1: Is a well-crafted to-do list, executed daily, the secret to achieving our life’s purpose?

This week we’ve looked at the first two types of goals Steven Kotler outlines in his powerful book The Art of the Impossible: massively transformative and high, hard goals.  

Today, we turn to “clear goals,” the third and final type of goal.

Each type of goal corresponds to a different timescale. A massively transformative purpose (MTP) lasts a lifetime. A high, hard goal may take years to achieve. And clear goals are accomplished one day or one minute at a time.

“Turns out, there are significant differences between high, hard goals and clear goals, which are all the daily sub-steps required to accomplish those high, hard goals,” Steven writes. “High, hard goals are our longer missions, the ones that can take years to achieve. They’re the big steps toward our big dreams.”

So, what is a clear goal? It is the “inverse” of high, hard goals. “They’re all the tiny, daily steps it takes to accomplish that mission,” he notes. We reduce our goals into “bite-sized chunks,” which “exist over much smaller timescales.”

“Becoming a great writer is a massively transformative purpose, or a goal to aim for over a lifetime. Writing a novel is the next level down, a high, hard goal that could take years to complete,” he observes. “Writing 500 words between 8:00 A.M. and 10:00 A.M.–now that’s a clear goal. Writing 500 words between 8:00 A.M. and 10:00 A.M. that produce a feeling of excitement in the reader—now, that’s an even clearer goal.”

2: Question: So, what exactly does a clear goal look like?  

Answer: Daily “to-do” lists.

“A proper to-do list is just a set of clear goals for your day,” Steven observes. “At a very basic level, this is exactly what the road to impossible looks like—a well-crafted to-do list, executed daily.”

To maximize our motivation, we want to align all the items on our daily to-do list with the other two types of goals. “Each item on that list originated with our massively transformative purpose, was chunked down into a high, hard goal, then further reduced to what we can do today to advance that cause,” he writes. “A clear goal is a tiny mission.”

If our tiny missions are properly aligned with what we are passionate about and care about (i.e., our core values), it provides “the motivational burst needed to get after it. And once accomplished,” Steven notes, we “get the dopamine reward on the other side, which cements our desire to get after it tomorrow.”

The secret? “Stacking little win atop win little win is always the road toward victory.”

3: How difficult should these tasks be to accomplish?  

“Think challenging, yet manageable,” he writes, “just enough stimulation to shortcut attention into the now, not enough stress to pull you back out again. A proper clear goal sits right inside your challenge-skill sweet spot, meaning it’s hard enough to stretch you to the edge of your abilities, but not hard enough to push you beyond, into the demotivating realm of anxiety and overwhelm.”

When done right, clear goals are a critical trigger for the flow state, where we perform at our very best: “When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t have to wonder about what to do or what to do next—it already knows. Thus, concentration tightens, motivation heightens, and extraneous information gets filtered out,” Steven writes. “In a sense, clear goals act as a priority list for the brain, lowering cognitive load and telling the system where to expend its energy.”

Steven has two other recommendations for clear goals. First: “Write the next day’s list at the end of the previous day,” he suggests. That way, we can “get after it the moment we get to work.”

Second, experiment to determine the correct number of items on my clear goals to-do list. We want to track how many items we can achieve in a day and still be our best for all of them,” he writes.  

Figuring this out allows us to maximize our motivation. And it allows us to declare victory over this day.  

“I limit the number of items on my to-do lists to around eight—which is my maximum capacity for a good day’s work. In other words, on any given day, I have the energy to push myself into that challenge-skills sweet spot eight times,” Steven observes. “If I tick off all eight items on my daily to-do list, then I’ve ‘won’ my day. It’s done. I can turn off my brain and recover.”

Which is important because recovery is critical to sustained peak performance.

Steven’s big point? “Impossible is always a checklist. Do every item on your checklist today, do every item on your checklist tomorrow, and repeat,” he writes. “This is how clear goals become high, hard achievements, which become milestones on the way to massively transformative purposes.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  

More next week!


Reflection: What are specific, clear goals or action items I can do today toward my high, hard goals?

Action: Experiment to figure out the correct number of items on my daily clear goals to-do list.

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