How to Achieve a Goal (If You Don’t Know Where to Start)

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:

  1. For any goal, devise a project you believe can move you closer to that goal.
  2. The project should test one hypothesis about success towards that goal.
  3. 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:

  1. Could AdWords be used to create sales?
  2. Would creating a larger guide at a higher price be more effective?
  3. 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.

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  • Alex Damien

    Great article Scott! I have problems with implementing the first strategy because I feel that, well, if I’m going to fail I might as well fail fast at all I have to fail so I can get to the good stuff.
    But I love your insights, and your blog is pretty cool. I’ve followed you for some time and was amazed and envious that we’re almost the same age and you have achieved so much. Cheers Scott, and good luck on you trip to europe!

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  • jackmo

    Go hard Scott,

    recently I’ve lost interest in most blogs, coming to the conclusion that most of them are collections of mis-matched thoughts and wild theories and have culled my RSS list heavily (I couldn’t even be bothered reading most of them).

    Your blog, however, is one I consistantly look forward to reading and feel like – despite you being young – your idea’s and reasoning are sound and worth reading.

    Keep up the good work bro

  • JC

    Very sensible advice. At the end of the day, it’s really finding the right balance to know which courses of action to focus on on.

  • Shrutarshi Basu

    Sometimes the hardest part of a goal is to figure what exactly the goal is. Personally I want to write a book before the time I graduate college, which gives me another two years. However, I have no idea as to what the book should be about or how I’m going to go about writing. In some ways, I think that making these choices about what exactly I want to do might be harder than actually writing the book. Also it’s going to be more costly if I make the wrong choices in the beginning.

  • Jay

    Dude! I swear i saw you like a couple weeks ago…how tall are you? i’ll know if it was you. i should of just came and say hi but wasn’t sure if it was really you.

  • Joseph Satto

    I’m the founder of The site is designed to help people achieve goals/dreams and the tools on our site speak directly to a couple of important points that you raise in this column.

    To your last point regarding mapping, we totally agree that its essential to achievement so we’ve incorporated a Plan-building tool to allow people to arrange information into discreet steps and then actually track their progress towards completion. By breaking a big goal down into defined and achievable steps, it makes the whole thing seem much less daunting.

    For people that don’t know where to begin, they can actually ‘copy and customize’ other people’s existing Plans on our site. It essentially just a way for people to ‘borrow’ existing expertise and then customize it to fit their needs. A lot of times just seeing information in the form of a Plan can help people get over that initial hump and give them that initial momentum.

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  • Tijs

    Reaching a goal. I red a lots of articles and books concerning reaching your goal. But I never red a book about setting a goal. For me that’s the most dificult part. Finding the occupation that keeps your interest for a long term.

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  • AL

    Wow! What an amazing insight. I love your systematic approach and how you analyze it in a way that makes perfect sense! Well done Scott!

  • Jay

    hmm… it might have been you, anyways if we ever do run in to each other i hope you don’t mind me giving you a shout-out, i’ll just scream out lol

  • shreevidya

    this one seems a real practical approach. good one.

  • Sam

    So If I,
    take at least 2-3 project per goal on Hypotheses of mine .But how would I know that I would be correct on that Hypotheses.Because If
    I alredy know how to achieve a goal then then there is no need of Hypothesis or Project. An If I kept on failing all these projects So shall I claim my whole life for going for unknown projects for my goals .
    My aim to become rich which I am not able to fulfill because I am not getting high paying job . Over last 3 years I changed 9 jobs but still I am not able to succeed . So I beleive the maximum time range might be infinite .
    Thank You