Time Allocation Goals vs. Output Goals

When people set goals they usually define clear, measurable outputs. E.g.: “Today I’m going to write 1,000 words” or “This afternoon I’m going to finish QA testing this version release.”

But this approach doesn’t work as well for tasks of considerable complexity where what’s required of you is uncertain. Projects where there’s a clear end-goal but it’s in the distant future. The specific intervening steps, and the time required for each step, are unknown.

I’m involved in such a project right now. When I work on it I set goals around how many hours I want / need to spend. My daily goal might be: “Spend four hours working on [specific thing related to general project].” Then I’ll put my head down and make progress. And if I spend four solid hours, I consider the goal met. I am very disciplined about making sure I only count time that’s real work — if my mind wanders or if I get distracted, I turn off the clock.

As I’ve set time-allocation goals I’ve figured out the maximum amount of time I can realistically apply toward different types of tasks in a given day. I can usually do at most 4-5 hours of “hard focus work” and 4-5 hours of “light focus work” (email, blogging, Skyping) per day. A big variable for people is whether meetings fall into “hard focus” of “light focus.”

Bottom Line: The right kind of goal setting depends on the person and projects involved. For long-term projects where the specific steps and time necessary for each step are uncertain, setting short-term time allocation goals works well for me.


All inbound email to me is now automatically marked as “read.” No more bold messages that scream to be opened. I would find myself opening the bold messages even before I had finished dealing with an older email. Thanks to Cal for this idea. I reccomend trying it.

5 comments on “Time Allocation Goals vs. Output Goals
  • This is exactly right, and is the strategy I’m currently using to work on my novel. Fiction writing is a satisfying yet excruciating activity for me, so instead of focusing on how much I’ve written (anti-motivating), I try to devote 2 hours at a time to writing. Some days I write the whole 2 hours, and some days I reflect, and ponder, and agonize, and write two paragraphs. My next goal is to achieve consistency in doing 2 hours every day, or every other day.

  • Not surprisingly, four hours was the limit discovered by deliberate practice researchers studying the length of time professional musicians could spend doing hard practice in a given day.

    (Though I haven’t figured out how to implement it yet, my new ambition for my monotypic inbox is to also sort the messages by a non-time related criteria — i.e., receiver. The effect would be to make it impossible to scan for new messages instead of dealing with the inbox as a batch.)

  • Normally in long term projects, people break down their singular goal into bite sized tasks that can be achieved in the short term with reasonable accuracy. But then there are other projects where such hub and spokes strategy don’t work. Example, in the investment game, long term investors can’t set time tables because achievement of milestones aren’t predictable as they are exposed to the global macros. In such situations of numerous ponderables, my pet strategy is to identify a theme and pursue it diligently.[mine I call *E2E* i.e.Exuberance to Exuberance – keep buying quality stocks from one bubble burst till the next exuberance (and exit and invest the proceeds in fixed income and wait for the bubble to burst before buying again) that often occurs at a five year interval. It works.

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