How To Set Goals - Todd Henry, Doug Neill - sketchnoting, visual note-taking, graphic recording, goal-setting framework, die empty

How To Set Goals

How clear are your goals, and how likely is it that you’ll take the daily steps necessary to work toward them?

Those are the questions we’re going to explore today.

In this series, called Sketch It Out, we highlight (and make visual) interesting and useful ideas to help you put those ideas into action.

The source of the ideas we’ll be exploring today is the book Die Empty by Todd Henry.

There are so many good ideas and useful frameworks within that book, but we’re going to focus on one in particular, a tiered framework for working toward your goals.

Stretch Goals

Those three tiers are stretch goals, sprint goals, and steps goals, and I’m going to lay out a visual that I’ve found to be helpful in keeping track of those goals.

Let’s start with the most ambitious of the three, the stretch goal.

This goal should be a little bit scary, a little bit outside of your comfort zone, something that you know will take a month or two (if not more) to work toward.

This is the long-arc goal.

Sprint Goals

Because that long-arc goal isn’t very tangible, it makes it hard to see how to accomplish it in a single stride.

That’s why we break that stretch goal up into multiple sprint goals. These are goals that will take a week or two to complete.

They’re the medium-arc goals, the milestones that help you to see that you’re making progress on your overall stretch goal.

Step Goals

But even those sprint goals can be daunting, so we must go one tier lower, down to the step goals.

These are the daily actions that you take that help you to make progress on the current sprint goal, which therefore is moving you closer to your stretch goal as well.

What I like about this three-tiered approach to goal setting is that it helps you put the actions that you can choose to take today in the context of the long-term goal that you’re working toward.

Once you’ve got the three tiers set up, you’re able to focus on the immediate action that you can take.

But from there, instead of it being a long march to the finish line, you get rewards along the way.

Whenever you complete a sprint goal, take a day off and have a mini-celebration before diving back into the next sprint goal.

And once all of those sprint goals have added up and you’ve reached your stretch goal, that’s when you get to have a big celebration to appreciate what you’ve accomplished.

Example #1: Sketchnoting in the Classroom

Let me share some examples of this framework for goal-setting in action.

I’ve been focusing on one big project throughout this year called Sketchnoting in the Classroom – a resource kit for educators who want to bring visual note-taking into the classroom setting, both as an instructional tool and as a skill that they pass on to their students.

There’s a lot that I want to do with that resource, and at times it has been overwhelming, but this three-tiered framework is helping me wrap my head around the work that lies in front of me in order to finish it.

The stretch goal in this case, then, is completing that big resource kit, something that still feels scary and almost out of reach, even though I’ve been working on it fairly steadily for most of 2017.

The sprint goals that I’ve created stem from the different sets of resources that I’m working on.

The first thing I’m working on are a set of short video lessons and follow-up activities that focus on individual sketchnoting skills, like developing a few handwritten fonts and building a visual vocabulary.

I’m using the grid system within each sprint goal arrow to mark the days on which I make significant progress toward that sprint goal, and I include a word or two about the specific thing I worked on that day.

This builds in the don’t-break-the-chain idea from Jerry Seinfeld but puts that chain within the context of a specific stretch and sprint goal, which might end up being more useful that a set of x’s on a standard wall calendar. And if you happen to get pulled away from this work for a few days or even a few weeks, this record helps you to jump back in right when you left off.

I’ve also been using the space below the specific sprint goals to capture work done on this project that falls outside of those categories.

Right now I’m on sprint goal #2, which is again a set of videos lessons and follow-up activities, but this time focusing on note-taking processes like using mind maps or flow charts as a core approach to note-taking.

From there I’ll move on to the third sprint goal, a set of resources that address specific subjects like history, math, and science, and how educators can best use visual note-taking tools within each of those subjects.

The final sprint goal will be the creation of a card deck full of visual thinking prompts that teachers can use as an extension or end-of-class activity to encourage students to continue building and applying their sketchnoting skills in a more playful way.

Once I complete that final sprint goal I’m probably gonna take a month or so off from major resource development, because I know that break will be much needed, and hopefully, by that point, much deserved as well.

