Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

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Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

Setting goals is easy, but prioritizing them is hard. Humans suck at properly weighing what we need to achieve our goals. We take on too much, skip steps, and often, as a result, we give up. Once you commit to a framework to prioritize your goals and cut the junk, achieving your goals gets a lot more realistic. Here’s one way to do it.

Blast from the past is a weekly feature at Lifehacker in which we revive old, but still relevant, posts for your reading and hacking pleasure. This week, we’re re-prioritizing our lives.

If you’re anything like me you have a ton of goals. Unfortunately, compulsive goal setting can be a major roadblock to actually achieving goals. Applying a rigorous approach to your goal setting is not only a great way to help you along the path to meeting them, but it’s also a way to prune out all the junk you don’t really need. We’ve talked before about how writing down all your goals is a good way to prioritize and that’s essentially what we’re doing here. However, instead of listing them we’re going to categorize and compare them with a simple pyramid structure. (Think a little like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but for your goals.) By the end you’ll have weeded out unnecessary steps and ditched goals you don’t really care about.

Consider this a system of life designing that helps you question assumptions and figure out what you really want. I’ve put together a Google Doc you can copy and fill in on your own (File > Make a copy). Here’s how I divided the different goals up.

Level 1: The Primary Goals

Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

Your primary goals are the base of all other goals—the one or two things you aspire to do before you die. Nearly everything above this bottom level should help you to one day complete these goals. Write in the goals that will truly matter to you in 20 years. It might be something like: live happily into your 90’s or become the CEO of a company. You should only have two or three high stakes goals listed here that you’ll design the rest of your life around.

Level 2: Long Term Goals

Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

Your long term goals are the major goals that are required to get to the primary goals. These might be the sustainable habits you need to form over the years or the achievements you want to reach in order to get to your primary goals. Say your primary goal is to still be healthy and mobile in your 90’s. You can’t get to that point without working for it so a long term goal would be to lose (or gain) a certain amount of weight or improve your diet by your 50’s.

Level 3: Short Term Goals

Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

Think of short term goals as weeks or months out. Consider goals like: finish a drawing, build a deck addition, or cut cookies from your diet. The important part to remember is that these goals are short term, not short-sighted. So if you’re primary goal is to lose weight think of what you can do now to make that happen. If it’s to put on a show in an art gallery you need to finish a picture first.

Level 4: Recurring Goals

Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

Your recurring goals are what you want to do daily/weekly/monthly regardless of what else is going on. Consider goals like: hit up the gym, jog, write a page a day, or anything similar. These aren’t quite the same as short-term goals because they’re to form a habit. Say one of your primary goals is to lower your daily stress level. Ask yourself what you need to do on a daily basis to make that happen in the long run (if you need some starter tips be sure to check out post on what you can do about your stress).

Level 5: Immediate Goals

Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

These are the goals and to-dos that you can and want to accomplish right this second. As you write your list out you probably notice a few things you could be doing instead of writing your list. This is the ever-changing but necessary part of your pyramid because it allows you to measure your daily duties to see how they have an affect on your overall life goals. This could be as simple as cleaning the bathroom, or making a phone call. The purpose of including these here is to see where they affect other aspects of the pyramid both positively and negatively.

How to Use Your Pyramid to Weed Out Junk and Accomplish Your Goals

Now comes the hard part: turn this pyramid into an actionable living plan where you can prioritize and use your base goals as a foundation for everything else. As author David Foster Wallace points on in his Kenyon College commencement speech, life consists of what you pay attention to and you can structure your goals the same way. When you have too many goals conflicting with each other your attention is shifted too often. Trim away junk goals to get things done and find an actionable path.

Trim the Junk Away and Focus On As Few Goals as Possible

Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

The goal of the pyramid is to ensure that every aspect of your goals work together. In that way it works a lot like the old food guide pyramid. The benefit of the pyramid is that you can see where your ideas fail and aren’t coalescing. Let’s get rid of everything that doesn’t play nice together.

