Episode: The 3×3 Goal Achievement Strategy

Michael Hyatt: In 2009, CVS settled a case with the Department of Health and Human Services. The whole thing had started with bad press. Media reports showed CVS pill bottles tossed into an open dumpster. Those bottles contained names, addresses, and medication information for CVS customers. In other words, patients. That was a huge violation of federal law, something known to us Americans as HIPAA.

Megan Hyatt Miller: The government charged that CVS had “failed to implement reasonable and appropriate procedures for handling personal information about consumers and employees in violation of federal law.” The fine was $2.5 million, but that was just the beginning. The drugstore chain would also be subject to government audits every two years until 2029.

Michael: But here’s the thing. It turns out CVS did have privacy procedures in place, but they failed to implement them. They had the plans, but they never executed them. That’s what most missed goals are: a failure to execute. We have the goals in place, we know what we want to accomplish, we even have a plan or a strategy in place, but we don’t carry them out.

Megan: Thankfully, there’s a solution to this problem. According to one study, goal completion is three times more likely to occur if specific implementation intentions are stated ahead of time. This isn’t a plan; it’s a plan to carry out a plan. Just by writing down the actions you will take to reach your goal, you’re three times more likely to achieve it. There’s a saying that’s often attributed to Gandhi that also makes this point: “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important.” He goes on to say, “You have to do the right thing. […] If you do nothing, there will be no result.”

Michael: That’s the formula in a nutshell. You need a solid, achievable goal, and you need to take action. So, what action can you take today to reach your goals?

Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael:  And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’re going to show you a simple strategy that will triple the likelihood of reaching your most important goals.

Megan: All leaders have a big dream inside of them, but too often our biggest goals get lost in the whirlwind of daily tasks and interruptions. Here at Michael Hyatt & Company, we’ve learned how to keep goals in focus so they translate into daily actions. Today, we’ll give you three simple practices that will ensure your goals stay on track all year long. You’ll avoid the pain of seeing your biggest goals slip through your fingers, and you’ll feel satisfaction at seeing steady progress until they’re finally achieved.

Michael: Let’s start by admitting the fact that we’ve all missed goals. For many of us, this happens most of the time. We set goals and fail to achieve them. That’s the thing. Goal setting is one thing; goal achievement is something else entirely. Why, Meg, do you think goal achievement is so difficult?

Megan: I think, first of all, we’re overwhelmed by complexity. We set too many goals. This is probably the number-one mistake we see of people setting goals with our clients and customers. They sometimes come into the new year with 30 or 40 goals, and they think they can accomplish all of those. It’s immediately overwhelming, especially when you consider how those things are interrelated to each other.

Michael: I think there’s something about when you get jacked up and excited about… It’s a new year, and you’re going to make all of these differences, and you think of all of these areas of your life you could improve.

Megan: It’s like make over my entire life.

Michael: Yeah, make over my entire life. That’s usually a recipe for not accomplishing much. But I think there’s another aspect of this. We’re overwhelmed by the chaos. We think we’re going to pursue these goals, but we forget that we have a life, a very full life, a very busy life. Urgent tasks tend to pull us away from the important tasks, which is the realm where goals live. That’s in the important, but they’re not usually urgent, so it’s easy to procrastinate or postpone.

Megan: It’s partly because when we set goals we often assume total best-case scenario thinking, and in every year of my life so far there are things that go wrong that are unplanned. We have to set goals with those kinds of interruptions in mind.

Michael: We’ve been talking a lot about goal setting over the last few weeks because everybody’s mind is around that as we turn the page to the new year, but we want to take that a step further and talk about once you have your goals, what then? Where do you go next? Today, we’re going to be talking about the 3×3 goal achievement strategy, which consists of three simple practices. Meg, what’s the first one?

Megan: The first practice is to choose your quarterly Big 3. These are the goals you’re going to focus on for a given quarter. As you probably know if you’ve done Best Year Ever with us, we recommend that you set 7 to 10 goals annually, or in other words, at one time. Fewer than 7 might not be challenging enough or address enough domains of your life, but more than 10 can be really overwhelming for your focus. So that’s at an annual level, but you want to avoid having all of your goals due at the same time, like December 31. This is another really common mistake we see people make. You want to narrow your focus to only working on two to three per quarter so you’re able to get the power of focus on your side.

