Goal Setting for the New Year

Don’t Make Resolutions Without a Solid Plan

As each new year begins, I go through the process of updating goals for the year. Looking back at previous years, I’m pleasantly surprised that my success rate has been 80–90% in recent history, so I thought I’d share some of the tricks I use to set realistic goals and make it easy for myself to follow through with them, using online tools and offline strategies.

Goal Setting 101:

My first training in goal setting came just over 20 years ago at a camp for student leaders, called Michigan Leadershape, focused on top University of Michigan leaders in 1994. A core group of us spent an intensive week learning how to use modern strategies for becoming better leaders for student organizations and as professionals. I learned a lot about myself and a lot about realistic goal setting that week. The most important keys to setting goals: being specific, iterative and measurable.

When I get started, I usually use a yellow pad or a Notes file on my laptop or iPhone. (Tools like Evernote can work too — whatever you already use). I look at what I completed the previous year, then I write down whatever goals come to mind as things that have been pressing at me that I want to achieve this year. It’s a free form exercise geared toward creating a first draft. Next, I have a template from the years previous, so I bring them up and import my initial draft goals. That way I already have some form to it. Here’s more about that form.

What may seem like an unlikely source, I’ve found some of the bloggers on Pinterest to have unique perspectives on topics like goals. When you search Pinterest for ‘goal setting,’ and you’ll find numerous links to posts and printables with great fodder to get the juices flowing. One post I found by Stacy Nelson had a nice chart of brainstorming questions for building yearly goals. Richard Branson posted some useful tips as well.

Specific:

When I set goals, I start with the big ones and work down to smaller goals. Many years ago, I set some major life goals for myself. I only update those rarely. Every five years, I make five-year goals, because that is a reasonable interval where you can see real lasting change. Then I make annual goals, quarterly goals, and sometimes monthly goals, depending on the area. (In my professional life, I find monthly goals to be extremely helpful to keep me from getting stuck in the weeds.)

I’ve learned over time to create categories for goals in order to not become overwhelmed. I create one overarching “big” goal per category, three to five specific goals in that category that relate back to the bigger goal, and quarterly stretch goals that are more detailed and task-oriented. (Stretch goals were something Leadershape taught us. That’s where you break it down.) The key is to make simple lists and not get into too much detail in the big goals.

Here are the categories I used this year:

  1. Health
  2. Family
  3. Home
  4. Money
  5. Career
  6. Civic Service / Voluntarism
  7. Personal Fulfillment
  8. Fun / Social

Other categories that I’ve used in the past were derived from the “Wheel of Life” (via Rodskog Change Consulting):

1. Health

2. Friends & Family

3. S.O./Romance

4. Personal Growth

5. Fun & Recreation

6. Physical Environment

7. Career

8. Money

Iterative:

Whatever system you use for categorization needs to stem from your core values, allowing you to continue building on the goals in the short and long term. I recall reading Stephen Covey’s First Things First many years ago and being struck by the simplicity of the concept of actions following values. That’s where newer books like Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World come in to play as well. Think about what is most important to you and what centers you. For some people, that comes from a spiritual place; for others, it’s family or a calling for public service. Whatever it is, make sure your goals reflect your values, or you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

For example, one of my professional goals this year is to be a more active advisor to the startups I work with. That’s a general goal, but it’s been bothering me that in recent years, I’ve signed on to help a few young companies and haven’t spent much time on it. That’s a two-way street. As much as I tell founders I’m serious about being an active, useful advisor, we all get busy. So an interative goal I have in this area is to check in with each company monthly and/or set regular calls or meetings so we can produce tangible results together. I’m not just lending my name to these companies to make it look good to them or to me; one of my core values is to help others and provide value to the organizations I’m engaged with, so mentorship and advising are a critical part of that.

I’ve learned over time that being specific about goals like this makes it much easier to achieve the goals knowing exactly what needs to be done, and to hold yourself accountable in the process. Life can get exhausting. When you have every step you need to take written down in front of you, even on the most challenging days, you can still stay on track, or at least keep yourself from veering too far off. Iterating with the quarterly and monthly (or even weekly or daily) goals helps keep you on track. If you have the goal to run a marathon, you don’t just write down ‘marathon’ and run it. You build a detailed plan to build up to running the 26.2 miles by a predetermined date.

