Reaching some goals is simply the straightforward application of effort. If you want to get in shape, eat less and exercise more. It doesn’t require a brilliant strategy.
However, I’d say most accomplishments don’t fall into this category. I’ve set many goals that I don’t even know where to start. I recently set a new income goal for this website, to earn $3000 per month, on average. The problem is, that if I knew exactly how to earn $3000 per month, I’d already be doing it.
The problem with uncertain goals twofold. First, you need to apply effort in order to reach your goal. Even if I had all the answers for business success, I would need to work hard to grow this website. Second, you also lack knowledge. This compounds the first problem because how can you apply effort when you don’t know where to start?
Two Ways to Fail
In the past, I’ve tried two approaches to handling these uncertain goals:
The first is to try everything. A few years ago, when my goal was to build a new social circle in a new city, I took this approach. I went to bars, I joined groups, I tried many different things to meet interesting people.
The problem with this approach is that you end up flailing around. Instead of pursuing any one option well, you waste a lot of time and energy trying everything. You can burn yourself out trying to do too many things at once. Worse, with all this energy expended, it can be even more frustrating when you fail to make any progress.
The second approach is to do only one thing. I had used this strategy before with this website. I knew that many people had created a full-time income from AdSense advertisements, so my goal was to simply build enough traffic for this website to earn a full-time income.
The problem with this approach is frequently the one approach you use won’t work. I’ve never had a month where I’ve earned more than $300 with AdSense in over three years of running this blog. Many people got it to work, but if I was expecting Google to be my savior, I’d be waiting decades, perhaps forever, for it to create a sustainable business.
Doing everything is a bad strategy. So is taking one approach, to the exclusion of everything else. What’s left?
Project Experiments and Hypothesis Testing
Now, I’ve found a better strategy for handling uncertain goals. In essence it combines the best of the two strategies above. You end up pursuing multiple courses of action, so you don’t hit any dead ends. But at the same time, you remain carefully focused on each course of action so you don’t burn yourself out, flailing around wildly.
The approach is simple:
- For any goal, devise a project you believe can move you closer to that goal.
- The project should test one hypothesis about success towards that goal.
- Never do more than 2-3 projects at a time.
With this approach, every project is a mini-experiment. The purpose of each project isn’t just to move you forward to your goal. It’s also to give you answers to at least one hypothesis you have about what it takes to succeed in your field. Taking this approach allows you to maintain a laser-focus while still juggling the multitude of possibilities for success.
For example, two years ago, I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to sell a product. I was testing the hypothesis that selling products would be a more effective business strategy than advertisements. I wrote How to Change a Habit, and my hypothesis was proven correct.
Later, I wanted to increase my income once more. I came up with the idea to write an expanded guide on holistic learning. For this project, I had a few hypotheses:
- Could AdWords be used to create sales?
- Would creating a larger guide at a higher price be more effective?
- Was it worth developing an affiliate program?
The first hypothesis was incorrect, but the other two worked out great. With each project I was mapping out the knowledge required to reach my goal. I may not have known where to start, but each step was a calculated effort to find the answers I needed.
Many of my projects were failures. I wrote an e-book for another publishing group that flopped. I also compiled a “Best Of” book that didn’t gather much attention. But they weren’t failures for me because my purpose in starting each project was to test a hypothesis. After they were completed I had something valuable: I learned what wouldn’t work.
Only 2-3 Projects at a Time
By only testing one or two projects at a time, you can focus on doing them well. Too many projects results in the flopping around problem I mentioned previously. I’ve tried taking on many projects and the result is always that either some of them fail or all of them fail. Focus on one or two and really test those hypotheses.
Mapping Out Your Knowledge
With any complex goals, I think being able to map out your knowledge is at least as important as the application of effort. If I knew exactly how to become a six-figure blogger, I would be earning that much money already. But since I don’t, I need to map out the knowledge I have and target projects to shine a light on gaps in my understanding.