Why a Goal Pyramid Can Make You Happier and More Successful and How to Create One?

Goals pyramids are structures that link your top level goals to your lower level goals.

Creating such a structure is required in order to become happy and successful. 

Here we show you why and how to create one.

1. What is a Goal Pyramid?

You have different kinds of goals. For example, “I want to be happy” is a big, long term goal. On the other hand, “I want to buy a new pair of shoes” is a small, short term goal.

A goal pyramid is a structure that links:

  • Your top level or mission level goals to your main projects needed to accomplish these goals, and 
  • Links these projects to your tasks needed to accomplish these projects, and 
  • Links the tasks to your actionable subtasks needed to accomplish these tasks.

For example, let’s imagine that you want to become a lawyer and you are studying in law school:

  • In order to become a lawyer you need to get a law degree. 
  • And in order to get the law degree you need to pass all your classes. 
  • And in order to pass your classes you need to pass the exams in those classes. 
  • And in order to pass those exams you need to study. 

So the mission goal of becoming a lawyer can be achieved by the action of studying:

  • Your studying will lead you to pass the exams, 
  • which will lead you to pass the classes, 
  • which will lead you to get a law degree, 
  • which will lead you to become a lawyer.

Now, that we understand the concept of a goal pyramid, let us look at why it is so important.

2. Importance of Each Level of a Goal Pyramid

Some people say it is important to have big, long term goals. Other people say it is important to have small, actionable goals. In fact, both are important; each level of the goal pyramid is important. 

2.1. Importance of the top level, mission goals

The importance of the mission goal is that it is the ultimate reason. If this changes, then everything in the goal pyramid changes with it. 

For example, let’s say that you decide that actually you do no longer want to become a lawyer but instead become a medical doctor. Now, you no longer need a law degree, so you no longer need to pass the law classes and the law exams and you no longer should study law. 

Thus, only one change on the top level, changes all goals on the lower level. That impact illustrates the importance of having clarity in your top goals, in order to avoid wasting time working on the wrong things.

2.2. Importance of the actionable subtasks

The importance of the lowest level goals, the actionable subtasks, is that this is the only level that you can influence by taking action. While it is true that you can pass the classes in order to become a lawyer, you can only do so by passing all exams! And how do you pass exams? By studying! The action is ¨studying law¨.

So by continuously asking the question “how”, you finally reach an actionable level, which is the only level where you can take actions.

2.3. Importance of the intermediate levels (projects and tasks)

However, if we only had the top level, becoming a lawyer, and the lower level, studying law, then we might lose our motivation. This is because studying only has an indirect relationship to becoming a lawyer and the amount of studying required is too much, unless we have intermediary goals that show us the way how to get from studying to becoming a lawyer.

From the above we see that goal pyramids and each level of a goal pyramid are very important for accomplishing your goals successfully.

3. Problems of Normal Goal Setting without Goal Pyramids

In normal goal setting you are creating a list of goals. This list of goals could either be a list of high level goals, mid level goals, lower levels goals or multiple level goals. All of these lists have many problems. So let’s take a look at each kind of list.

3.1. High level goal list

A high level goal list could look as follows:

  • Be happy
  • Be healthy
  • Have a wonderful family

This kind of goal list gives you some orientation as it defines the ultimate why. However, it does not give you any clarity on how to achieve these goals, as the lower levels are missing. This can easily result in you trying out too many things and becoming defocused as you have not achieved clarity on how to accomplish your goals. 

Also, it can lead to demotivation as no specific next step has been defined.

3.2. Low level goal list

A low level goal list could look as follows:

  • Get an A in the exam on contract law
  • Buy a Mercedes SLK
  • Buy a new pair of shoes

This kind of goal list gives you some orientation as it defines the concrete things you want to achieve. However, it does not tell you why to achieve these goals, as the higher levels are missing. This easily leads you to a situation where you accomplish a goal and then ask yourself “What was the whole point of it?”. For example, you buy the Mercedes SLK and then after some time realize that you do not really know why you did it, as it does not make you happy.

Also, such a low level goal list can lack the motivational power as you likely have hundreds of low level goals and there is no clear way how these relate to each other, unless you put them into a goal pyramid.

3.3. Mid level goal list

A mid level goal does not look at the low goals and does not look at the highest level but looks at the goals in between. Such a list could look as follows:

  • Have a balance between family and work
  • Create a charity to cure AIDS
  • Lose Weight

Such a list misses both the ultimate why, as well as the specific how. For example, “lose weight” is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal behind “lose weight” might be “be healthy” or “be beautiful”. Also, it is not a low level action goal, which might be “exercise” or “eat healthier”. 

So mid level goal lists have both main flaws mentioned above, lack of orientation and lack of knowing what to do next.

3.4. Multi level goal list

A multi level goal list is a combination of different level goals. Such a list could look as follows:

  • Be happy (high level)
  • Be healthy (high level)
  • Get an A in the exam on contract law (low level)
  • Buy a Mercedes SLK (low level)
  • Create a charity to cure AIDS (mid level)

The list contains some high level goals like:

  • Be happy
  • Be healthy

These lack the specificity on how to accomplish them.

The list also contains some low level goals like:

  • Get an A in the exam on contract law
  • Buy a Mercedes SLK

These are very specific and lack the answer to why these things are important.