  1. Start at the bottom of your pyramid and draw lines up through goals that match each other. For instance, at the bottom in your primary goals you might have “Publish a novel.” In the long term goals you have “Write a novel,” and near the top you have something like, “Write the first sentence of a novel.” The line should move through each level and hit one or two different goals along the way.
  2. Do this with all your goals moving upwards through the pyramid.
  3. When you’re done you’ll probably have a few outliers scattered about. Ask yourself a couple questions about them: Why do I want this? Does this relate to anything else I want? If you don’t have a good answer, cut them from the list. If you want to keep goals then focus them to help you with another goal.
  4. Finally, go back through your levels and see what goals you can outsource to other people. You might be surprised at how many unnecessary steps you give yourself.

As an example, here’s what I did for one of my goals. The primary goal at the bottom is: make and publish a video game. Along the path I had all sorts of pipedream goals: learn how to do pixel art, improve my shotty programming skills, write design documents, and more. When I saw all this in one image I realized I made it impossible for myself. I looked at each level and cut away everything I knew I wouldn’t do. Did I really need to learn programming? No, because I know plenty of people who do it. Art? Nope, I know people who do that as well. Instead of learning five new skills I reduced it one goal: work with people I know.

By the end of this you should have a cohesive underlying framework where all your goals and wants work together in a manageable fashion. It’s time to get started on accomplishing your goals.

Formulate a Plan and Get Started

Focus Your Ambitions with the Lifehacker Hierarchy of Goals

You’ve trimmed away all the fat and nonsense so it’s time to formulate a plan to achieve your goals. It’s thought that smaller goals lead to a higher success rate and being very specific with those goals helps you achieve them. Thankfully your pyramid should already be filled with specifics so it’s just about management now.

Planning out the process depends on how you like to do things. We’ve pointed out before that broadcasting your goal progress in public is a great way to keep yourself on track, highlighted some great goal tracking services, project management tools, and pointed out that sometimes you just need to suck it up and start. Find a system that works for you and get to it.

However you choose to plan your goals the point remains the same: focus only on the goals that matter, break them into smaller steps, and start work immediately. This is a one-time exercise that isn’t about constant organization. You can tinker and tweak with each level as you go along, but stick with the basic high stakes structure if you really want to accomplish everything. Photo by Dan Zen.


Goals are ambiguous things that we as humans struggle to define and work toward. Hopefully the above method will provide the framework to create a path to where you want to end up. Be sure to share your own tips for organizing goals in the comments.

Title photo by Olivier Le Moal (Shutterstock).

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Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

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Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

There’s no shortage of useful, interesting apps for the Mac, but some of them you just can’t live without. In this year’s annual Lifehacker Pack for Mac, we’re highlighting the best downloads for better productivity, communication, media management, and more.

The Lifehacker Pack is a yearly snapshot of our favorite, essential applications for each of our favorite platforms. For our always-updating directory of all the best apps, be sure to bookmark our Mac App Directory.

Productivity

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Alfred

Last year, Quicksilver was our pick here, but since Alfred recently picked up a feature-rich update and some great new automation features, we’ve crowned it as our favorite application launcher for Mac. It’s free and worth a download on its own, but if you have the itch to do some automation and serious tweaking, the $ 27 Powerpack is worth every penny. If you’re new to Alfred, this beginner’s guide to using it—and all of its hidden features—is worth a look, and will probably be enough reason for you to download it on its own. Once you’re familiar with it, check out this massive list of workflows you can automate with Alfred. If you’re familiar with an prefer completely free, Quicksilver is still available, and still great.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Notational Velocity and/or Simplenote

Notational Velocity has earned its massive fan-following. It has just the right number of features required to help you take quick notes and get back to them later, without a whole bunch of fluff or other bloat that you don’t need. It syncs with other services (namely Simplenote or Dropbox) and is still one of our favorite syncing note-takers. If Notational Velocity is too much for you, consider the lighter alternative, NVAlt, which includes tons of additional features. However, if you want to go right to the source, Simplenote’s Mac app has come a long long way since we last looked it over, and is worth your attention if you’re just syncing there anyway (or use Simplenote’s mobile apps.)

