My Process for Setting Habit-Based Goals That Are Guaranteed to Help You Live a Phenomenal Year

Each year in December I revise and republish this post. Originally written in 2015, the core principles haven't changed, but finer points have been clarified. Truth be told, I've relaxed how I personally go about setting goals for the year (I'll be writing about that in 2019), but I think there is value in reviewing the comprehensive approach.  Be well, and Happy Holidays! 


Why I Set Goals Each Year 

Because it results in a better life. Because nothing I want, need, or desire just drops into my lap. Because if I want to live an awesome life, I need to follow a plan.

Awesome lives don't just happen; they are carefully planned and executed."

What gets written down, gets done. I used to haphazardly dream up resolutions for the new year but seldom designed a plan to reach them. By January 31 they were a distant memory...just like the ones from the previous year. Then I wondered why my life sucked so much.  8-O 

Like anything in life, you'll get out of this exactly what you put in. Just setting loosely defined goals that aren't relevant to your daily life or that are unsupported by a plan to accomplish them is a total waste of time. If this is where you are, you're better off waiting for the Tooth Fairy to give you what you want from life. Good luck with that.

I Take Goal Setting Seriously

The reason I take it seriously is that it works.  My life is exactly how I designed it. I'm not indiscriminately tossed about by the tides of circumstance nor do I wait for life to unfold. I plan, execute, evaluate, and adapt. It's how I roll, kids.

But it's not effortless. It requires work...like anything worthwhile in life. I took three full days to plan out what I want to accomplish in 2016. Can you dedicate three days to do the same?

If you can't spend a weekend or a few days thinking and planning one year of your life, then you're already behind the eight ball. It's not going to plan itself."

Every one of my life accomplishments is the result of setting goals:

  • It's how, at the age of 18, I flew by myself to the United Kingdom and lived there for a time
  • It's how I attended three colleges simultaneously in my senior year and got into medical school
  • It's how I later became a college professor and Dean, and later a college President
  • It's how I survived a sad time in my life and raised my youngest of four children as a single-parent
  • It's how I write and publish books as well as run a consulting business

But it's not just about material gain or checking off items from your bucket list. Setting goals and working to achieve them is how you create a life that you enjoy every single day.

I've just concluded my goal setting for 2016. It's a process I'll share with you in this post. The process is straightforward, effective, and time-consuming: it took me three full days to complete. Life design requires us to spend time where it will benefit us most. Each year, I dedicate a few days in December to doing this and each year I accomplish more than I did the year before. 

It took effort, clear thinking, and some planning. I used my Zen-Journal to do it and the photos below depict stages of that process. As a result, I have 17 specific and measurable goals to work on in 2016 and each one is exciting to think about.

My Goal Setting Process

Working pages from my Bullet Journal used in planning my goals for the year.

Here's my process from A to Z for setting goals that have continually served to enrich my life. If you choose to follow it, I urge you to dedicate time to think about what you decide. You can't plan an entire year in an afternoon. OK, you can, but your year will be shitty. Trust me on that one.  :roll: 

1. Habits Rule Everything

I have six habits that provide the foundation for each of my goals.  My habits include:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Being Kind
  • Healthy Choices
  • Embracing Play
  • Minimalism

Habits are the result of what we emphasize in our daily lives. Habits can be positive, like the ones above or they can be negative, like being a couch potato or eating convenience foods. They rule us and not the other way around. That's why it's important to emphasize habits that are positive and lead to positive outcomes.

2. Areas of Focus (AOF) 

I have six areas in life that I'm focusing on in 2016. Yours may differ and I would expect they would. We are, after all, two different people. :-)  The AOFs are the main areas of your life. They can be the habits you want to incorporate into your life as I’ve done in this example. If your life was a three-ringed binder, AOFs would be the dividers or tabs. You can also think about them as categories or facets of your current life.

Areas of Focus may evolve from year to year. That's OK, because so do you."

In the past, I've used terms like Materials, Recreation, Education, Creativity, Professional, and Health to describe my AOFs. But in recent years I chose to make some of the AOFs more interesting, hence "Embracing Play' combines Recreation and Professional; 'Being Kind' is a mix of Spiritual and Education. Since my kids are grown and raising their own families, 'Family' is no longer an AOF in the same way it used to be ~ evolution in action. 

Choosing your Areas of Focus is an important undertaking. Just think about what's most important to you. Limit your AOFs to no more than six; four is best for the first time you follow this process.

