Hit your new goal by structuring it like a syllabus

Back-to-school momentum is actually a great way out of a rut.
Get onboard.
Get onboard.
Photo: Mike Blake (Reuters)
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If I say the word “syllabus,” will you scream?

The word might walk you down the road of college nostalgia, past midnight pizza, the spark of new friendships, the bouncy, nervy energy of a professor on the first day of class. Depending on your tolerance for structure, the idea of a syllabus might greet you squirming. But it shouldn’t. A syllabus is a contract and a pact, a list of articulated rules to guide you through time, to take you by the hand and say, Follow me.

You need a syllabus. (I know, because I need a syllabus, too.) Anyone can benefit from creating a plan around one part—or multiple parts—of their working life. In the corporate world, or the entrepreneurial world of your own making, there can be a lack of structure around intentional learning and growth. For our own personal or creative projects, too, it’s difficult to locate a finish line, much less drive over it, without guardrails. There’s ownership in making your own rules, but you can’t make them up as you go.

To give ourselves necessary boundaries, which I discuss in my upcoming book, we can go back to school and befriend every professor’s manifesto: the syllabus. Oh, simplicity! Clear expectations! Whether you’re working for someone else or for yourself, it can be useful to apply a syllabus template to your own projects or major efforts. A syllabus is a contract with yourself—and a promise of progress. There is creative kindling in mulling over your ideas, gathering inspiration, titling another Google Doc “Business Plans 2023,” but eventually you have to begin. To make anything great, you have to get in the dirt and start the fire.

A syllabus sets expectations and gives you tools for moving forward, while deliberately learning something new. The practices and guidelines common in higher education are available to all of us—you simply have to set them yourself. And you can apply their principles to any project, starting now, with the intention to learn, discover, and build.

Title your course—and set a timeline

One rule of the personal development world, though slightly infuriating and yet somehow true, is this: Focusing on one thing is always easier than focusing on more than one thing. So consider this syllabus as a document for one goal, whether personal or professional. There’s no class promising Intro to Psychology and Aerospace Engineering, so don’t try to squish together your fitness gains and a job search into a single project. But do have fun with a name: Creative Dev 101; Intro to Becoming Ansel Adams; Operation Big Wealth. (Lean into whatever you want, it’s your class.)

Do you want to work on a semester or quarter system? I’m partial to a 10-week quarter, as it feels like enough time to ramp up, hit so-called “midterms,” and glide through to finals. A bigger project might work better on a 16-week semester system.

Delight in your objective

Every syllabus worth its pixels has an objective. Start from the end and work backwards from your goal. Articulate what you hope to achieve in words that energize you. “Getting a promotion” or “launching a consulting business” are admirable targets, but infusing a smidge of passion and what you want to learn helps them achieve liftoff. “Uncover the secret origin stories of people who got major book deals this year” or “Share my expertise with hundreds of nice and engaged strangers to help them build their own businesses” feels more activating, doesn’t it?

If you’re approaching a new project, ask yourself:

  • Why is this important to me?
  • How do I want to feel at the end of this process?
  • Who do I want to change with this project?
  • What is the least-boring way to describe this project?

Your answers illuminate your objective. The best objectives are simple, yet effective, and communicate value. Write a one-sentence description for your syllabus. What do you, your team, or this project hope to accomplish?

Absorb all the prereqs

It’s frustrating to start work on a project and realize at the midpoint that you don’t have necessary information. Not fun. Actually kind of destabilizing. Thinking in advance about the prerequisites—the required foundational knowledge you need—is essential. Some project prereqs might include seeking outside feedback, interviewing someone whose path you admire, taking a workshop, or swooping into deep research. What do you need to know or simmer in before getting started? Lay it down on your syllabus.

Chart the best possible course

What you get out of a class is usually proportional to what you put into it. Since you’re the one creating this document, look at your primary calendar and build in a recurring date and time for your “class,” which is a dedicated space for yourself. For instance, can you commit Tuesdays from 1-4 pm to build out your consulting practice? Or a half-hour on Mondays to sketch out your newsletter? Block out space on your calendar now, and write it in the weekly agenda on your syllabus, too. Remember that you’re only committing for a few weeks, not the rest of your life. Invigorating, not intimidating, is your throughline.

Build in a midterm and final

Cue the hyperventilating. Looking at your 10-week or 16-week timeline, trace a line to the midpoint and mark that as your midterm. This is where you’ll stop to assess your progress, pivot if needed, and refuel for the second stretch. For external accountability, rope in a friend or colleague and make an appointment with them on that date. Knowing there’s an immovable check-in will make you more likely to gravitate toward the deadline instead of dawdling around it.

Also, crucially, pick the day you expect to be done. Etch it, if not in stone, then at least in sand. Remember the rush of adrenaline that fueled your finals week? Busy, stressful, sleepless—and yet, you finish something. You glow with pride. (Before sleeping for a week.) But all that is only possible if you see through the promise of your project.

Remember your syllabus is part of a larger design

It’s easy to dismiss quietly burbling interests or strange adjacent obsessions as unimportant in the grand design of your life or career. But tiny, self-contained projects can hold deeper meaning, if you let them. They’re symbols that you’re not confined to one job description or a single prescribed path.

As you move through your project, keep a list of what a traditional syllabus would call supplemental material—books to read, people to follow, tidbits to research, anything that feels relevant goes in there. No matter where you are in your life or career, you can continue to create your own private constellation of learning and connection. Once the shape of your project has crystallized, there’s only one task left: pick a start date. Look at the near horizon and decide, this is the day of new possibilities. This is the day I move forward. This is the day I’ll sit in the chair, open my eyes and ears, and keep a promise to myself. Then let your class begin.