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Evernote

If you’ve been reading Lifehacker for any amount of time, you know we love Evernote and once you get the hang of it, it can be extremely powerful. You can use it to keep notes, make to-do lists, create reminders, make a recipe book, save travel plans and itineraries, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s powerful and feature rich for some, daunting and overwhelming for others. Some might prefer the simple comforts of previously-mentioned Notational Velocity, but it all depends on your needs and how you like to work.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

aText

Text expansion, also known as typing shortcuts, can save you hours of typing each day. You type a small word or combination of characters and it’ll expand into full, complex sentences that you often use. We love aText because it offers so many great features and only costs $ 5. If you haven’t yet jumped on the text expansion train, it’s time.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Wunderlist

There’s no shortage of great to-do apps for every platform, including the Mac, but Wunderlist is one of our favorites because it’s free, syncs to the cloud, and it’s cross-platform across just about every modern device. Wunderlist is easy to use and anyone can start making to-do lists right away. Wunderlist isn’t packed with as many features as something like OmniFocus, and doesn’t have the premium features of an app like Todoist, but it’s considerably easier than either to use.

Internet and Communications

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Chrome

Which web browser is the best is a matter of opinion, but it’s our opinion that Chrome is your best, fastest option. It’s fast, functional, and syncs everything across your computers (including iOS or Android devices with Chrome mobile). Safari certainly has iCloud in its pocket, and Firefox is a great option if you use Firefox on other computers (or on Android), but Chrome is available everywhere. Both Safari and Firefox are good browsing tools, but if you want to sync up across devices Chrome is your best option.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Airmail

Airmail has come a long way in a very short period of time. It features great support for Gmail and iCloud addresses, full IMAP/POP support and support for Exchange accounts, uses Gmail’s own keyboard and global shortcuts, lets you set custom shortcuts, comes with its own filters and themes, integrates well with other popular productivity apps and calendaring tools, and more. For $ 2, you get an amazing desktop email client, and we’ve discussed why you might consider a desktop client over just using webmail in the past. Our previous pick, Sparrow, is still good, despite Google’s acquisition of it marking the end of its development. Sparrow Lite offers a free option with ads and a single account limit, but you can pay $ 10 to go pro with one of our all-time favorite email apps. Still,with Sparrow in stasis and Airmail constantly improving, we think it deserves the nod.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Adium

Adium is a fast, lightweight chat client. It doesn’t have a lot of complicated features and that’s part of the reason we like it. That said, you can customize it with all sorts of plugins and add pretty much whatever you want. Apple’s iMessage offers a simple alternative with video chat and a variety of other nice features, but if you just want to IM, you use Hangouts on all of your devices to talk to friends, or you like the ability to have multiple chat protocols all in the same app, Adium’s the way to go.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Skype

The best thing about Skype for the Mac is that just about everyone has a Skype account, so it’s probably the easiest way to get a hold of someone via video or voice chat. It’s easy to use, and while it’s definitely a heavy install, it exists on just about every platform, everywhere. It’s far from perfect, but the Mac version has seen stability improvements over the last year. If you’re not a fan of Skype or just don’t want the extra software, Google+ Hangouts is a fantastic, web-based alternative, and Apple’s built-in Facetime is great if all of your friends are also OS X or iOS users.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Reeder 2

After the demise of Google Reader, it seemed like it would be forever before Reeder, our favorite desktop feedreader, would come back to life. Then Reeder 2 officially launched in May, bringing support for dozens of popular feedreading services and tons of new features. In additional to local RSS—so you don’t ever need to rely on a third party service again—Reeder 2 supports Feedly, Feedbin, Feed Wrangler, Fever, and a few others. You get all the gestures and reading options that made the original Reeder a hit, and it’s fast, clean, and customizable. It is, however, also $ 10. If you’re not into spending that kind of money, NetNewsWire 4 is currently in beta, and there’s always good old fashioned Feedly via the web.

Music, Photos, and Video

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

VLC

VLC is the quintessential media player for the Mac. Sure, you could try to get by with Quicktime, but VLC works right out of the box, with anything you throw at it. If you want to dig into it, VLC also has features like video conversion, playlist support, and great audio playback, but for the average user it’s a good video player to have around. If VLC isn’t your thing, we suggest checking out Movist.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Handbrake

Handbrake is your favorite DVD ripping tool for good reason. It’s good at two things: ripping DVDs and converting media files. It’s not the most intuitive software in the world, but we’ve put together a guide to help you get used to it. Once you do, you can convert videos to any format for streaming or mobile devices. You’ll need a copy of the above mentioned VLC to do conversions. If you run into anything Handbrake can’t handle, MakeMKV and Adapter is another piece of free software that should be able to take care of converting everything else.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Plex

Plex doesn’t just give you a home media center, it’s also a way to access your videos from virtually anywhere. Set up Plex Server on your main computer and you can stream your content no matter where you go. If Plex can’t stream the content in the original format, either because your device doesn’t support it or the file is just too large to send as-is over your connection, it’ll encode a more appropriate version on-the-fly. Note: Although Plex costs nothing on your Mac (or any other desktop platform), you will have to pay around $ 5 for the luxury of streaming to mobile. It’s worth it, though.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Picasa

Picasa is hands-down the easiest to use free photo management app for Mac. Picasa works both offline and online, and syncs up to Google+ for unlimited backup (at a lower resolution). As a management app it gets the job done and you can organize your pictures in the same way as Apple’s soon-to-be defunct iPhoto. If you’re looking for something with more features, our pick is Lyn, but you’ll have to cough up $ 20.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Spotify

Love it or hate, every Mac comes bundled with iTunes and you won’t find any powerful alternative for cheap. Instead of managing what you own, we’d recommend a streaming service as a replacement. Spotify is our pick, and it has tons of features you may not be aware of. If you’d like an alternative, Google Play Music is similar and has most of the same music. If you prefer a dedicated MP3 manager, Enqueue is the closest we’ve found to replacing iTunes and costs $ 9.99, and Vox is a great lightweight player that cuts the bloat from iTunes and it’s completely free.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Pixelmator

If you’re looking for a tool to help you edit images without all of the fluff and bloat that can come with a high-end tool like Photoshop, give Pixelmator a try. We think it’s a more than suitable replacement for most people who don’t need all of the bells and whistles that Photoshop offers (although people who definitely do need them will find it lacking), and it’s our favorite image editor for the Mac. It’ll set you back $ 30, but it’s more than worth it. It’s easy to use, packs all of the features the vast majority of people need, and it’s affordable, especially by comparison to other image editing software.

Utilities

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Dropbox

If you have a work computer, a home computer, and a smartphone, then you know keeping files in sync across devices is a pain. Dropbox solves this by syncing any files you want across multiple computers for easy access anywhere you are. You get 2 GB for free, but it’s easy to get more free space.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

μTorrent

For BitTorrent clients we’re pretty split between uTorrent and Transmission. However, uTorrent wins out for having a ton of features, including a portable mode, complex bandwidth adjustment, and remote monitoring. If you prefer Usenet to BitTorrent, we’d suggest SABnzbd. If you combine either with Sickbeard or Couch Potato you can easily set up the ultimate automatic streaming machine.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Skitch

On the surface, Skitch isn’t much more than a screen capture app, but it’s also a way to quickly annotate an image, point something out, and share it instantly through Evernote. Screen grabbing isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but drawing a moustache on a friend’s face or annotating horrible images from the internet certainly are.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Growl

