How to Set Goals, Tasks and Milestones When Planning

mission, goals, tasks, milestones, steps

How do we break down our dream into a manageable plan with goals, tasks and milestones?

Creating a plan to achieve success is all about breaking down our overall vision and mission into smaller, measurable goals. From there we can deconstruct the goals to the point where we have a simple activity, a next step, that is achievable and easily actionable.

In this post we will look at the importance of having a plan, and remaining flexible, then drill down into how to break down the various goals right down to the next actionable step.

Have a plan but remain flexible

Whether you are leading others or just yourself, you are much more likely to succeed – in whatever you want to do – if you have done some planning. If you can produce some sort of written plan, so much the better; especially if you need to communicate your ideas with other people.

Going through the process of breaking down a mission statement into goals and steps is a large part of the planning process. When these tasks are connected to the people, resources and time needed to achieve each one then we have a plan.

When planning there has to be a balance between getting the detail we need to take action, while maintaining flexibility to adapt to the situation and unforeseen circumstances. To do this we concentrate on developing more detail for the activities that are closer in terms of time than those that are further off. The more distant the task, the broader and more flexible the approach can be. Circumstances will inevitably force you to amend your plan; hence the process of planning is more important than the plan.

“Plans are worthless but planning is everything.”

Dwight Eisenhower

Turning mission statements into action

To take a mission statement and turn it into something actionable we need to break down the overall mission into constituent parts. We then end up with a hierarchy of larger down to smaller activities. These various elements can be called different things but I tend to use these planning terms:

Mission, Goal, Task, Miletsone, Step - planning with The Right Questions
How to Set Goals, Tasks and Milestones Video – YouTube

Example of breaking down a mission statement into objectives

Here is another example to explore this concept further:

After a long period of busyness, I feel the need for a break. I want to relax, recharge and enjoy some time away from the hustle and bustle of life. I love travelling and exploring the outdoors, as well as relaxing and generally having fun. These are my drivers, my ‘why’ (principles, passions and priorities) for something I want to do.

I have a dream of lying on a pristine beach, listening to the waves rolling in, basking in the warm sun and sipping an ice-cold cocktail. This is the vision, the idea of a better future that I want to create. This relates to the where stage in The Right Questions approach.

The mission (the what) is the more tangible expression of what success looks like. In this case that could be ‘to go on vacation for two weeks to enjoy some sun and surf’. That mission statement becomes the tangible headline to our plan;

There are various options I could look at by which I could achieve this mission. I might consider going to the Florida Keys, to Spain or the Maldives; but in this case, I am thinking I want to go to the South of France. This choice of options becomes my primary goal or objective under the mission statement.

The planning now involves breaking this chosen goal down into all the constituent tasks such as booking the holiday, the budget and planning the travel.

Planning to achieve goals

Travel is a major factor in the success of the holiday. The journey then becomes a goal in itself — one objective that needs to be successful for us to achieve our dream – and therefore it requires further planning. It is effectively a mini-plan within the greater plan.

Say I choose to drive.  It is a long drive from London to Marseille and so it makes sense to break down the route into stages. With the aid of a map, we could very quickly come up with a plan showing each road as a task and the major cities along the way – London, Paris, Lyons and Marseilles – as the milestones.

Crossing from England to France using the Channel Tunnel could be considered one task but it too can be broken down into several steps such as: purchasing a ticket, passing through passport control and customs, boarding the train, making the crossing and then disembarking.  These are all sub-sets of the activity. Some of these activities may require further thought and planning, and so on.

I work out that the most important thing I need to do next is to book a ticket for the crossing on my preferred date. This becomes my next step; the tangible, achievable next action that takes me a step closer to my mission and vision.

So we see here how in our planning we connect the overall vision and mission through to the small steps we need to make.

Stretch goals

The previous example was a simple one but when we are looking at larger dreams we have in life, and medium to long-term objectives, it is important that we set ourselves goals that are really going to stretch us.  These goals should take us outside of our comfort zones and force us to learn, to grow and to depend upon others.  In other words, there should be a reasonable chance of us failing.

Fear of failure is one of, if not the major factor in not achieving our dreams.  But we should never make a decision out of fear; if we bind ourselves by only contemplating the things we know we can achieve we will stop ourselves from ever doing something really outstanding.  The goals that seem unreachable are the ones that are the most rewarding and life-changing.

Challenging goals also inspire others and one story that has inspired me is the story of Jim Lawless. He set the goal (actually the result of a bet) that he would compete as a professional jockey. Given that he was thirty years old and overweight, had only a year to achieve the task and yet had never ridden a horse before, made that a real stretch goal! You can read the whole story, how he achieved his goal along with the lessons he learned, in his excellent book Taming Tigers.

A stretch goal is the sort of goal that borders on unrealistic. It is generally something that will require some time to achieve, possibly years, and has a large element of risk involved.  It is the sort of thing that you could fail in, but by succeeding you could achieve a significant step-change.

Audacious Goals

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes a stretch goal as a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ or ‘BHAG’ (pronounced bee-hag).  He postulates that people and companies that set themselves BHAGs are the ones that have the potential to become great.

If you aim high you may miss the mark but even so, you will most likely strike higher than you would otherwise have done.  The fact is that if you aim low you then you will hit low.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at.”

