Often the simplest things can be the most transformational; you can get hold of them and implement them. Here is a swift way to deal with procrastination, division and overload in one go. It starts with a question… “What does success look like?”

I worked for a leader who started every activity with this question. It is a model that has stayed with me since. One of the most powerful changes I have experienced over the years is moving from activity-based planning, to outcome-based planning. It works for self-management, team management and family management.

Activity-based planning is building a list of things to be done, a traditional to do list. To do lists have their place and are very useful, but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Some people start and stop at activity-based planning. A means with no clear end.

Outcome-based planning means building a vision of where you want to get to and making a plan to get there. Covey articulates this idea in his second habit of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “begin with the end in mind”. Management that measures outputs and outcomes is more effective than management that measures tasks.

The question is also an effective way of asking, “Why are we doing this?” It is especially useful for activities that involve others, as it helps to build a common vision. Starting with a common vision prevents problems later on. There are many ways to complete something. How many would you be genuinely happy with? Is everyone on the same page about the job at hand? Visualizing the end goal helps to crystallize outcome-based thinking and identify any barriers to success. It is a very simple technique, but little used.

There is something else implicit in the question too. It asks for a definition of ‘success’. What is success in this context? Success without a context is meaningless – it literally means that which comes next, to succeed, to come after. Just getting to the next thing isn’t a big win, even though that is technically ‘success’! Too often, we let success in our lives be defined implicitly by the society or culture around us. “Be rich and famous,” the media shouts, but that is no recipe for happiness, as Britney Spears will testify.

It is good to understand why you want the outcome. That understanding will surface hidden values that may shape how you do what you do. The question tells you something about you. You are asking yourself “What outcome will satisfy me?”

Most people want to be happy, but not all success brings happiness. Happiness is a very special case of success. Success can be measured against any number of things. However, if you know what success looks like for you, then you have a vision and your mission is how you will get there.

Before you start off, check where you are headed. Start every activity with at least this one question. It is transformational and the understanding that the answer will bring cures so many things that hold people back.

What does success look like for you?