Recently I read ‘In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto’ by Michael Pollan. Here’s how it starts:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give the game away right here at the beginning of a whole book devoted to the subject, and I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a couple hundred more pages or so. I’ll try to resist, but will go ahead and add a few more details to flesh out the recommendations.

I love how Michael Pollan simplified a complex topic (and a whole book) down to 7 words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

It’s beautiful. Those 7 words have stuck with me since — and as a result, have helped influence my eating.

Over the last few years, I’ve shifted my long term planning away from specific goals, to broad focuses. It works so much better.

I used to have lots of very specific, long term goals for each area of my life — yearly, all the way down to monthly. It drove me crazy. Most of the time I felt overwhelmed. I found myself in a vicious circle of rewriting my goals on a monthly basis because things changed. My planning efforts started to feel like a waste of time and I was getting frustrated.

I started to experiment with some different approaches. I tried having no goals, but that left me feeling directionless and I wasn’t very productive.

Slowly, I shifted towards short, broad focuses for the long term (anything longer than a week). I guess you could call them principles or rules. They help keep me generally pointed in the right direction for the long term. Then, I leave the specific planning at a week or day level.

Here’s an example of one of my short, broad focus statements:

I will be the best version of myself — always pushing to learn and improve.

I appreciate it sounds a bit vague, but it’s not intended to be a specific goal. Instead, it points me in the right direction. It gets to the core of the type of person I want to be. I don’t want to stand still. I want to be open minded. I want to continually expose myself to new ideas and get better at things.

When I plan my week or days, I spend some time connecting with this focus and it drives specific actions. For example, I might read, listen to a podcast, watch a documentary, continue with a course, learn a new skill etc.

‘I will be the best version of myself — always pushing to learn and improve.’ is inspiring for me.

‘Read 50 books in a year’ isn’t (a previous goal of mine).

With my previous goal, I constantly worried about how I was doing throughout the year. I would press on with books that bored me, because I was trying to hit the 50 goal. The goal always felt like it was closing in and I kinda always knew I wasn’t going to make it. I ended up finishing the year on 40 books, but feeling like a failure. Yes, I read 40 books in a year and felt crap about myself!

The good thing about a broad focus, is you don’t feel like there is a goal closing in on you. It’s not likely to change every month. And it gives you flexibility each week to decide where you want to spend your time and energy to live it. Some weeks it might be very little, and other weeks it might be a lot. Some weeks it might be one type of learning, and other weeks it might be another type of learning. Whatever is right at the time, is right.

Another good example is Ray Dalio’s Principles. It’s the same type of idea. In his book, Ray shares his overarching approach to life and work through principles. These principles drive everything he does and the type of person he is. It’s a rule book. I’ll leave you with one more example of mine.

I will live a healthy and active lifestyle — being mobile and eating paleo will be at the heart of everything I do. I am active most days and keep my exercise varied and interesting.

Again, quite broad. I actually revised this focus today. I realised over the weekend that it didn’t emphasise enough, being mobile and eating paleo. They need to be more important than anything else. If I only did those things, I would look and feel good.

As a comparison, it used to read:

I will live a healthy lifestyle — mobile, active, fit and eating paleo.

That seems a subtle change, and it is. But I tend to easily drift into prioritising crossfit over everything else. The result is usually the same — I get injured. Mobility work and eating paleo has to always be the foundation of everything I do. By changing the focus to emphasise that, it will help remind and point me in the right direction.

And it works. This week I have a load of GMB Elements, some wrist / elbow mobility and am tightening up my paleo eating. Perhaps a run — but only as a very far down, secondary priority. No crossfit.

If you’re getting frustrated with specific, long term goal setting, I would encourage you to re-think things a little. Try broader areas of focus — or principles / rules for the long term. And save the specifics for weekly and daily planning.

It takes a bit of getting used to. But, you might find that it changes where you decide to spend your time. I have a feeling it will improve your output and happiness throughout the week too.

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