Thus a multilevel goal list lacks both the answer to the “why” and to the “how”. Moreover, a multilevel goal list is confusing as it combines different levels.

The only way to create both a list with the “why” and with the “how” and combine all goal levels is to create a goal pyramid. 

4. The 2 Most Important Questions in Your Goal Setting

In trying to accomplish any goal successfully you need to regularly ask yourself two questions:

  • HOW?
  • WHY?

4.1. HOW? Top-Down-Approach

When you have a big goal you need to break it down by continuously asking “HOW?”, and thereby split the big goal into smaller actionable tasks.

For example, “Can you eat an elephant? Sure you can. You bite it one bite at a time! “

In the above example, of the goal to become a lawyer, you ask:

  • How can I become a lawyer? By passing law school!
  • How can I pass law school? By passing all classes!
  • How can I pass a class? By passing all exams!
  • How can I pass an exam? By studying!

So you break the big goal down by asking “how” until you arrive at actionable tasks.

As your starting point is the big goal and by asking the HOW-question you are continuously getting to a lower level, this approach is called the Top-Down-Approach.

4.2. WHY? Bottom-Up-Approach

The “WHY” question is also important! You want to make sure that what you are currently doing is the best way to achieve your ultimate goals.

If you are currently studying a lot, you can ask yourself:

  • Why do I study? So that I can pass exams!
  • Why do I want to pass the exams? So that I can pass the class!
  • Why do I want to pass the class? So that I can earn a law degree!
  • Why do I want to get a law degree? So that I can become a lawyer!

As you see, the WHY-question helps you uncover things that you are working on that might not be that relevant to accomplish your goals. 

As your starting point is the actionable task and by asking the WHY-question you are continuously getting to a higher level, this approach is called the Bottom-Up-Approach.

We have seen that it is very important to regularly ask “how” and “why”. The HOW-question gets you from the ultimate long term goal to lower levels in the goal pyramid. The WHY-question gets you from the things you are working on or you know you have to do next to the ultimate reason for doing them.

5. How to Create a Powerful Goal Pyramid?

There are five steps to creating a powerful goal pyramid:

  1. Create a normal list of all your goals
  2. Categorize your goals into your main life segments
  3. Order the list according to goal levels
  4. Answer the WHY-question to get to the high level goals
  5. Answer the HOW-question to get to the low level goals

5.1. Step 1: Create a normal list of all your goals

Just write down the list of goals as you would do in normal goal setting. As such some of the goals will be high level (marked as yellow), some will be mid level (marked as orange) and some will be low level (marked as red).

5.2. Step 2: Categorize the goals into your main life segments

Next, you categorize the goals into the main segments of your life. These could be:

  • Career
  • Financials
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Spirituality 
  • Health

This could looks as follows:

5.3. Step 3: Order the list according to goal levels

Next you order your goals in each category into the form of a pyramid. This can look as follows:

As you can see in the diagram there will be many goals (either high, medium or low level) that are not yet filled in. We have shown these missing goals by empty circles in the diagram above.

It is a bit difficult to order your goals in the exact form of a pyramid. Therefore, you should instead use one of two structures:

  • A mind map, or
  • An indented task list

In a mind map you start with the highest level goal and put it into the center. Then you draw branches to each of the subgoals. From there you branch out further to the lower levels.

An Indented task list is very similar just that everything is in the form of a list and the lower levels are indented. The more indentation the lower the level. 

5.4. Step 4: Answer the why question to get to the high level goals

After having organized your goals into different categories and related them to each other in the form of a goal pyramid, you now need to ask “why” for each goal. By doing this you will be able to fill in the missing goals on the higher levels of the goal pyramid. 

This is shown in the diagram below. The goals you think about when asking why are indicated in gray.

You have reached the highest level of the goal pyramid, if there is no answer to the question “why?”. For example, goals like I want to be happy are at the highest level because there is no way to answer the question of “why”. Why do you want to be happy? Just because of happiness itself!

You have reached the lowest level of the goal pyramid, if you no longer need to think about the question of “how”. For example, “call 20 potential buyers” is a goal on the lowest level because the answer to the question “how” is very obvious, just by picking up the phone and calling.

5.5. Step 5: Answer the how question to get to the low level goals

Finally, you want to ask “how” to each goal in order to fill in the remaining goals that are not filled in on a lower level. 

This is shown in the diagram below. The goal you think of when asking “how” is indicated in light gray.

The above process helps you create a goal pyramid.

Doing such a goal pyramid will help you in many ways:

  • Get clarity on what you want
  • Understand why you want it 
  • See that certain goals in fact do not make sense because they do not have a strong enough why
  • Understand what you need to do to accomplish your top goals
  • Make a coherent strategy on how to have a successful life

6. Software Tools for Creating Goal Pyramids

As we have seen, goal pyramids are an extremely important tool for goal setting, staying organized, getting clarity and being productive.

Also, they are easy to implement with an indented task list and continually asking How and Why. However, most of the current project management systems do not fully support goal pyramids.

For that reason we developed a focus tool that enables goal pyramids as an important component. This software is called Workiamo. 

Workiamo is a very simple tool that is ideal for anybody that wants to be less stressed and more productive. As you are reading this, we let you access it for lifetime for free! In order to do so, you have to register at www.workiamo.com by entering this code: ILOVEWORK.
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