writing a day counts. Little wins make a huge difference over time.
1. Isn’t having one goal boring?
Not really. By having one overarching goal, you only have one thing in mind to consider. It’s the primary goal and that sets the order for the rest. Easier to juggle one than to juggle two.
2. Would it make me a one trick pony?
For a quarter, yes. But not your life. You are free to change direction if you realize it’s not what you wanted after completing it.
In case, you think focusing on one thing boxes you in too much for 3 months… it’s actually the opposite.
Being able to excel in one thing, is a huge benefit.
In psychology, there is an effect called the Halo effect whereby a person who is known to be good in one field (say, SEO) is also perceived to be good in other things (say, writing)
Lewis Howes, the founder of the School of Greatness, started first as a guy who was good at teaching people how to use LinkedIn, but then he moved on to teaching online business and people kept listening.
Derek Halpern, the founder of Social Triggers, started out in CRO (conversion rate optimization), he then branched out to teach online business.
As the record shows, it pays to be really good at one thing first and then branching out to other fields as people would perceive you to have a winning streak.
As said earlier, your North Star will change depending on the goal you set out to achieve for that period of time. The reason I suggest a quarter over a year is because there is no sense of urgency in the period of a year. Act as if it has to be done in 3 months and most of the time, it will be done.
3. But I’m certain I can manage 3-5 goals a year. Surely, I’m different and I can find a way.
Give it a shot. But it would be suboptimal based on my experience.
As mentioned earlier, my first encounter with this idea was when Noah Kagan was speaking to Ramit Sethi.
And he said during their early days in Facebook, a lot of people were unclear about what they should optimize for.
And Zuckerberg eventually decided on the north star: Does it help us grow?
(more specifically, the metric – MAU – monthly active users).
So immediately off the bat, a lot of ideas were thrown out like selling tickets on the events pages, etc.
If Zuckerberg believed in having just ONE north star metric and grew Facebook to a $28 BILLION dollar a year revenue business, then I would give it a shot too.
The point of it all:
You will soon understand that your North Star isn’t just a quarterly goal but a guiding compass to decide how you should spend your time. That level of focus on just one thing and making other goals secondary is how you get the results you want.
The next time you have an idea or your friends want you to go somewhere with them, think: “Will this get me closer to my 10,000 subs?”
And if you have to go, ask: “How can I make this closer to my 10,000 subs?”
Again, be smart about it – don’t eat ramen all the day and get your 10,000 subs.
Take care of the essentials and keep your eyes on the prize.
Looking to up your game?
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