Michael: This is key, because you might think, “Well, I could take on those three goals” and forget that most of your time, most of your money, most of your energy is already dedicated to just running your existing business. You can’t have too many goals that are out there; otherwise, you’re not going to achieve them. Another way to say it is: limit your focus to multiply your achievement. You’re not going to be able to make huge progress on all of your goals at once.

I can’t remember who it was who said it, but most people take one step in 20 directions instead of 20 steps in one direction, but that’s what we’re after here. Another proverb I often quote is a Chinese proverb that says, “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” Having 15 top priorities is the same as having none. We want to focus our efforts. Again, two to three per quarter. Megan, for you, how do you select your Big 3 goals for the quarter?

Megan: Well, I ask myself a series of questions: What’s most important to me in the next three months? What is most urgent or due this quarter? (Some things are just inherently time-bound, and that’s worth considering.) What do I have the capacity to accomplish this quarter? This is really important, because if I know that either personally or professionally there’s something really big happening, I don’t want to choose a goal or a set of goals to focus on that’s going to require more focus than I’m able to give. I want to remember that relevant part of the SMARTER framework.

Michael: It’s so important. I think you also have to consider your boss or organization’s priorities. You have to put it in context for that. Resist the temptation to focus on too much. I want to make a distinction here between goals and projects. Obviously, you’re going to have a lot of projects you need to accomplish during the quarter, but they don’t rise to the level of a goal. A goal, by definition, is something that’s outside the whirlwind of all of your activity, business as usual. You want to limit that to two to three goals per quarter, but you’re going to have other projects you have to do inside of the whirlwind that are just part of business as usual.

Megan: So, the first practice is to choose your quarterly Big 3, and in this case we’re talking about goals. What’s the next practice?

Michael: The second practice is to choose your Weekly Big 3, and here we’re talking about achievement. That’s the language we’re using. These are the weekly achievements that will move the needle on your major goals and projects. What you want to do here is you want to choose your Weekly Big 3 during your Weekly Preview. For those of you who own and use the Full Focus Planner, you know we have a couple of pages that show up every seven days for your Weekly Preview.

Megan: I love this exercise, by the way. I do it every week without fail, and it is the orienting practice of my weekly planning.

Michael: Me too. This is where you’re going to review your life plan, if you have one, your goals, your projects, all of the open items. It’s tempting here to identify 10 or 15 important things you have to get done for the week.

Megan: It is.

Michael: That leads to…what?

Megan: Overwhelm.

Michael: Overwhelm. Absolutely. So you want to focus and limit it to just three. Now this is going to take discipline in the beginning, but it’s going to serve you well in the end. It doesn’t mean there are not other things you’re going to accomplish during the week. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all you had to do was three things? But it means these are the three big things you’re going to get done. If all else fails, you’re going to get these three things done no matter what. Again, we have to remind ourselves there’s power in simplicity.

Megan: One of the ways you can determine your Weekly Big 3 is to use the Eisenhower Matrix, which you love and bring up often. So why don’t you explain it to us for those who don’t know.

Michael: Some people think this came from Dr. Stephen Covey. He certainly uses it in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but he actually got it from President Eisenhower. To be honest, President Eisenhower didn’t map the whole thing out as elegantly as Dr. Covey did, but it was certainly there in a quote Eisenhower made.

Here’s the idea. You basically have two axes. One is importance. In other words, a task can be important or not important. The other axis (think of this as a 2×2 matrix, and I love those, you know) is urgency. Something can be urgent or not urgent. So let’s start at the very bottom of the scale: Quadrant 4 items. These are not urgent and not important. Like, for most of us, unless you’re a social media manager, checking Facebook is probably not important and probably not urgent, but we find that we do that a lot. Quadrant 4 items are items we can safely ignore.

Quadrant 3 items are those that are urgent but not important. This is kind of the danger zone, and we have to ask some questions or query. They’re usually important to others but not you. I want to just say if it’s important to your boss, it’s probably not a Quadrant 3 item. That’s going to be a Quadrant 1 item. If it’s urgent to him, it had better be important to you.

Again, we have to ask the question…What trade-offs am I willing to make? A coworker comes to us and says, “Hey, this is urgent. I need your help.” I have to ask the question, “Okay, it’s urgent to them, not urgent to me. What trade-off am I going to make in my quest to help them? What am I willing to trade on my own list to help them? Will I resent saying yes to them?” I don’t want to resent it. If I’m able to give the time, great, but if not, this is a quadrant that probably I need to have very few items on my task list with this.

