One Key To Achieving Goals? Ditch Deadlines, And Make Your Mental Map

A deadline exists somewhere in the future, but a schedule is for now.

One Key To Achieving Goals? Ditch Deadlines, And Make Your Mental Map
[Image: Flickr user Cali4beach]

If you want to get better at, well, almost anything, it helps to turn to a team that’s made it their life’s work to break big dreams down into day-sized goals: Everest, the achievement app.


What Everest is brilliant at is taking unruly dreams and disassembling them, so that people can assemble them, step by step, day by day, with their actions. In this way, achieving a goal is really about knowing its anatomy, as COO Katherine Krug tells to us over email:

The first step is to build a bridge between where you are at this very moment and where you want to be in the future. Map out all the things that need to successfully happen to get where you want to go. Write it down or truly visualize it.

Now that you have a mental map, your long-term goal doesn’t live in some distant future space that you cannot imagine. It lives in the present. The things that you’ve identified as needing to happen become your milestones. Focus shifts to the steps you need to take to hit that next milestone.

That’s gorgeous: the long-term goal doesn’t live in the distant future, but in the present. And the present, as those folks that are into mindfulness keep telling us, is the only place a person can possibly act.

Okay, so after we’ve mapped out the component parts this resolution, how do we hold ourselves accountable? One tactic is to seek assistance in doing our diligence from structure-giving apps like Lift, iDoneThis, or Everest. Another is to stubbornly swear to do it every day–and one day it will become automatic. But if doing the thing every day is super difficult–if something’s always getting in the way, you’re too busy, or the like, then writer-entrepreneur James Clear has an idea: use your schedule.

Why you want a schedule, not a deadline

While it may be something of a straw man argument, Clear contends that we tend to rely on deadlines when we’re trying to sculpt our habits–in fitness, in creativity, and other phases of life. He says that if you’re trying to train yourself by deadlines, you might give yourself the prescription of “Do 100 pushups by December 31st.”

The deadline technique doesn’t quite work for long-term goals. Why? First, because that deadline doesn’t structure your day; you still need to figure out how it’s going to fit in, which requires willpower, which requires more energy than you think and can quickly become exhausting. Additionally, if you add that deadline to the top of your to-do every day but never find the time or will or energy to practice it, then its unchecked box will hang over your head, a shaming apparition of dreams deferred.

To deter ourselves from deferring our dreams, Clear suitably enough lends us some clarity: rather than setting a nice little recriminative, perfectionism-prodding deadline, we can instead opt for a practice much more simple: adding the thing to our schedule. If we want to write more, we can make three appointments for writing sessions a week; if we want to get more pushups done, we can make four 20 minute dates a week; if we want to get into a meditation habit, we can block out 10 minutes every morning–and let our beloved phones ping us into practice.


When we’re trying to build skills, Clear says, it’s not the deadline that’s super important, it’s the practice itself. Instead of focusing on making the deadline, which as Krug says, exists out there in the future, focusing on the practice makes the goal something touched today, tonight, or tomorrow morning. The reason the schedule is better than the goal, then, is that it helps you to create the situation where you’re doing the practice.

Again, Clear:

The schedule is your friend. You can’t predict when you’ll have a stroke of genius and write a moving story, paint a beautiful portrait, or make an incredible picture, but the schedule can make sure that you’re working when that stroke of genius happens. You can’t predict when your body feels like setting a new personal record, but the schedule can make sure that you’re in the gym whether you feel like it or not.

To put it another way, if creativity is really just persistence, then a savvy schedule is a tool to help us get more persistent–without draining our day’s allotment of decisions.

Hat tip: iDoneThis


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.