The Goal Hierarchy: Focus on What’s Important

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the goal hierarchy? How can you use the hierarchy to achieve all the things you want to in life?

The goal hierarchy is the act of prioritizing some goals over others. That way, you can spend less time and effort on lower-level goals and more time on higher-level goals.

Read more about the goal hierarchy and what it means.

The Goal Hierarchy

People often have trouble figuring out what they’re aiming for in life. This is where people lack passion – they don’t care about what they’re doing all that much, and thus they tend to change what they like often, without committing to something.

The book suggests framing your goals as a hierarchy, with multiple levels:

The low-level goals are your day to day actions – writing emails, going to meetings, jogging for an hour. We do these low-level goals as a means to an end of a higher-level goal – such as executing a project or looking good to your boss.

To figure out your higher-level goals, keep asking yourself, “why do I do this thing? Why do I care?” Each answer forms a progressively higher level goal. At some point, you ultimately have no answer – you simply want to do something just because. This is your highest-level goal that is an end in itself. You can also consider it your “ultimate concern” or your compass.

This ultimate goal is what should drive every action at lower levels. If an activity doesn’t fit strongly within your goal hierarchy, then it likely isn’t moving you closer to your goal – and maybe you should stop. (For example, you might find that answering emails and hanging out on Slack all day isn’t actually helping you make real progress on your project, which then isn’t driving you toward a promotion.)

Once you have an ultimate goal in place, it’s something you almost obsess over. You’re loyal to the goal, not changing it on a whim. You go to sleep thinking about it, and you wake up thinking about it. This is your passion, and passion drives grit.

Properties of Good Goal Hierarchies

Once you understand your top-level goal, you can see that your low-level goals are merely in pursuit of the high-level goals

Low-level goals are not to be held sacred – they can be removed or changed. If you find a new low-level goal that is more effective or feasible or fun, you can swap it out for another. (Shortform example: If you find reading management books to be more effective than chatting on Slack, then you can swap the two as a low-level goal). This means you should reflect regularly on tasks you take for granted, and 

Furthermore, this lowers how defeated you feel after failure. If you fail on a low-level goal, another can take its place. Lots of low-level activities can drive you toward your top-level goal. You have a lot of routes to getting there. Take a look at this goal hierarchy template:

When well-constructed, a goal hierarchy template promotes grit – if all your activities are in pursuit of your highest-level goal, then your everyday activities apply effort toward your goal. 

Common Bad Goal Hierarchies

Here are common failings of a goal hierarchy that lead to lower grit:

No lower-level goals

This person has a dream goal, like playing in the NBA or becoming a billionaire. But she hasn’t mapped out the lower level goals that will get her there. This is “positive fantasizing” and makes it very difficult to achieve the goal.

Mid-level goals without a top-level goal

This person has frictions between multiple goals, without a unifying theme. This makes it difficult to tell when goals are in direct conflict with each other, so some goals actually negate others. The absence of an ultimate goal may also make your energy feel purposeless. It may feel like spinning your wheels – applying a lot of effort without going in any particular direction. It’s important that a goal hierarchy template has all levels.

If you feel pulled in too many directions, how do you prune your goal list? Warren Buffett suggests this exercise for prioritization:

  • Write a list of 25 career goals.
  • Circle the 5 highest priority goals for you. Only 5 – be strict with this.
  • You must avoid the 20 goals you didn’t circle. These are your distractions.

If you can’t decide on 5, then consider quantifying your goals on two scales: interest and importance. Also, consider whether some of them contribute more to your ultimate concern than others.

The Goal Hierarchy: Focus on What’s Important

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Angela Duckworth's "Grit" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Grit summary :

  • How your grit can predict your success
  • The 4 components that make up grit
  • Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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