Quadrant 2 items are where you should have some of these items in your Weekly Preview or your Weekly Big 3. This is where most of the opportunity lives, and these are items that, typically, we need to schedule or they’re not going to get done.

Megan: This is one of the reasons that in the Weekly Preview in the Full Focus Planner we have the review part of your goals. So often, when you lose visibility on your goals or on your life plan, if you have one of those, then you end up being stuck in Quadrant 3 where other people are dictating your priorities and you’re not making progress on things that are either urgent and important or just simply important. That’s what ultimately drives your life forward, so that’s why we’ve integrated that into the Weekly Preview process: so you have a disciplined way of using that as the filter for your Weekly Big 3.

Michael: Yeah, it’s so true. Again, these are those important but not urgent items where most of the opportunity for us lives. For example, scheduling that annual medical checkup is something that’s easy to blow off, but it’s pretty important, especially if you discover a problem you have.

Megan: Or strategic planning for next year.

Michael: Or strategic planning could be another important item or thinking about something that needs to be improved in your business. It’s easy to blow that off and never get to it, but the secret hack to that is to schedule those important items and identify them in your Weekly Preview so you can schedule them.

Then we get to the Quadrant 1 items, which are important and urgent. These obviously are going to take precedent. You have to make sure they’re important, and they have to be urgent to you. Ninety-five percent of your Weekly Big 3 should come from Quadrants 1 and 2. In fact, I would say very rarely is a Weekly Big 3 going to show up in my Weekly Preview. It might in the Daily Big 3, but very rarely in the Weekly Big 3.

So, the first practice is to choose your quarterly Big 3 goals. The second is to choose your Weekly Big 3, which are the achievements. Meg, what’s the final practice?

Megan: The third practice is to choose your Daily Big 3, which in this case are tasks. You want to choose three and only three must-do tasks. These are things that are definitely important; they may also be urgent, but that you’re going to commit to accomplishing today. This may seem, by the way, totally impossible, but it’s actually not. Once you gain the simplicity and the focus that comes from identifying your Big 3 every day, you’re going to end the overwhelm, and a little-known benefit is that you’re going to feel like every day is a win.

You’re going to get to the end of the day and know that no matter what else happened in your day you’ve accomplished three really important, high-leverage tasks that are driving your goals and your business forward in some meaningful way, and that’s a great feeling. Most of us are adding to our task list all day, and by the end of the day we have more on it than what we started with.

Michael: Well, I think it’s important to say, too, that this doesn’t mean you can’t have other tasks, but those are other tasks; they don’t rise to the level of the Big 3. The way I look at it, for me, if I get my Big 3 done, I’m kind of off the hook. If I get the other things done, great. That’s all gravy, but my sense of satisfaction, my sense of winning doesn’t come from getting 15 or 20 items done; it comes from getting those three items done. The very fact that I can do that (and I usually get that done by noon)… It feels like everything else is a bonus, and I have this momentum and this confidence to complete the other tasks.

Megan: This is really where you start to make meaningful progress toward your goals. You’ve identified your Weekly Big 3, and now you’re using that to inform what’s going to be on your Daily Big 3. So you’re connecting all of the dots from the quarter to the week to the day, and instead of having your actions be kind of random, they’re all moving and driving toward the same end. That’s a huge breakthrough. I know, for me, when we started the Full Focus Planner, that’s probably the greatest benefit, and this is something we consistently hear from people who use the system. The Daily Big 3 is the fastest place to get a quick win in your life.

Michael: What would be an example for you? I don’t know if you have it handy here, but do you have your Big 3 for today?

Megan: Yeah, let me get it out. My Daily Big 3 are to record three podcasts today, to complete a communication strategy for an important announcement we need to make, and also to have a phone call with a recruiter for staffing.

Michael: Okay, here’s the cool thing about that. Those are three discrete actions. These are not projects (I think sometimes people get bogged down with this) but three discrete actions you can take, and again, these are going to be tied back to your Weekly Preview, maybe, those three items that are in your Weekly Preview, your Weekly Big 3. Those have to be incorporated sometime during the week, so you can’t lose focus on those, and maybe today… I don’t know if it was for you, but was one of those three related to one of your Weekly Big 3?

Megan: Yes, the podcast was on my Weekly Big 3.

