Planning vs Reality: How to set goals to make them happen (for real!)

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I recently delivered a series of four workshops which covered the topics of goal setting and planning.  I started by selecting a group of six people who would become my guinea pigs and accept the challenge of putting some serious work into the assignments I had prepared for them.

The major focus of the workshops was to help the participants learn how to properly define and achieve their goals more effectively by using some basic project management techniques.

Goals vs. Chores

I asked each participant to choose one existing personal goal that they would like to work on during these sessions. I found that even though all of the participants had picked completely different goals, their general conclusions about why they had not yet reached these goals were remarkably similar.

All participants cited having struggled with time management and constantly underestimating the weekly effort that reaching this goal actually required.

One of the first assignments I gave to them was to fill out a weekly timesheet to keep track of all of the hours in their day that were taken up by a recurring activity in their lives: spending time with family, working, watching television, commuting, grocery shopping, doing laundry, etc.

Weekly availability Schedule


The purpose of this exercise was to help them to visualize how they actually spend all of their 168 hours in a week, and figure out how much time they have left to work on their goals.

It’s very easy to say: “I will have all weekend for my goal/project”, but if we take into a consideration all of our day to day activities, it becomes clear that we might be left with only a few hours available.

This is a very common trap in positive thinking – we dream big, and life just happens, sucking all of our time away like a vacuum cleaner.

From Wishful Thinking to Mastering Estimations

What I described above is only half of the problem with goal planning. Let me introduce to you another, more terrifying phrase: “Effort estimation”. Trust me, it’s only terrifying in the beginning.

All of the workshop participants underestimated the effort required to complete the majority of the planned weekly tasks for their goal execution. This is because, in our private life, we don’t usually pay much attention to estimating the duration of a task. We usually get to things as they come, unless some very specific timing is required for instance when catching a flight.


When tasked with putting together a plan and estimating the effort required, we begin to scratch our heads as we attempt to come up with what can only be our best guess. Unfortunately, in the beginning, the majority of these guesses are severely underestimated.

We tend to focus on the task itself without considering the additional time required to commute, prepare our environment, or allow for a time buffer for any possible delays.

All of these factors will add a few minutes here and there. In the end, it adds up to an additional 30 minutes to complete one simple task only. Add on two more tasks to that, and a daily timesheet magically fills itself out.


Lesson Learned

Lesson Learned was the final portion of our workshop. Calculating the difference between the time estimated and actual time spent completing the task helped participants to realize why their previous plans had failed. Where did they over or under-estimate?

What time management tools worked for them, and what didn’t?  What resources did they need in order to make their estimation more precise and realistic?

Putting aside some time to briefly summarize the Lessons Learned allows us to grow and make sure to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

From my experience as a Project Manager, most organizations don’t want to complete Lesson Learned sessions. They are seen as a low priority and low-value meetings, which give people an opportunity to complain about the project. I believe Lessons Learned strategy sessions are the easiest and most cost-effective way to get the information and motivation needed for making future improvements. If you are looking for efficiency and effectiveness in your organization, why not start with a Lessons Learned session with your team?


Final Word

In order to create an effective plan, first look into the availability of your resources (including yourself), then list all tasks included in your plan, and estimate the effort required to complete them. Once you have finished, go over the list one more time and ask yourself two simple questions:

What can possibly go wrong with this task?

How much time did it take me to complete a similar task in the past?

The first question will help you prepare for any unforeseen complications which may cost you time. The second will help with the accuracy of your estimations.


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