Bruce Lee

One stretch goal or ‘BHAG’ I set myself was to run The Dragon’s Back Challenge, reputedly the hardest mountain race in the world. To complete the race you need to cover over 300km of mountain terrain in 5 days. Not surprisingly there is a high failure rate. Fewer than 50% of those that start the race actually complete it. Signing up for the race was exciting and daunting in equal measure! Once committed it was important that I created a plan for my training and for the race itself.

Questions for goal setting

If you are trying to think of your next stretch goal, here are some good questions you can use to generate ideas. I often use these questions while coaching and can be used with tools such as the GROW model:

  • What should I do? What do you feel obliged to do or responsible for doing?
  • How should I logically proceed? What goals are a logical progression for you if you continue in the same direction or on the same course?
  • Which goals keep coming up again and again? What are your deja vu goals – the things you want to achieve but have never got around to?
  • What would someone else tell you to do? Think about it from somebody else’s perspective. What would your family/friends/colleagues expect or hope for you to do?
  • Describe your deep wants. What are the desires and heartfelt passions for things you want to achieve?
  • If you could have anything, what would you wish for? If someone could wave and make anything happen, what would that be?
  • What are your happy wants? Which ideas, pictures or dreams give you the greatest feeling of contentment?
  • What are your secret goals? Are there private, secret, ‘naughty’ dreams that you have? The ones you might feel are stupid to share or too personal to tell people?
  • When might you have done things differently? Do you sometimes think, if only I could go back, rewind time and choose another path? What would that be?
  • Which goals excite you? What makes you think ‘wow!’ Which ideas and dreams give you real energy?

Tasks and Milestones

Once we have a goal we can consider what tasks and milestones will help us achieve our aim.

What is the difference between a task and a milestone? A task is best defined as a piece of work, an activity, that has a certain duration. A milestone is an event, a point in time, that indicates important stages of progression.

How Project Plan - The Right Questions

Examples of tasks and milestone

Let’s look at another example and consider the relatively simple task. I recently had to get a new garden shed so let’s use that. Building a shed is a  relatively straightforward construction process but it is still sensible to break the project down into tasks and milestones. 

Here are some examples of activities and events, see if you can decide which are tasks and which are milestones:

  • Work out what type and size of shed you need
  • Select the best shed to suit your purpose
  • Purchase the shed
  • Shed is delivered
  • Prepare the ground
  • Erect the walls
  • Construct the roof
  • Fit the door and windows
  • Furnish the shed ready for use
  • Start using the shed

In this example the majority of the items listed are tasks, but the shed being delivered and starting to use the shed could be considered as milestones. Note the difference here is that a task is something that requires a duration of time to achieve, whereas a milestone is a moment in time; a threshold or gauge of significant progress.

To explain this in another simple way, let’s use the running analogy again. For each day of the race, I had to cover 60-70km on average. Each day was broken into four stages. The task was to run the next 15-20km stage in the shortest duration possible. Any rest stations or checkpoints after each stage on the route would equate to milestones.

So, in summary, you complete the task (the activity) and then pass the milestone (the progress marker).

The next step

The final constituent part of our planning is the ‘step’.  This is the smallest and yet probably the most crucial part.  Defining the first or next step is important because many jobs and goals are never initiated, as it is too daunting to start, or they stall because the next step is not defined.

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”


There is something of a psychological barrier when getting going.  A clean sheet can lead to a mental block.  To overcome this an artist may give a blank canvas a simple wash of colour that will be painted over, and a writer may type a few lines on an empty page that may later be deleted.  For us, we need to make a small step in the right direction to get over the inertia when starting up.

Going back to the running analogy, when I have completed ultra-marathons I have had to set myself literal steps as I have become tired. I might tell myself, ‘just run to that next tree’ or ‘run for 50 steps, then you can walk for 50 steps.’ When you still have 50 km of a 100km race to go it can seem really daunting. Just focussing on the next few steps or next few minutes of activity can reduce the chances of becoming overwhelmed and stop you from giving up.

One useful strategy when starting a project is to break down the first task into an easy step that can be completed in about 30 minutes.  If it can be done in 5 minutes even better!  If we cannot do it right now then we plan to do that one step at the beginning of the next day and make sure we set another step for the following day.  As things gain momentum you will find that it is easier to get into the work and complete your tasks, even if they require more time.  The key is often just getting going.

So, to get to that point, remember STEP:

  • Start with the overall success or mission statement
  • Target success by identifying the key goals that need to be achieved
  • Evaluate these goals, breaking them into tasks and activities
  • Plan the next step, making it small enough to be achievable

Planning exercise

Now its your turn.

Think of something you need to do. Pick something relatively simple but with enough complexity to test the process. That could be planning a holiday or business trip, purchasing a new phone or computer; have a think a use a real goal that you need to achieve.

Work out your mission statement and then follow the process, breaking things down until you have the next steps you need to achieve. These are the ones that need to go in your diary or be done right now!

Congratulations, you are a step closer to achieving your mission!

If you would like more help with planning, including a free template for your plan, you can look at the post, ‘How to make an action plan to achieve your goal.’

And, if you would like access to some bonus content and get updates then please do sign up to my email list.

8 thoughts on “How to Set Goals, Tasks and Milestones When Planning

  1. Pingback: The GROW Model

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