Michael: Okay. That was on my Weekly Big 3 too. Okay, perfect. Great example. I can almost hear… Some people are still not convinced that they can get by with three things. Think of it this way. I did the math on this the other day. Most of us are familiar with the Pareto Principle, which is 20 percent of our actions drive 80 percent of the results. That’s the most common way to express it. Most people, we’ve found in our coaching practice, have, on average, about 15 items on a to-do list.

Megan: Some of you guys who are listening are thinking, “You don’t know me, because I have 35.”

Michael: Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that on a typical day you have about 15 items on your to-do list. If the Pareto Principle is true, then 20 percent of those, or three of them, probably give you the most leverage.

Megan: That’s really true.

Michael: Probably drive most of the results. Same with goals. Same with accomplishments. Same with tasks.

Megan: I’ve never thought of this principle in relationship to daily tasks, but it’s so obviously true there. I think about what I put on my Big 3 every day, and those are the things that drive the business forward. The messages here and there and that kind of stuff could happen or not happen, in many cases, but where I’m spending my time is driving us forward.

Michael: Would you say for you that once you started doing this you experienced more job satisfaction simply because you went home at the end of the day with things checked off?

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of define the win at the beginning of the day. I get these three things done, and it’s a win. That feels like a tremendous relief compared with what most of us have set up as the win, where we have to do 15 to 20 things a day.

Michael: Yeah, and if you set up 15 to 20 things a day and you check off 5 or even 10…

Megan: It feels like a failure.

Michael: It feels like a failure because you didn’t get them all checked off. So to me, if I get the Big 3 done, I win, and if I still have other tasks left undone, that’s okay. If I get some of those done, it’s even bigger than a win.

Megan: The other piece of the satisfaction is not only have I defined the win as accomplishing these three things and that counts for a win each day, which is very satisfying all by itself, but the three things I’m working toward are helping to accomplish my Weekly Big 3 that I’ve established and my quarterly Big 3 goals and, thereby, are helping me accomplish my annual goals. All of these things are related, which feels like they’re part of a bigger whole instead of random actions I’m taking, and that is even the next level of satisfaction.

Michael: There’s huge power in alignment. When we can align our annual goals with our quarterly goals and our weekly achievements and our daily tasks, that’s the ultimate in alignment.

Megan: Absolutely. Honestly, that’s why we created the Full Focus Planner.

Michael: So, what do you do in the Big 3 when it comes to items that are also calendar entries? For example, I have on my calendar today… We have this time mapped out because it’s not just a single activity. We have this time mapped out to record the podcast, but that’s also one of my Daily Big 3. In fact, my top one on the Daily Big 3 was to record the podcast, but I also have time scheduled. Is that okay?

Megan: Totally. I would say there ought to be a relationship between your most important tasks and your calendar.

Michael: In fact, that’s a little bit of a pro tip, where you can schedule the time to actually get those items on your Big 3 done. Okay, what happens when you’re teaching an all-day workshop, like happens to us all day? Do you still have a Big 3?

Megan: I usually have just a “big one” on those days.

Michael: Me too.

Megan: It’s like a maximum of three, but it doesn’t have to be three if you’re in a profession where you sometimes have an entire day dedicated to one thing. Strategic planning would be another example of this, where an entire day is dedicated to one thing. Then it would just be one thing.

Michael: Yeah, you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure if the entire day is dedicated to one thing and then you’re trying to do two more things in addition to that. Not a good plan.

Megan: That kind of goes back to what you just asked about the relationship between your calendaring and your Big 3. If you feel like you can’t put the things that are calendared items as your Big 3 and you try to add other things that there isn’t enough time on your calendar to accomplish, like making phone calls or writing documents or something like that, you’re going to be very frustrated, because there’s just no time to do it and it’s going to eat into your margin.

Michael: What we’re really saying is a maximum of three. If you only have a big one, it’s fine. If you have a big two it’s fine. Most of us are going to have, most of the time, at least a Big 3.

Megan: Probably 98 percent of the time I have three. Another question we are asked sometimes is…Can your Big 3 be personal or do they always have to be related to your business or your work?

Michael: I think actually they’re both. I make no distinction between my personal and my professional life. Why? Because that’s how my life shows up. It’s a seamless whole. I think to artificially separate these into two spheres means you usually neglect your personal life. If I have some big health thing… By the way, I deal with a lot of this with my daily rituals.

