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« Working Live on this Blog Tomorrow | Main | Backlog Method »

Keeping one's markers aligned

I was interested to read in the papers recently that some research had shown that people find it very difficult to walk in a straight line in uncharted territory. Most of us in such a situation would aim for a landmark in the distance, but this still results in considerable wandering off the straight. The result is that when you reach the landmark you may be pointing quite a few degrees off course, and the next landmark you pick will not be on the original line.

The secret, known to people like the Native Americans, is to line up two landmarks. When you do this you can easily proceed in a straight line just by keeping the two landmarks aligned. When you reach the first landmark you know you are facing in the right direction so all you have to do is to pick another landmark.

It struck me that this applies to how we go about getting to our goals in our business or personal life. If we aim for just one landmark we are likely to wander about and end up facing in the wrong direction. If we line up two goals then we are much more likely to proceed in a straight line to our desired result.

Let’s give an example of this. We often hear that networking is very important for building a small business. So some people go overboard with networking. They join networking associations, attend lots of events, talk to loads of people, and may even organise their own events.

Then they become disillusioned because their business, far from expanding, is suffering from the amount of time they spend away from it at networking events.

What has gone wrong?

The answer is that they have only lined their actions up on one landmark. They have taken on board that “networking is good” and have therefore lined up on the networking landmark:

——————-> Networking

The result is that they have just concentrated on doing more and more networking without really considering what the purpose of it all was.

If they had remembered that the purpose of the networking was to expand their business they would have approached the networking in a different more focused way:

——————-> Networking ——————-> Business Expansion

As an exercise, you might take a look at some of your goals to see whether they are properly lined up. For instance what might the difference be between these two?

——————-> MBA

——————-> MBA ——————> Promotion to Higher Management

or these two?

———————> Going to gym

———————> Going to gym ———————> Increased energy for work

Wherever you suspect that an activity which should be supporting a higher goal is taking on a life of its own, it’s a good idea to carry out this lining up exercise.

Reader Comments (15)

This reminds me that we often confuse the means with the aim. The original intention, if any was really given and understood, is lost in the whirl of our mind, and we easily forget it while clinging to the means that was supposed to help us in fulfilling it.
September 2, 2009 at 6:05 | Unregistered CommenterJiru
Hi Mark,

Very interesting. Is this akin to setting behavioural objectives to meet an outcome / goal ?
September 2, 2009 at 8:35 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Back to the "five whys" : why top you want this? because that. Why do you want that? Because... up to 5 occurencies!
September 2, 2009 at 9:59 | Unregistered CommenterPascal D.

<< Is this akin to setting behavioural objectives to meet an outcome / goal ? >>

I'm not sure what you mean by that in this context. It's a case of ensuring that in the hierarchy of goals your lower goals continue to be in line with your higher goals. Jiru in his/her comment has got it just about right.
September 2, 2009 at 12:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark I think this is extremely powerful, and offers a strong context to whatever we are doing - however mundane. My wife is a writer who's been putting off tidying her new office space until she aligned it with starting on her second novel - after reading this post. Now she's off and started. Time for me to do something with it too!

Thanks for this. Will follow your day tomorrow with interest as to be honest I am someone who has not yet caught the bug of auto-focus, and have found myself preferring the old closed list approach with diary...
September 3, 2009 at 15:39 | Unregistered CommenterLee T
Thanks, Lee

Your wife's story is a very good example of how this works.

And of course whatever time management system we use needs to be aligned with our higher goals too - otherwise we just end up processing endless trivia. Mind you, I expect there'll be quite a bit of trivia tomorrow!
September 3, 2009 at 20:02 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
In this digital age with smart phones that don't ever let you get away, it is very easy to lose sight of your markers because you don't ever get time to really reflect on what's important day to day. I'm the Human Resources profession and I believe time will truly be the next important commodity. If you think about it, we're already there. Professionals are starting to use personal assistant services or concierge services to buy more time. I started a company called Delegate Source ( based in Denver just to help address this demand. Let me know what you think.
November 23, 2009 at 21:07 | Unregistered CommenterBrady Bagwan
Often what we WANT is to set goals as projection of expectations from the current condition of our ego (or sense of self). Often what we NEED is a change in those cognitive and emotional structures and conditionings that are preventing us having a better or mor satisfying or fulfilling life.
September 19, 2010 at 13:52 | Unregistered CommenterMC
As An avid orienteer, I'm quite familiar with both aligning markers and losing one's way. In fact even when markers are in sight it's often impossible to walk in a straight line. The course usually has obstacles. One marker tells where to go, but 2 tell how to continue after the first is reached.

Recently I've taken to writing goals with each of my tasks and I like it. So far it helps motivate me to work on things. I think also it will help with identifying better goals and consequently adjusting my efforts to suit.
September 20, 2010 at 0:08 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I agree when your in one spot with out checking what is infront of you, You will never progress anywhere. TThat's why its all ways better for one to move in the future and don't look back thats how the successful survive.
September 22, 2010 at 4:37 | Unregistered CommenterCruz-Sanchez
The other thing to align is one's emotional state with the goal.

Success needn't come from push and drive with incredible energy. This is drama. Push and drive and struggle often serve more to dissipate excess energy than alignment with elegant action. Or serve to compensate for anxiety, insecurity of self-doubt.

Too much significance around a goal - or using it to boost your own significance, status or self-worth - becomes something else: using a goal to grow yourself. Issues around your self and your own capability or anxiety about the world around you you are all imbalanced energy which will need dissipating somehow.

Single-mindedness is the key. It balances. Balance allows thinking well and acting in balance.

Calm knowing and expecting will reduce emotional excess, allowing smoother alignment.
August 29, 2012 at 11:58 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Mark, thanks for referencing this article in your recent forum post:

It's given me some ideas to incorporate into my "emergent goals" process.

<< Wherever you suspect that an activity which should be supporting a higher goal is taking on a life of its own, it’s a good idea to carry out this lining up exercise.>>

As we discovered with some of the previous standing-out systems like AF1, they can sometimes fall into "wandering" and processing lots of trivia. But trying to force an alignment with pre-determined goals usually just generates resistance, eventually to the whole system. Do you have any thoughts on how to incorporate this alignment process into a system like Simple Scanning?
December 29, 2017 at 16:46 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

<< Do you have any thoughts on how to incorporate this alignment process into a system like Simple Scanning? >>

My main thought is that I need to find a better system for High Intensity Time Management than Simple Scanning. I've thought up a couple of systems which are faster, but unfortunately they have tended to lack direction when the list gets past a certain length.

I'm just starting a new one which I have high hopes for at the moment, so I hope to be able to report back positively on it soon.

Speed and direction are a difficult combination to achieve but I think it is necessary in order to find an answer to your question.

More soon!
December 29, 2017 at 22:15 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Interesting! Looking forward to see how it plays out!
December 29, 2017 at 23:23 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
For future reference, Mark started posting on the new system mentioned above here:
December 31, 2017 at 0:25 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

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