A Brief History of Productivity Methods - Part 1: The Goal-Setting Trend

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A target to illustrate the goal-setting trend

In the last 15 years, a lot happened in the personal productivity field. Back in 2007, when I started my French productivity blog, everybody was trying to get more productive by using digital to-do lists.

We thought sophisticated to-do lists were the ultimate solution to tame our work. It wasn’t. And over the years, we’ve seen many other trends emerge.

What is the best personal productivity system? It’s a difficult question. I think it depends on your needs, so you will have to figure it out by yourself. What I can do, however, is help you reflect on the different options you have by introducing you to a variety of approaches.

That’s why I’m starting this new series on the different personal productivity trends I’ve noticed over the years.

Disclaimer: I am writing this series from my unique point of view, which comes with all the shortcomings you might expect. So you are very welcome to share your perspective in the comments below if you want to contribute.

What the world looked like in the old days

First, I will try to quickly make sense of how we worked in the old days.

Before the internet developed, the world used to be much more stable. We didn’t have emails or digital productivity tools. And communications were much slower. We mainly relied on paper, and the corporate world was dominated by top-down management.

Of course, this management style was not very conducive to innovation. But it made work more straightforward. People were less overwhelmed by work because they relied on analog tools like paper planners were you can’t write a thousand to-do items. And also because they had fewer choice as they simply followed orders.

In this climate, lower-level employees did not care so much about optimizing their productivity. And thus, books about productivity mainly were targeted to managers.

The goal-setting trend

I would say the goal-setting personal productivity methods were dominant back in these days.

Unfortunately, Google Trends cannot show any trend before 2004.

But here’s an indication that goal-setting was more trendy in the past:

The most iconic example of long term goal was probably the goal to go to the moon that JFK famously set in 1961. As planned, the goal was reached before the end of the decade.

Long-term goals made sense at this time because the world evolved slower. That’s why the productivity literature about goal-setting was abundant.

We can cite for example the works of researchers Locke and Latham on “Goal-setting theory” (1990) and bestseller books such as “The 7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen R Covey (1994) and “Goals!” by Brian Tracy (2003).

A top-down approach

A distinguishing characteristic of the goal-setting productivity methods is that they use a top-down approach for work. First you set your goals, then you define your tasks.

For example, Stephen R. Covey tells you to define first your “true north” :

  • What’s important for you
  • What’s your mission
  • What’s your future vision

And then you make sure to act on this “true north” by scheduling the important things first.

Covey’s approach makes sense since we can’t be productive without having the right priorities.

But this trend has lost its original appeal today, since we now have to constantly adapt to a fast-paced / uncertain world.

Why the trend lost ground

To illustrate this popularity loss, let’s type a few words in google and have a look at the popular autocomplete options…

How goals are perceived today

Hum… “goals are for losers” right? I guess it shows the goal-setting trend has lost favor lately.

Also, people find goals are “only for top-level management”, which seems to confirm they have more appeal to managers.

Of course, I will not say that the goal-setting trend is dead. If you put goal-setting in Amazon, you will find plenty of recent books.

And as I said, the top-down approach has its merits.

I still use it sometimes, for example when I work with my accountability partner, every once in a while, we would do a goal-setting session together where we set our long-term goals.

But as we need to constantly adapt to a complex/fast-paced world, we need to be aware that many of our long-term goals can become obsolete pretty fast.

And we must not be afraid to adjust them if the situation requires it. In a way, goals are no more set in stone. Rigid goal-setting has been replaced by agile goal-setting.

I hope this dive into the goal-setting trend of personal productivity methods has been insightful.

Feel free to comment if you’d like to contribute to the topic.

In the next post, I’ll cover a bottom-up productivity trend that was all the rage back in 2007, when I created my French productivity blog.

About the author 

Alex Philippe

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