Defeating the Procrastination Monster – Part 2

By June 8, 2015 Productivity No Comments

Framework 1: Tackle Big Dreams, Eliminate Overwhelm, and Prevent Disappointment with Bottom-Up Goals and the MIT System

====5-PART SERIES=====
Introduction: The Things You Care About Doing But Haven’t Gotten Around To…
Framework 1: Tackle Big Dreams, Eliminate Overwhelm, and Prevent Disappointment with Bottom-Up Goals and the MIT System
Framework 2: Eliminate Distractions with a Flow-Friendly Schedule
Framework 3: Knock Out Tasks That Are Difficult to Start by Following the 15 Minute Rule
Framework 4: Kill Burnout, Low Mojo, and Over-Productivity with Purposefully Pointless Play

For those of you who are familiar with goal setting and other productivity systems out there…have you noticed this?

Most experts recommend setting goals in this order:


After several years of following this goal-setting recommendation, I found this top-down approach worked really well in some areas, but were completely ineffective for other areas of my life.

I thought, “Why is that?” This is what I learned…

Top-down planning works amazingly well when the goal involves accomplishing familiar tasks or activities.

For example, someone who has run 3 half-marathons in the past 12 months can do a reasonable job of planning for an upcoming marathon, and actually manage to realistically complete all the training required. However…

Top-down planning doesn’t work for goals involving unfamiliar tasks or activities, or if desired outcomes are out of your control.

For example, if you are starting a business or getting in shape for the first time, it is difficult to predict things like:

  • When you will be able to reach certain milestones
  • How well you will do in consistently taking the actions required to reach desired outcomes, and
  • What you will be doing with your time (in some cases)

In the case of starting a business, you have no idea if you can persuade X number of customers buy your product, get accepted into that exclusive business program, nor ensure that your contractors will actually deliver on time.

In the case of getting into shape for the first time, it would be difficult to predict how long it would take for you to go from couch potato to having a consistent gym routine, whether you will actually lose 10 pounds in 4 weeks and keep it off using that new diet, nor the length of time required to train for that marathon you signed up on a whim.

These are all outcomes that involve factors outside your control. As humans, we are usually terrible at predicting even our own behaviors, let alone the behaviors of other people. In cases like these, the unpredictable external factors make top-down planning difficult and essentially pointless.

It’s a shot in the dark. Because of this, I’ve seen quite positive results with bottom-up goal setting.

Bottom up goal setting involves setting only short term goals in the beginning. Once there are predictable outcomes from the short term efforts, longer term goals can be set based on these outcomes.

For example, if the goal is to get into shape to run long distances, the first short term goal might be “run as long as possible without stopping”. After the first day, you find that were able to run for 20 minutes without stopping.

Then, the next short term goal is “run 20 minutes every day for 7 days straight”. You may find that your body can’t handle that yet and your legs get too sore to keep up the routine for more than 3 days in a row.

As a result, you might update the goal to “run 20 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays”. You successfully manage that routine for 4 weeks in a row.

After a while, the goal might turn into “run 30 minutes on Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat” or “run 30 minutes on Mon/Wed/Fri and run 60 minutes on Saturdays”. After several months, the goal could turn into “follow the 16-week marathon training plan”.

Putting Principles to Practice

To take advantage of bottom-up goal setting, I recommend using the 3 MITs System. MIT stands for “Most Important Task”.

Ask yourself at the beginning of each day:

“What are 3 critical tasks that, when done, will make this a successful day?”

Once you get a sense of what you can and cannot accomplish in one day, ask yourself at the beginning of each week:

“What are 3 (larger) tasks, that when done, will make this a successful week?”

In general, it is recommended to set 3 MITs per week, and 3 MITs per day that break down from the weekly MITs. One or two tasks could be too easy and places undue pressure on each task to be “the most important”, while 4 or more tasks tend to become overwhelming.

For best results, each MIT includes 3 qualities:

  1. Specific. What makes a task “specific” enough? Two metrics I like are: First, there is no doubt about whether the task is completed or not, to both you and any person who is unfamiliar with your work. Second, the task includes requirements that fully capture the intention or “spirit” behind the task. For example, “go to the gym” and “write blog post” are too vague, because “go to the gym” means you could technically make it a success by just walking into the gym and walking right out without exercising (exercise being the intention of the task). Meanwhile, “write blog post” doesn’t specify qualities that would make a satisfactory blog post (e.g. How long is it? What is the post about?). Appropriately specific versions of these tasks might be “go to gym and walk/run on treadmill for at least 30 minutes” and “write 1000 words of first draft for blog post about productivity frameworks”.

  2. Process Oriented (not Outcome Oriented). Only set goals for taking action on things you can control. Process is something within one’s control, while outcomes are not. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, you cannot control the weight on the scale, but you can control factors like the amount of sugar consumed everyday and frequency of exercise. If you run a business and want to increase sales, you cannot control the number of sales made because they depend on the customer’s decision to buy. However, it is within your control to call 10 new potential customers per day. Over time, you will gain a sense of the outcomes created per unit of your efforts (e.g. every 10 calls –> 1 sale, >50g of sugar per day –> lose 1 pound of fat per month), and can adjust your process to get the desired outcomes.

  3. Accountable to Deadlines. Inherent in the MIT system is the deadline of “by the end of today” or “by the end of this week”. To hold yourself accountable to your MITs, there needs to be a 100% rock solid system of either daily or weekly check-ins, especially in the beginning. While sometimes it is recommended to tell a friend about your goals or to share them on a public platform like Facebook, I’ve found the “social accountability” method to be too unreliable to be effective. The more sustainably effective method is to invest, if you can afford ~$100-150/month, in a productivity coach to help you brainstorm and commit to new MITs every week and check in later on your performance in the previous week. I accomplished more with my productivity coach in the first 5 months of working with him than I had done in the previous 12 months, and still invest in a coach today.


Brian Tracy’s “Eat That Frog”, the origin of the daily MITs concept.

Leo Babauta on Zen Habits about how to use MITs if you still have a day job.

Asian Efficiency’s recommended action plan for implementing MITs.

Now that you’ve read that…

How do you usually set goals? What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked?