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How to Achieve Your Ambitions in the New Year
Here’s a system for turning New Year’s energy into well-defined goals that you’ll actually reach—and how to exceed your own expectations along the way.
I never really liked New Year’s resolutions. They always seemed like a half-assed way to make some vague commitment on an arbitrary date.
But now, even though I still think the date is pretty arbitrary, I believe that if done right, resolutions (or what we will turn them into here) can be a powerful way to both reflect and prioritize, as well as make some firm commitments to future achievement.
The key here is the “if done right” part.
Over the past year I, along with my good friend YuYang Huang, experimented with a different way of approaching New Year’s resolutions. And it turned out to be a tremendous success.
At the beginning of the year, Yang and I shared our respective lists of goals with each other. Then over the year, at the end of every month, we had a check-in call to report on our progress and to help each other stay on track.
The two core features that made this approach so successful were well-defined quantifiable goals and social accountability.
In this article, I’ll describe why these features were so critical and how we leveraged them into a powerful system for reaching the desires that were really behind our New Year’s resolutions.
Defining Good Goals
Resolutions and goals, at least the way I see them, are very different concepts.
Resolutions are often fairly vague statements. Goals, on the other hand, should be as precise and quantifiable as possible. Goals should essentially be binary—they are achieved or not achieved—and the conditions should be clear and simple.
For example, many people set themselves “Work out more” or “Lose weight” as a resolution. But those are both fuzzy notions.
Even a seemingly more concrete formulation like “Go to the gym 3 times a week” is still not definite enough, and not binary enough, to qualify as a good goal.
Inevitably, life happens, and there will be weeks where you don’t go to the gym three times. Does that mean you failed your goal? Are you only successful if you went to the gym three times a week, literally every single week of the year? That’s demotivating, and probably not what you intended with your resolution.
Good goals do not have permanent failure conditions, but permanent success conditions.
In this way, better examples of exercise-related goals would be targets like “Deadlift 300 lbs”, “Run a 5k race in less than 25 minutes”, or “Get below 15% body fat.”
As you can see, all these goals are completely quantitative and also have a simple success condition. They can be checked off once achieved (unlike the “Go to the gym 3 times a week” example, which is quantitative but only has a failure condition, not a success condition).
Goals with failure conditions make us lose motivation quickly. One month in, and I only went to the gym twice last week? Well, guess I might as well stop going then, didn’t achieve the goal anyway.
Goals with success conditions, on the other hand, keep us motivated. Didn’t work out much last week? Well, guess I’ve got to work even harder now to still get that 300 lbs deadlift this year!
Transforming Resolutions into Goals
Let’s look at some other common resolutions and see how they can be transformed into goals.
- “Read more” could become “Read at least 15 books” (which was actually one of Yang’s goals).
- “Learn to play the guitar” could become “Be able to play 5 songs on the guitar” (another one of Yang’s goals)
- “Improve my French” could become “Have a 20-minute conversation in French without having to switch to English at any point”.
- “Meditate more” could become “Do at least 200 meditation sessions” (something that is easily trackable with most meditation apps).
- “Be less stressed” could become “Spend at least 30 weekends without checking any work-related emails or messages”.
- “Save money” could become “Have at least $10k in a savings account”.
- “Spend more quality time with family” could become “Have at least 50 dinners together without watching TV or looking at my phone”.
You get the idea.
Get specific: The power of focus
Some of these goals, due to their specific and quantifiable nature, only cover a small subset of the initial resolution like “Be less stressed” or “Spend more quality time with family”, and might, as a result, seem too narrowly focused.
But it’s exactly this focus that makes them realistically achievable in the first place. Usually, the momentum built through these specific goals will have much wider knock-on effects towards the general resolution.
You don’t just deadlift 300 lbs without regularly going to the gym and getting healthier and fitter in general.
What exactly the quantified version of a general resolution should be will vary dramatically from person to person. My notion of “quality time with family” or “working out more” might be dramatically different from yours. So whatever you’re trying to achieve, define it in a way that makes the most sense to you.
Also note that many of these goals have the additional benefit of being cumulative, e.g. “X books”, “Y sessions”, “Z amount of money”.
In that way, not just the goal itself, but also the progress towards it is quantifiable.
Each time you finish a book or deposit money, you essentially accomplish a mini-goal and get a small sense of achievement, as well as a very clear feeling of moving closer and closer to your ultimate goal.
This boosts morale and makes the final goal much more tangible. In addition, it gives you something concrete to report to your partner during the next check-in (see below).
Go for momentum by keeping it simple
Another important aspect of good goals is to keep them simple!
Bill Gates once said that
“most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
For this reason, we should keep our goals fairly easy and achievable.
The goals you set for this exercise should not be seen as the endpoints of any particular pursuit. They are there to motivate and build momentum.
If a goal is achieved in a few months rather than at the end of the year, that’s great — we can build on that momentum and take it to the next level, potentially even setting follow-on goals with our partner.
Having ambitious long-term goals can be important and very valuable, especially as beacons to guide our overall direction. But the goals we are talking about here are different. They are intended to get us moving. They are stepping stones and accelerators towards those bigger more long-term ambitions.
The number and type of goals to choose
How many and what kind of goals should you set?
I actually think there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this.
Some people, like Darius Foroux, suggest picking only one goal per “area of life”, e.g. career, relationships, and so on. I think this can work well for some, but I personally prefer a more “liberal” approach to this. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple goals in one particular pursuit of yours.
Want to improve as a writer? Nothing wrong with setting two goals, like “Publish 20 articles” and “Publish one article that gets at least 1000 readers” (which was actually one of my goals this year — more on that later).
Similarly, for the overall number of goals: some people might find just two or three ideal and any more overwhelming, while others might prefer seven or eight goals. Just go with something that seems reasonable (which will also depend a bit on the nature of your goals themselves), and then learn and adjust from there.
After all, you should know yourself best and be able to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.
Partner Up for the Power of a Social Accountability
Having well-defined goals is the first step.
To make it even more likely that you achieve them, you now need to add in the second key component that makes this approach so successful: social accountability.
When no one other than yourself knows about your resolutions or goals, it’s very easy to simply abandon them.
But once you put it out there and tell someone else, it becomes much more concrete. Giving up suddenly becomes a more remote option, with more consequences.
You become much more committed.
Choosing a goal partner
There are many ways in which you could add social accountability to your goals. But the best one is to choose a trusted “goal partner,” ideally a close friend, who wants to do this experiment with you.
Sure, you could simply post your goals publicly on Facebook or Twitter, but having one specific partner comes with a number of benefits.
First of all, you might have goals which you simply aren’t comfortable with sharing openly. Or work-related goals that are somewhat sensitive that you can’t post publicly. Sharing and discussing such goals with just a single close friend, who in turn equally shares his/her goals with you, is much easier.
I trust Yang completely and feel comfortable discussing even fairly sensitive issues with her openly. That helps a lot when you want to reflect on your goals properly, and not just on a surface level.
If you can, do this exercise with a friend you fully trust and feel comfortable opening up to.
Use the month of January to define your goals
Once you decided on a partner and have agreed to do this together, take your time to define your goals according to the guidelines above. There is no need to rush into this just because it’s New Years. Even though I brought this idea up to Yang at the end of December 2017, we didn’t actually fully define and share our goals with each other until late January 2018.
I actually recommend this. Use the end of the year to properly reflect on the last twelve months, and then take the whole of January to think about and define your goals for the coming year.
Sure, if you already know your goals, feel free to share them earlier. The first monthly check-in call/meeting at the end of January can also be a good opportunity to “officially” exchange goal lists and commit to them.
The monthly check-in
This brings us to another important ingredient of this exercise, and also another key benefit of having a dedicated partner: monthly check-ins.
These can either happen in-person or, as Yang and I did, via calls. At the end of every month, we would have a roughly 30 to 60-minute call to discuss our progress.
You might want to put all of these check-ins in your calendar in advance, or just do as we did and organize them spontaneously whenever you find the time. Again, whatever works for you is the right way to do it.
In these calls, we would each go through our list of goals one by one, discussing progress, plans for the next month, and talk through any risks or doubts.
Having regular sessions like this is extremely valuable.
They force you to reflect on what you have (or haven’t) achieved, make you enjoy the highs even more by recalling them and sharing them with a friend, make the lows more bearable, and also allow you to get feedback on how to improve or overcome certain obstacles or setbacks.
“On one level, wisdom is nothing more than the ability to take your own advice. It’s actually very easy to give people good advice. It’s very hard to follow the advice that you know is good. […] If someone came to me with my list of problems, I would be able to sort that person out very easily.” — Sam Harris
Often we already know the answers to our concerns but find it hard to follow our own advice. Hearing it from a friend, even if it’s exactly the same thing we’ve been telling ourselves, is much more powerful.
Having a partner to share the experience with also provides a nice mix of camaraderie, a feeling of being in it together and not wanting to disappoint the other person, as well as a healthy bit of competition.
And if you and your partner are the kind of people who particularly enjoy and thrive in a competitive setting, you might even want to consider turning this into a bet, committing to something (possibly, but not necessarily, money) in case either of you doesn’t achieve their goals.
Loss aversion can be a powerful motivator.
But again, this approach also has its downsides, and not everyone will find it helpful. Personally, Yang and I chose not to do it this way.
Finally, a slightly unrelated side benefit of this is that once a month you get some really good quality time talking with someone close to you, about things that deeply matter to you.
That in itself is immensely valuable.
“define what is meaningful to you, better still, choose what you would like to change, and create systems to get them done.”
Having a goal partner and regular check-ins is definitely one of the best systems I have discovered to get to my goals.
Once you have defined your goals and found a partner, there is just one last thing to keep in mind: Don’t be afraid of changing your goals or letting them go altogether if they don’t make sense anymore.
“The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.” — Jim Coudal
The person who set the goals at the beginning of the year is not the same as the one who will (or won’t) actually achieve them later on. And sometimes they just weren’t the right ones for the person you become.
But note that this is very different from just giving up (as so often happens with resolutions)!
In many cases, the original goals either morph into related goals or are replaced by completely new ones. Sometimes there was nothing wrong with a particular goal, but you realize that the timing simply wasn’t right.
On top of that, whatever the reason was that made you decide to abandon or postpone a goal, you have to explain and justify it to your partner. This makes it less likely to quit goals for reasons such as laziness or inconvenience, and also forces you to reflect more on your decisions and priorities.
Yang and I both had goals set at the beginning of the year that we consciously decided not to pursue any further.
For Yang, it was “Finish new book (present it to an editor)”. It turned out that the timing for this particular book simply wasn’t right yet. In addition, other unexpected opportunities presented themselves and took precedence.
For me, it was “Either: 5 full-length tracks produced; Or: One live performance”. In the end, I only produced three full tracks this year and didn’t do any live performance. But that was a conscious choice. I could have rushed out another two tracks and/or done a half-assed live performance. But what I have achieved musically (despite not technically achieving my music-related goal) has completely eclipsed my wildest expectations at the beginning of the year. And in the end, I chose to build the foundations for much bigger things next year, rather than doggedly sticking to my original goal.
Sometimes you have to realize that your goal was simply too short-sighted, and trying to accomplish it just for the sake of not abandoning it might compromise much bigger achievements in the long term.
New opportunities present themselves, and we ourselves can (and do) change over the course of a year. We should be flexible enough to allow our goals to change along with us.
Using these tools and tactics, Yang and I both had some great successes this year.
I already shared some of our respective goals with you above. I don’t want to and can’t share all of them with you, but I want to tell you a bit more about three of my goals and how they turned out.
My goal: Give one public talk
One of them was related to public speaking.
I actually quite enjoy public speaking and think I’m reasonably good at it, but in 2017 (and maybe even 2016) I didn’t really have a single chance to give a talk. So I set myself the deliberately modest goal of “One public talk.”
This unassuming target achieved exactly what I had hoped for.
It was easy and non-intimidating enough to get me started and working towards it, and the momentum I got from achieving it then carried me much further.
I definitely overshot my goal by quite a margin, probably averaging at about one talk per month, from small and intimate ones with a handful of people to talking on a big stage in front of hundreds at NVIDIA’s GPU Technology Conference.
My goal: Publish one article with at least 1000 readers
I also mentioned my writing goal of “Publish one article that gets at least 1000 readers”.
At the time of committing to this, I had only published a single article, which I thought would never reach 1000 readers (but did), and had the idea for another one, which I thought might have the potential to reach that goal (and far exceeded it).
I had no ambitions of becoming a “writer”.
But in the end, as of now, I have published over 25 articles this year, several of which have already had multiple thousands of readers each. And thanks to my article’s success, I also had many follow-on opportunities, such as being invited as a guest on John Fitch’s wonderful Time Off Podcast (who, by the way, is working on a new company called Committed that I’m really excited about).
Again, all this came out of a fairly humble initial goal that helped me gain momentum.
About a goal that I chose not to pursue
Above, I noted that I chose to not fully pursue my music-related goal. But even this goal still fulfilled its purpose.
I remember one particular evening early in the year, just a few days after we had initially shared our goals. I felt tired, but I had a beat in mind and thought if I want to stick to my goal I need to do small things. And I also needed something to tell Yang during our next check-in.
So I turned the little drumbeat in my mind into a slightly more developed beat and recorded a video of producing it live, layering some more drums and bass, and then applying some effects. I shared that video on Instagram.
The next day, a friend of mine contacted me if I want to produce the music for a new project he was working on. I was totally surprised (and to be honest also kind of scared), and warned him that I’m a complete amateur. But I was also excited by the opportunity and agreed to do it.
Had I not made that goal and shared it, I would have been too lazy to produce that beat that evening.
Had I not produced that beat and shared it, I would have not done the music for the project.
Tiny things, small triggers, build up and accumulate once you get things in motion. And they can build incredible momentum.
A bit over a year ago I would have laughed at anyone who would have told me that in some ways I could seriously consider myself a writer or musician by the end of 2018.
But now thanks to these simple goals, both of them are kind of true. Thousands of people have read my writing and listened to my music, and I have even made some money with both.
I still can’t quite believe it in a way.
And this is only the beginning. Rather than being end goals, this year’s achievements just laid the foundations for much bigger and more exciting opportunities in the coming year. These are opportunities that I would have never even dreamed of just a few months ago.
Yang and I are definitely going to do the same thing again this year. I haven’t fully decided on my goals yet, but I know that thanks to the result of this year's goals, next year’s “achievable” goals would have seemed completely ridiculous and unrealistic to me just a little while ago.
I encourage you to try this exercise along with us.
It’s really simple. In summary:
- Find a friend who you trust and who wants to do this with you.
- Take some time to define your goals, using the guidelines above, and share them with your partner.
- At the end of every month, have a check-in call or meeting with your partner to discuss progress towards each goal.
- Be amazed by the progress you make towards — and beyond — your goals.
And with this, I wish you all a Happy New Year. It’s going to be an awesome year!