3. Setting Goals for Each AOF

Brainstorming your goals is critical. The three goals you see listed under each AOF on my goal sheet are the result of brainstorming a much longer list of possibilities. After I did a brain dump of all possible goals for each AOF, I then chose no more than three. In my case, six AOFs would result in a maximum of 18 goals. That's a lot, but I've been doing this a long time and even taught an entire class on goal setting during my years on academia. Try to limit your goals to two for each AOF. 

Here are five tips for choosing appropriate goals:

TIP: Only choose goals that you can incorporate into your current life. For example, if you're a university student, a goal to start a million-dollar business isn't going to be something you can most likely incorporate into your current life. 

TIP: Choose goals that support one or more of your habits. Let's say you listed 'Being Kind' as a habit you want to work on in 2016 because you see too much anger in the world and your immediate environment. Potential goals might include smiling at five strangers on the subway or helping seniors by volunteering weekly at Senior Center for an hour or two. Working on the goal reinforces the habit and the habit provides the foundation for the goal.

TIP: You don't have to work on every goal every day.  That's a recipe for burnout if you're not used to setting goals. If you are used to this or a similar process, you can work on some goals every day. For example, my goals of reading 24 books, meditating and doing yoga daily are perfect for incorporating on a daily basis. But traveling internationally isn't. It's good to have a mix of daily and weekly touch points with your goals.

TIP: Choose goals are really fun to achieve and that will really benefit you. When you love something, you want to spend time on it. So choose a goal that really lights you up and you'll naturally want to work toward achieving it. 

TIP: Choose an accountability partner or a Goal Buddy. Achieving goals in life aren't for wimps. We all need support. Goal buddies can provide that support. They can mean the difference between getting support in tough times and abandoning your goal altogether. You might not need a goal buddy for every goal, just the ones that are most likely to be challenging...like quitting smoking or doing ab crunches every day. ;-)

More pages from my Bullet Journal used to explore my goals for 2016. I used successive pages to line up my goals with outcomes and emotional leverage guides.

4. Creating Outcomes and Emotional Leverage

How to use measurability and emotion to achieve your goals. Key to making goals measurable and relevant is the use of anticipated outcomes and emotional leverage points.  Anticipated outcomes are expressed in short statements (or longer ones if you prefer) that will set a metric for successfully achieving the goal.  Emotional Leverage points are critical as they provide the Why that supports the What

If your 'why' is emotionally important, the 'what' will take care of itself."

Make your outcomes and leverage points personally meaningful. If you spend the required time to make these very personal, you'll be internally motivated to work towards achieving each of your goals. That's my totally secret sauce, by the way. Shh...don't tell anyone!

5. Pulling It All Together with New Routines

I don't see anything wrong with a routine as long as you enjoy it and it doesn't exert a negative effect on you or others. In fact, achieving your goals for the year demands that you look at and alter your routines to incorporate the steps you'll be taking to achieve each goal.  

For example, a goal of reading 24 books this year needs daily attention and so I'll read for approximately two hours each day. I love reading so it will seem effortless. On the other hand, traveling internationally isn't something that demands daily attention...perhaps weekly attention is all it will need.

6. Assessing Your Progress and Adapting to New Realities

When you're driving a car, you check in with your speedometer every so often to make certain you're not speeding. You also check your fuel gauge to make certain you don't run out on some desolate stretch of highway. Similarly, it's a good idea to check on the progress you're making toward meeting your goals. You can accomplish this using your Bullet Journal or notebook.

Assessing progress on your goals is no different. Rarely, but it happens, you'll start work toward one goal and then halfway through the process, the goal becomes irrelevant. For example, if your goal was to buy a house by the end of the year and then your job transfers you to a new state or country, then your goal might become irrelevant. That's fine. Just move on and adapt to the changing reality.

Sharing Your Goals

Sharing my goals? Are you nuts? These things are private!"

Sharing my goals in this manner are an important part of my entire process. It sets it all in motion, so to speak. It creates the ultimate accountability. You don't have to have a website that displays them to the world like I do, however sharing your goals with a trusted friend or significant other is a good idea. It allows you to get feedback and encouragement...depending on whom you choose. 

Choose the right accountability partner and chose your own rules. When you ask someone to be your accountability partner, you get the set the rules for accountability. Invite someone you trust to partner with you and give you feedback. Feedback isn't about being critical, but supportive. Ideally, choose someone that also chooses you to be theirs.

Good luck! Set some goals and make it yours! 8-)