OS X Mavericks has plenty of built-in support for notifications via Notifications Center, but it’s not perfect, and a lot of apps don’t dump their notifications there. Growl, however, bridges the gap. Plus, pretty much every app out there supports it to some degree. If you prefer Notification Center, it can funnel all its activity right to it, too, so you don’t have to wait for your favorite apps to add support. While Growl was once free and now costs about $ 2, it’s worth the small amount if you really like your notifications.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Crashplan

Crashplan is a versatile and easy to use backup service that’s free as long as you’re using an external hard drive. It’s our preferred bulletproof backup system because even the paid tiers are cheaper than other options. You should backup your system often. Crashplan is the easiest way to do it.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

The Unarchiver

You probably download all sorts of archived files on a daily basis. The built-in OS X utility can handle its fair share of formats, but not everything. Unarchiver makes sure you’re covered no matter what you download. The nice thing is that it works right in Finder, so you never even have to locate a seperate app.

The Extended Pack

We love a lot of apps, so not every one can make the cut for our main categories. If you want to browse through a few more downloads, here are some of our more niche favorites.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

TextWrangler

If you want to learn to code, you need a plain text editor. It helps to have one that keeps an eye on your syntax and helps you stay organized and offers multi-file views so you can see multiple files and documents at one time. We like TextWrangler because it’s free, lightweight, and offers most of the important features most people would need in both a code editor and a text editor without going overboard. Of course, if you have money to spend, some of the best options cost a bit more. BBEdit is TextWrangler’s big brother, and brings a ton of additional features to the table for $ 50. Textastic, which will set you back $ 6, gives you get syntax highlighting for a variety of languages, automatic saving, iCloud support, and versioning built right in. If you do have money to spend, $ 70 (with a free trial) gets you SublimeText, one of our favorite text editing tools.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

PopClip

Do you like how you get a little pop-up bar with options whenever you select text on an iPhone (or other iDevice)? PopClip adds that functionality to your Mac and then some. Instead of just getting copy and paste buttons, PopClip can speak text, search the web for your selection, and a ton more. If the built-in functionality doesn’t do it for you, PopClip offers tons of plug-ins so you can add what you need.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Dropzone

Albeit a little expensive ($ 10), Dropzone is also a little awesome. It puts a tiny little icon in your menu bar, and you drag stuff up to that icon to initiate a variety of tasks. You can upload files via FTP, to Amazon S3, to cloud services, and to social media sites. You can print text and documents. You can speak text. You can set a desktop picture or email a file. Those are just a few examples. It’s a great little shortcut tool, and it was recently updated to be even better.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Found

Found is a universal search app that allows you to quickly search files on your Google Drive, Dropbox, Gmail, and your Mac’s hard drive. Found is just as responsive as Spotlight, but you get more options to quickly search through all the different places you store files. It also has a great shortcut where you can tap the Control key twice to pull up the search menu.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Cobook

The default Mac Address Book isn’t bad, but Cobook blows it out of the water with its social media integration, automatic updates, and its fast search. The one downfall is that Cobook works in conjunction with Address Book for syncing, but as a speedy, simple, address book it’s a good addition to any system. Cobook has come a long way in a short period, partially thanks to being acquired by FullContact, but it hasn’t stopped their support or development at all.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Bartender

If you use a lot of these apps, or have a ton of apps cluttering up your Mac’s menu bar, Bartender is an app that can organize all of them for you easily. You get to choose which apps live in the menubar, when they appear and when they don’t, hide apps that need to run but you don’t want to see, and perhaps most importantly, rearrange them any way you like. It’s a small tool, but it gives you control over something that OS X inexplicably doesn’t. It’ll set you back $ 15, but you can try it for a month free.

Lifehacker Pack for Mac: Our List of the Best Mac Apps

Day-0

Day-0 is an old app, but it still works like a charm and it’s a must-install on my Mac. It’s a tiny menubar calendar that turns the Mac’s default clock in the upper right corner into a calendar when clicked. Click it once and you have a full month view, and you can click left or right to navigate months or years. It’s simple, and it’s free.

Photo by Perfect Vectors (Shutterstock) and Litz (Shutterstock).

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