Where To Start When You Have Absolutely No Clue

It’s one thing to have goals. It’s quite another to actually know how work toward getting those goals achieved — especially when those goals are big.

You may have heard that the solution is to “break the goal down into bite-sized chunks.” Or “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But what about when you don’t know what those chunks or single steps are? In this post, I’ll give you a practical approach you can use to help you get started when you don’t know how.

(The following is applied in part from Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft, with my own twist based on my experiences, of course!)

Identify the Reasons You Can’t

This part is easy. Imagine your goal. Now, in your best devil on the shoulder voice, list the obstacles to reaching your goal. No money, no time, not an expert… I’m sure you can come up with a few.

Now, get creative. For each obstacle you identified, ask yourself all the possible ways you could overcome that obstacle. For no money, your options might be robbing a bank, begging on street corners, getting a grant or scholarship, whatever. Nothing is off limits.

For each solution, identify what you like about the idea and what you don’t like. For example, I might like the immediacy of robbing a bank, but the whole go-to-jail and be-a-criminal doesn’t work for me. Use this second list to generate even more ideas (it’s amazing how ideas will flow when you start focus on finding solutions, rather than on the problem itself).

Finally, once you’ve exhausted your brainpower entirely, look at your list. Pick one solution to each obstacle — the solution you like the best. It doesn’t matter if you know how to accomplish that piece or not. The actual plan of attack is what comes next…

Obstacles Turn SubGoals

When your brain has recovered enough from all that feverish brainstorming, it’s time to look at what you’ve come up with. All those obstacles that were in your way before should now be turned into mini-goals.

If you’re like me, some of those mini-goals look immediately do-able. You look at them and know exactly how to do them. And that’s fantastic! Set those aside for the moment, and focus on the ones that you have absolutely no clue where to begin.

Now for each mini-goal, you’re going to create a reverse flow-chart. You do that by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Can I do this tomorrow?
  2. If not, what would I need to do first?

For each answer you come up with for question #2, repeat the process, until the answer to question #1 is “yes”. Then put it on your to-do list for tomorrow.

That’s it! It’s really no more complicated than that.

An Example of the Reverse FlowChart

Here’s an example from Wishcraft:

  1. Getting into medical school is a subgoal in its own right. Now, can I do it tomorrow?
    • “Hardly”
    • “What would I have to do first?”
    • “Well, I’d have to apply to medical schools.”
  2. “Can I apply tomorrow?”
    • “No. There are two things I’d have to do first: get high scores on the MCATs, and send for application forms.”
  3. “Can I send for applications tomorrow?”
    1. “Not until I’ve decided which schools to apply to.”
    2. “Can I decide which schools to apply to tomorrow?”
      1. No, first I’ll have to go to the library and read catalogs. (I can find out about regular loans and scholarships at the same time.) And that I can start doing tomorrow.
  4. “Can I get high test scores tomorrow?”
    • “Obviously not. First I have to take the tests.”
    • “Can I take the MCATs tomorrow?”
      • If I did, I’d flunk them! First I’d better take some kind of premed review course.
      • “Can I take a review course tomorrow?”
        • No—first I’ve got to find out where there is one. I can do that tomorrow, by making phone calls to all the, local universities, college and medical schools. Another thing I can do is dig up my old college class notes and start reviewing them on my own.

You can see the full flowchart (from Wishcraft) below to see how it would all come together (click to enlarge).


Now Go Do It!

If you follow these easy steps, any goal can be made achievable. Simply by changing your mindset from “I can’t do this” to “How can I do this”, you will allow your own creative nature to bring all sorts of fantastic solutions and actionable steps to mind.

And if you’re still having trouble getting started, there is help. You can catch up with the #ideaparty that happens ever Thursday starting at noon EST on Twitter (go to http://search.twitter.com and search for #ideaparty). You can send me a message on Twitter (@maverickstruth) for some brainstorming help. Or you can go read Wishcraft (by the way, did I mention it’s a free PDF and it’s one of my favorite books, all time?).

4 thoughts on “Where To Start When You Have Absolutely No Clue

  1. Love this post!
    Love Wishcraft too!!

    I’ve done the bubble thing in the past, not in such an elaborated way though, and lost track of the papers then – where do you keep these, in separate project folders or together in a folder named ‘bubble charts’ or something?

    I found I sometimes came to a thing, or a bunch of them, that I didn’t know how to do or worried about, and maybe it was just a minor part of a project, and it stopped my whole desire for the project.
    I saw that talking to someone who’s a bit of an expert and clarifying those things can make a WHOLE lot of a diference in regard to motivation or enthusiasm for a project!!

    PS Your blog makes me happy!!
    Check out the award you got at my blog! :)

  2. Also, how do you prioritize next actions if there are many – and what if you eg schedule some easily doable things & then never do them/forget them?
    Do you go and work on the ‘big picture’ or ‘obstacles’ and see if there’s something to clarify etc?

  3. Great questions, Layla :-)

    To be honest, I’m a child of the digital age. I often do my own diagrams right on the computer (my day job is as a digital media artist, so it’s second nature to me). Then — yes, they usually get filed together with my project files. When I think of the actions, it’s more in terms of the project it’s associated with, rather than the actual medium (the bubbles). It’s also a matter of practicality.

    Since I’m a scanner, I’m always working on more than one project at a time. That means that if I’m working on something and all my bubble diagrams were in the same folder, I’d be leafing through dozens of sheets — and one of them (not the one I’d been looking for) would catch my eye, and I’d be off on a completely different tangent. For practicality’s sake, I’d rather find the one or two bubble diagrams in a folder rather than searching through dozens of them

    For the next action priority, it’s a mix of things. Sometimes, it’s about focusing on the Important and Urgent items (that comes from Stephen Covey’s “First Things First”) ahead of the Important and Non-Urgent, or the Unimportant and Urgent. Other times, it’s more about what I feel like doing at the time.

    I’m also a fan of Dave Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system. There’s a description of it on Wikipedia, and it’s the basis of my Scanner Gather Sheet. That system advocates a weekly review to make sure you’re on track.

    Here’s an overview (from that wikipedia link):

    Allen uses an altitude analogy to illustrate his second major model, 6 different levels of focus, and give perspective on tasks and commitments. These 6 levels of focus, from the bottom up, are:[2]:51

    1. Current actions
    2. Current projects
    3. Areas of responsibility
    4. Yearly goals
    5. 5 year vision
    6. Life goals

    As one ascends in altitude, one is able to consider the “bigger picture”. Considering projects, actions, unfinished business or commitments (“open loops” in GTD terminology[3]), and other “input” from a variety of “heights” gives one varying perspective.

    The author advocates a weekly review focused on different levels. The perspective gained from these reviews should drive one’s priorities, which in turn determines the priority of the individual tasks and commitments gathered during the workflow process. During a weekly review, the user determines the context for the tasks and puts them on the appropriate lists. Examples of grouping together similar tasks include making a list of telephone calls to make or errands to do while downtown. Context lists can be defined by the set of tools available or by the presence of individuals or groups for whom one has items to discuss or present.

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