In my morning ritual, I’m dealing with a lot of physical things, intellectual, spiritual, and so forth, so I don’t feel the need to put those in the Big 3, but sometimes… Like today I had to go get my blood drawn for a physical exam I’m doing, and that’s one of my Big 3. It was really important that I got that accomplished. Totally personal. It has nothing to do with the company except that if I die it might affect the company. Again, they’re all interrelated.

Megan: Right. Or, for example, it could be going to visit my grandparents, or your parents in your case. So, visiting family members. That could be really important. It could be going on a girls’ night. For me, I might have that as a Big 3, or a date night with Joel. Those could be Big 3s. They’re not always. I would say, personally speaking, probably 80 to 85 percent of my Big 3s are going to be professionally related. I think that’s pretty normal for people.

Michael: Yeah, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

Megan: Especially if one of your goals happens to be personal… Maybe you have a health goal or a relationship goal. Those things ought to show up on your Big 3 while you’re working on them.

Michael: Here’s another question. Do you have a Big 3 on the weekends? We allow those pages in the planner, but do you have the Big 3 on the weekends?

Megan: No. I don’t use my planner on the weekends.

Michael: Okay. I’m going to have to revoke your planner.

Megan: Somebody actually asked this question at the Achieve Conference, and I think you and I had different answers. Occasionally I’ll use it if there’s some project I’m working on or if Joel and I have agreed we’re going to use the weekend for some family stuff we’re working toward, but normally, our weekends are really about being unplugged and not being task-driven. We really like that. So we use it through Friday, and then usually we do our Weekly Preview on Sunday night. Sometimes Monday morning we pick it back up again. That works well for us.

Michael: We’ve wasted all of those pages and you’re not using them.

Megan: Some of you guys are using it, which is great.

Michael: First of all, that’s totally fine, and I think probably at least half of our audience doesn’t use them, and we want to give them permission to not feel guilty. I always use them, and I’m going to tell you why.

Megan: Do you set your Big 3 for each day?

Michael: Yep, I do. They’re always personal. It’s 100 percent personal on those days. The reason I do that is, for me, as an Enneagram Type 3, the temptation I have is to be always working, and if I don’t have specific things I have to accomplish that are non-work-related I will drift back into the familiar, which is work.

Megan: That’s interesting.

Michael: So I have to have projects and things to keep me busy and keep me focused to feel like I’m moving forward on something else or I’m going to drift back to work. So whatever works for you.

Megan: Since I have four kids at home, that’s kind of all of the projects I need to keep me busy on the weekend, but I’ll tell you when I actually do use it. When you were talking I thought of this. If I ever feel like my self-care has gotten a little out of whack…maybe it has been really intense and I’m tired…I will plan things like (I’ll make this a Big 3) “Take a nap on Sunday afternoon,” “Get a pedicure,” “Go on a walk,” you know, some of those kinds of things, if I feel like I might zone out on the weekend and not make it really rejuvenating. If I’m overtired sometimes that can happen, so I will use it in those cases to help keep me on track and make sure I get those most important rejuvenation pieces done.

Michael: That reminds me, this next Saturday I need to set an appointment for a mani-pedi. Thank you.

Megan: Today we’ve learned that you can triple the likelihood of achieving your goals by implementing three practices of the 3×3 goal achievement strategy: choose your quarterly Big 3 (your goals), choose your Weekly Big 3 (your achievements), and choose your Daily Big 3 (your tasks). As we wrap up today, I just want to remind you that you can achieve big goals in the year ahead if you’re intentional about translating your annual goals into daily actions. Dad, any final thoughts for today?

Michael: Yeah. I want to encourage people to experiment. Treat this like a beta test. Just try it. Try it how we’re suggesting it. You might be skeptical, and that’s fine. I would try it at the level of the Daily Big 3 first. Even if you don’t have a Weekly Big 3 (it’s much more powerful if you do), even if you don’t have three goals identified for this quarter, start today or tomorrow, depending on when you’re listening to this, with three Big 3 for the day, and just see what kind of difference it would make. Try it for a week or try it for three weeks, but prove it to yourself. If it doesn’t work, fine. No harm, no foul. You can walk away from it. You have our permission. But it just might be a game changer for you.

Megan: If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, you can get the show notes, including a link to the Michael Hyatt magazine and a full transcript, at

Michael: Thanks again for joining us on Lead to Win. Also, please tell your friends and colleagues about it and subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen. We invite you to join us next week for another great episode. Until then, lead to win.