Measurable:

The more specific the goals, the easier it is to measure them. That said, I’ve found that the easier we can make this process on ourselves, the better. I like to make quantifiable and qualifiable goals, because some things can only be measured by the passing of time. Ask yourself questions like: “Am I happier with the time I spend with my family now that I’ve committed to putting devices away during most meals together?” If ‘happier’ isn’t good enough, dig deeper. “Do I feel more centered, less stressed, and closer to my husband and daughter when we’re together at meal time?” Then you can get to the quality answer. I didn’t set out with a written goal to spend less time on devices at dinner, but it’s something I made a conscious decision to do, and it has improved the overall experience in retrospect.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to how to measure goals. Go with what works for you. I’m a big spreadsheet fan. I’ve been using spreadsheets since before I could vote, so it’s second nature to me. I have an “Active Projects” sheet where I track what I’m working on and what takes precedence at the time, to help me shift gears each month as some projects naturally require more active attention and time. I have desktop shortcuts to my goals document so I can refer back to it and will see a constant reminder that I’ve set those goals.

For my company, I track project tasks in their own spreadsheets and can monitor that progress there. That’s just how I do it because I’ve tried numerous project management applications that I’ve found to be too time-consuming and convoluted, with seemingly unnecessary steps to enter data. Some people swear by software like Asana for teams. I’ve used it with a few clients and it worked well, but it does not replace goal setting as a targeted individual process.

The great thing about mobile apps taking on the world’s problems: we have a plethora of goal setting apps to choose from. Two that I researched for iOS look particularly interesting: Strides and Productive. Both also work with the Apple Watch. With apps like these, you can identify specific goals or habits you want to track. If you want to walk a mile each day, they’ll help you. If you set a goal to call your mother every week, they’ll remind you. These are perfect for measuring specific goals in tighter time frames, like daily or weekly.

For example, one of my simple goals is to spend more time with my 19 year-old cat because I know she won’t be around much longer. My specific goal is to spend at least 20 minutes of quality time with her each day, whether that means doing some reading in bed where I can pet her at night, or just letting her sit on my lap in the morning for a while. So I could use a calendar reminder or set an alarm to go check on her at a certain time of day or I could use one of these apps that would track how often I succeed, so I know if I need to do better.

Putting it All Together:

Goal setting should be enjoyable. I wouldn’t go as far as fun, but I always find the process to be rewarding. Last year, I went as far as to write up some ‘gift goals’ to myself for the year, including “stop stressing about social media,” because as a recently published author and ‘influencer,’ I was putting pressure on myself to be omnipresent, and on top of everything else I do, that was just too much. And you know what? It worked. I cut back on social media and while I may have felt a little less connected with the world, I felt a lot more connected with the people closest to me. I achieved most of the goals I set for myself at home and at work, and I feel good about the year overall.

The other thing I suggest doing: after you’ve finished writing your goals, review them. Do you really need to keep them all on the list? Do you just like making lists? If you added a third item because you felt like you should have three goals in a category but you don’t really care about that third one, should it be on there? If you feel meh about it, remove it. Life’s too short to create goals that don’t inspire you. If you feel you must have something there, replace it with something easy, like “read one fiction book.” I finally read one fiction book this year after going for four years without making the time for fiction. I love fiction, so I made that one tiny goal and it happened.

There were a couple of goals I had to roll over to this year, but that’s okay because I never really thought I’d check off 100% of last year’s goals anyway. If your success trends positive, then you’re moving forward and that’s all we can hope to do. Life throws us curve balls and it’s impossible to know what external factors might derail you this year or next. With the right set of tools, if you need to step back and re-evaluate or update your goals, that step can be relatively painless and a positive learning experience.

To summarize, here’s my 10-step process:

  1. Review last year’s goals (or just make a short list of what you achieved that made you feel good).
  2. Brainstorm this year’s goals, looking back to what worked for you last year and building on your core values.
  3. Insert this year’s goals into a template with categories that work for you.
  4. Choose one big goal for the year in each category (if you have them; it’s not necessary to create a long laundry list if you don’t feel like you need to work on any particular area, but I always seem to find something).
  5. Define 3–5 specific goals in each category.
  6. Build quarterly and/or monthly detailed, quantifiable task-oriented goals for each category.
  7. Put the goals in a form that’s easy to refer back to, simple to update.
  8. Set up systems for measuring the most detailed, specific tasks that can be tracked, in apps, logs, or software that works for you.
  9. Give yourself permission to go easy in a couple of areas, so you don’t set yourself up for failure.
  10. Remember that bit about the journey, not the destination. Goals exist to serve a purpose. Stay true to that purpose and you’ll be one step closer to the goals you set.

Good luck and best wishes for a great year.

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