A bunch of years ago, I was working as Head of Evaluation for an enormous development fund. The fund had a portfolio of 200 million Euros, and over the course of four years, it launched and invested in more than 600 projects. It was my responsibility to monitor those projects to make sure that they generated the results that they were supposed to.

Just like with most initiatives, the outcome was a mixed bag: during those four years, we saw both super successes and duds. But being in regular contact with all those amazing project managers, I realized something:

There was a widespread misunderstanding of what a goal is. And as many project managers hadn’t received the support to define their desired outcomes, their own definitions of success often consisted of a long list of actions that they had taken. Instead of talking about what they had achieved, they would present a list of stuff they had done.

So, why does this story matter to you, the creative business owner, who’s busy building a thriving business? : )

Well, it matters because if you too suffer from goal confusion, chances are you’re wasting valuable time in your business. Without clearly defined business goals, there’s no direction, no strategic ground for decision-making and no way to check your progress.

You can spend your days being incredibly busy, without achieving what you deep inside hope to achieve.

So, let’s start by clarifying:

A GOAL is an outcome, a result. It’s something that you wish to achieve.

An ACTION is something you do to achieve that desired outcome.

You want to make sure that there is complete alignment between your goals and your actions. Think about it as a line that you can draw between them: doing X means that Y will happen. If there’s no such line, then your actions are moving your business in a different direction.

Now, let’s look at the reason why a mix-up between the two is common. The short answer is: human psychology. We have a built-in impulse to go after immediate gratification rather than hold out for something bigger. And getting stuff done feels GREAT! It gives you a sense of accomplishment; you feel useful and productive. If you’re like many entrepreneurs, you probably agree that it’s a much less exciting experience to just sit down and think about your business goals.  : )

But I believe that it makes good business sense to hold out for the bigger reward. You want to know that the stuff you spend your days doing are the things that will move you closer to those big business goals of yours. Untangling the action-goal confusion will let you do just that.

So, to save time and create a bigger impact with your business, here are three steps that you can take:

1) Make your hopes and desires incredibly concrete. This means taking all your notions of “successful” and make them super clear. Describe what success would look like in whatever way is important to YOU: money, life balance, market position, brand, clients…

2) You want to make sure that you have some way of checking your progress, so that you can tweak or re-enforce your strategy. For this, you want to make your desired success completely measurable. So put a number to each success goal. Think about when you want it to happen.

3) With your desired successes crystal clear, you now have the basis to know what’s working for you and what isn’t. Track your actions during the week to come. Are you busy creating the results that you want – or are you just busy being busy? Some of the things that you’re doing might make you feel good – like embarking on a new partnership or spending time networking – but may actually be more costly than beneficial.

Remember, it’s not about doing lots – it’s about doing what really matters. Once you know what matters to YOU, you can stop being “just” busy and focus on creating an impact.