That’s yet to been seen though.

Example #2: Live Sketchnoting

So that’s how I’m applying this goal-setting framework to a project that I’m working on.

Let me next outline how someone new to sketchnoting might use this same framework to build confidence in their visual note-taking skills.

Let’s say that your stretch goal is to sketchnote a live event. That’s probably a scary thing and might feel outside of your comfort zone (which is good for a stretch goal, that’s exactly how it should feel).

There are three sprint goals you might consider to build up toward that stretch goal.

First, focus on your handwriting. Build up two or three handwritten fonts that are well-practiced, and each of which has a specific role within the note-taking process. Create daily practice activities to help you build those skills.

Then, focus on your visual vocabulary. Build it up one drawn element at a time, focusing on the types of visuals that are most relevant to whatever it is that you’re interested in and taking notes on. As before, create daily practice activities to help you build that visual vocabulary.

Then spend that third sprint goal experimenting with different note-taking processes. This is where you can bring together your handwritten fonts and visual vocabulary, and add to it maybe the use of a few different colors as well as a planned approach to the layout of ideas on the page. By experimenting a little bit each day and iterating on your process until you find one that works really well for you, you’ll be setting yourself up for success on your final goal of sketchnoting that live event.

Example #3: Original Song

If you’re here because you’re working on your sketchnoting skills, then please do give that idea a try.

But I’d like to share one more example, one that has nothing to do with visual note-taking, because what I hope to share here isn’t just ideas around building your sketchnoting skills but also about applying those skills toward other things that you’re interested in.

For me, one of those other things is music, so that will be the subject of our third and final example.

I’ve dabbled with music in the past, but I’ve never taken it very seriously. In the future I’d like to though, and I think the first stretch goal that I would set for myself would be the writing, recording, and producing of an original song. That feels way outside of my comfort zone, but it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while and I feel it’s within reach, just barely.

The sprint goals would look something like this:

I’d focus first on the lyrics of the song. Here I’d be focusing on the development of my songwriting skills, and not worrying about anything else besides that.

Once I felt relatively good about those lyrics, I’d move on to the next sprint goal, the melody and primary instrumentation. I’ve got some experience with the guitar and the piano, so I’d choose one of those as the primary instrument and focus on using that instrument to create a melody that merges well with the lyrics that I’d written.

Then I’d move on to the supporting instrumentation in the third sprint. This is where I’d think about building in some harmonies and a bit of percussion.

In those second and third sprints I’d be focusing on the skill of composition.

Then, in the final sprint, I’d record and produce the song using a software called Ableton Live, building the necessary skills around that particular software program.

Even though this stretch goal is theoretical for the time being, it still gives me a whole lot more confidence to dig in once I’m able to allocate the time and energy to do this process justice. It takes some of the uncertainty away, which I think is one of the strengths of this particular goal-setting process.

In this case, too, it’s a repeatable process. If it goes well I could use the same sprint goals for writing a second song, maybe tweaking those sprints based on what I learn the first time through. That’s encouraging and an exciting ongoing process to think about.

Your Turn

So you’ve now seen three examples of this goal-setting framework:  a pretty big project – Sketchnoting in the Classroom; a new sketchnoter wanting to build the skills to do it live; and a theoretical (but hopefully actualized) dream of writing, recording, and producing an original song.

It is now your turn to apply these ideas to your own stretch goal.

To encourage you in those efforts, I’ll leave you with a direct quote from Todd Henry, from the very chapter in which I’ll pulled this framework for goal setting:

Todd Henry Quote - Stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them. Die empty

So go do that. Go draw your map. And then get to work.

Till next time,



Want To Dig Deeper?

If you’re new to the idea of sketchnoting and excited to develop more visual thinking tools, I think you’d enjoy our foundational course An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking.

If you’d like to make sketchnoted videos like the one you saw here, we’ve got a course for that too! Check out How To Make Sketchnote Videos.

If you’re an educator interested in bringing visual note-taking into your classroom, check out Sketchnoting In The Classroom.

And if you want to create new personal and professional opportunities by sharing the authentic journey of your skill development online, check out Learn In Public.