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How to Break Your Goals Down into Actionable Tasks

Woman sitting at desk planning with laptop.

People often set lofty goals. Shortly thereafter, however, they find themselves struggling to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. Or Point Q! Here some simple tips on how to break your goals down into actionable tasks.

Be sure you have a clearly-written goal

Look at your goal and ask yourself if it is a measurable goal or a flakey wish. Here are some examples of a flakey wish:

  • Lose weight so I can look good at my high school reunion.
  • Get my article published where people will see it.
  • Take a trip to Europe.
  • Get a new job.

Those “goals” are not measurable. Therefore, they’re just wishes.

Write down exactly where you are now

Clearly understand, and then write down, your starting point (baseline).

Let’s say your goal is to weigh 140 pounds by April 30. Okay, start by knowing how much you weigh now.

Then, write it down. You could use a fancy electronic system or a 77-cent notebook. It doesn’t matter where you record it. Just write it in a place where you can easily see and later retrieve it.

Determine what you want to measure

As you break your goals down, you’ll need to measure your progress, no matter what your goal is.. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s say you want to lose weight. You could measure the number of:

  • pounds you have lost.
  • inches of selected body parts.
  • calories you take in each day.
  • calories you burn each day.
  • minutes you exercise (treadmill, bike, elliptical, etc.).
  • the size dress or pants size(s) you want to fit into.
  • something else; it’s up to you!

Measure consistently

Be consistent with measuring whatever it is you decided to measure.

You don’t need to measure the “thing” each day. But chances are, you need to measure at least once a week.

Determine if you have a “growth” milestone, or a phased-based milestone

Some goals are best expressed in terms of growth. Classic “growth” would be moving from a smaller measurement to a larger measurement. But sometimes we want a shrinkage (a sort of reverse growth!) By this, I mean moving from:

  • a smaller measurement and move toward a larger measurement, e.g., moving from a $100K annual revenue to $120K.
  • a larger measurement and move toward a smaller measurement ― e.g., reducing your outstanding credit card balance from $20K to zero, or losing 25 pounds of body weight.

Other goals are best expressed in terms of phases. This is excellent if you’re involved in a project. (And beware, a project is not necessarily a goal!) In that case, you’re moving from a set of tasks that are incomplete, to completion of the tasks.

Break down “growth” milestones

Growth milestones almost always happen across a substantial amount of time. Hence, we can’t write an actionable step for a goal that is achieved over a period of time. Therefore, we need to break down the growth indicators. Here are some examples of how to break your goals down into growth milestones:

Lose 50 pounds: It’s not physiologically possible to lose 50 pounds in a day or a week or even a month. But it’s possible to lose 50 pounds in 10 months. So, your milestones would be 5 pounds each month for 10 months.

Generate $100K in gross sales of your product. You’d need to know the retail price of the product, and how many products you would need to sell in a period of time. (Try looking at sales by the month.) Measure your sales each month.

Break down “phase” milestones

A phase is like a chunk of work that must be completed before the next phase can occur. For about 80% of the “phase” milestones that I undertake, I created a framework that works for me. Here it is:

  • Pre-planning: Here, I try to nail down important dates that may drive the planning, who the key players are, and any big obstacles that I can already see. I also review what happened (good or bad!) with a similar endeavor. Sometimes I use a who-what-where-when-why-how much framework to guide the questions at that planning session.
  • Planning. This is just the “on paper” plan. It’s somewhat akin to a grocery list. You decide all that needs to be obtained. Don’t skip over or hurry through the planning phase. It’s arguably the most critical phase you face when you break your goals down.
  • Development: This is like the raw material. For example, if it were a blog post, this would mean drafting the post, editing it, finding an appropriate image, and so forth. If it were food, the sous chef would be chopping the raw vegetables.
  • Production: Going back to the food analogy, this would be where all the raw parts are cooked and plated.
  • Testing: This is where you make sure that what you’ve created actually works. You can do alpha testing or beta testing, or both.
  • Publication/Launch: This is final phase where you are finished. Back to our food analogy, this is akin to serving the dish.

You see how each of these phases depends on completion of a previous phase, right?

Remind yourself that that you can break your goals down without getting a degree in goal setting. Chances are, you’ve done something similar in the past. Try to reconstruct the big steps. Those could be your milestones.

Note that whether you’re facing a growth milestone or a phase-based milestone, the completion of each will be tied to a specific time. It could be days, months, or even years.

Determine the first few steps

For decades, I thought I’d need to have all of the steps figured out at once.

I don’t. Neither do you.

However, this is critical. Above all, this is about how to break your goals down into bite-sized pieces, not about how to eat an elephant. Determine the first few steps!

Forgive me if this sounds oversimplified, but it often helps me to get started. Almost always, my first steps depend on the answers to these three questions:

  • What decisions do I need to make?
  • What skills to I need to acquire?
  • For what do I need to show up for?

Decisions can be great or small. I may need to decide what topic to write about, what help to hire, when to offer a course, or how much money to spend on new software.

Skills are something I always seem to be short on. To do the next task in front of me, I may need to learn how to be in compliance with some government regulation, how to substitute flour when the recipe calls for cornstarch, or how to delete a message I wrote on LinkedIn that really should have been sent to someone else.

Showing up and trying. Deciding and learning is great, but at some point, we must just show up and do the task. If possible, it’s best to pick the easier part of the task first so we can get a quick win.


Remember, as Jon Acuff says in his book, Start., the only thing over which we have complete control of is the starting point. Much can happen thereafter over which we have little or no control.

Identify your goals, make them visible, describe your baseline, determine to measure (and then measure progress as you go along) break them down into manageable pieces, and get clear on your first steps. Almost always, your big goal will look nearly impossible when you write it, but after breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, it’s easier than it might seem.  

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