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 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 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-) 

What Is It that You 'Can't Not-Do?'

Can't-not-do: I know that sounds both funky, and like a double negative, and it is.

However, it's also a useful way to express the concept of doing that which your DNA codes you to do; that activity that you cannot escape engaging. For me, writing and publishing are what my DNA codes me to do. It's the one activity I can't-not-do. It's so basic a need that, next to breathing, it's right up there with drinking coffee.

I'm thinking about this because a friend IM'd me a few days ago and we texted back and forth about his frustration with writing and publishing, a general lack of results, and how he was going to take a break.

I responded that writing and publishing were both something I was compelled to do each day. I further stated that these two activities aren't driven by the results I see, but by the need to honor the drive inside me that compels me to create and publish.

What is it that your DNA wires you to do?

For digital business owners, this drive to serve others is often at the core of what I call our most meaningful work (MMW). It's the work we cannot avoid if we are to be true to ourselves; it exists as a sacred calling that originates not with any deity but within our very genetic code.

I've known hundreds of coworkers, colleagues, and friends that rarely engage in their MMW. I find it a very sad reality that people spend their entire lives working and not enjoying the hell out of what they do all day."

For decades I experimented with many forms of work and educated myself in many areas to find that which I couldn't-not-do. Coming back to a realization I had at the age of nine is what finally got my attention. The state of flow and timelessness I experienced writing at age nine was the first time I knew what it was.

I then spent decades covering it up with careers in medicine and higher education only rarely touching on it. I'd experience glimpses into my MMW so-to-speak at times but the job, responsibilities of family, and economic realities dictated that I didn't make changes.

Find something you care about and care deeply

This is the only career advice I've ever given my four adult children:

Find an activity that you'd do for free over and over and pursue it with every bit of your waking energy. It's the only path that will guide you to what you can't-not-do."

If you're in business, does your business allow you to express who you are? Does it feed your soul the way oxygen feeds your lungs? Does it touch on those visceral needs to make a contribution to others? Is it something you'd do for free over and over?

What is it that you can't-not-do? Tell me about it in the comments.

The Biological Basis of Your Sacred Calling

Your Sacred Calling - It's Like a Hedgehog

I've been studying the concept of a 'sacred calling' for a while. About ten years ago I read the book, Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't,  by Jim Collins a Colorado-based business researcher.

In this dense book, Collins postulated -among other things- something he termed, The Hedgehog Concept.

In short, the concept talked about the intersection of three circles, in a Venn diagram. As illustrated here, the shaded area represented the Hedgehog Concept for a business.

When I read this book, I started thinking about how to translate these ideas into the individual. How could a person find their secret sauce, so to speak, their sweet-spot, or their Hedgehog Concept?

Close, But Not the Same

The sacred calling, like the hedgehog concept for a business, originates deep within us. It's embedded in our DNA; It codes to do some tasks better than others. You might be a great singer or musically talented while your sibling is a math genius.

We each have these specific areas that we can do better and more easily; they have a natural feel to us and we gravitate toward them. But the sacred calling isn't a particular talent or strength, it's broader than that.

Your sacred calling is the overall sense of mission you have your life; and it isn't always obvious.

Though experience, and over many years, I learned that it's through teaching and writing that I can make life-changing contributions to others. For a long time, I was a college instructor. During those years I taught hundreds of students.

Every so often I hear from one on Facebook or LinkedIn and they share how it was through my classes that they found their direction or motivation for pursuing a dream. I'm not trying to blow my own horn, but I think you can see that it's through this kind of feedback that my sacred calling has been affirmed.

When I think about what these affirmations  point to and what drives my life, I come up with this: service to others. It's the overall sense of mission that characterizes my life. It reflects what sparks joy within me and what leads to both my most meaningful work and my lifetime contributions.

Time to Look Within

In what I call The Celebration Exercise, imagine that you're dead. I know, real cheery, right? Stay with me though.  

Imagine you're a fly on the wall or an angel in the heavens and you're somehow present when your friends gather to honor your memory at a celebration of life service. 

Far from being a sad affair, your friends are here to recall the happy times, the fun days and nights you spent together and the kind of person they think you really were.

Maybe they're tossing back a few shots of Cuervo Gold tequila or Jameson Irish whiskey or -in my case- a few shots of Espresso Forte. Although they're sad you're gone, they're equally happy and filled with gratitude because of the impact you made on their lives.

As speaker after speaker gets up to share how you made their life a better place, they keep returning to the qualities you were known for.

Without thinking, what are those qualities: Just say them out loud quickly, right now.  

For me, they'd be: compassion, helping, encouragement, and love. 

Whatever those qualities are, what do they suggest as an action? If you look at mine, they suggest service to others. For me, they speak of serving others. Service to others is my sacred calling.

The Most Common Mistake

When thinking about your sacred calling, the most common mistake made is thinking that you don't know it. In fact, you do know it, but it's been covered over by life experiences, religious dogma, family expectations, and cultural influences.

If you're willing to do the work, you can gently sift through the layers of shit that life has piled on top of your sacred calling.

You might recall is this post, I told you about a time when I was about 10 years old and I knew in an instant that my sacred calling had to do with writing.

But I was ten, and I didn't register it me strongly enough in my heart and mind to follow it's lead in my early adult years. It took decades for me to work through the layers of experience and expectations to find it again.

How I Found My Deepest Work

And we danceTo a whispered voice;
Overheard by the soulUndertook by the heart;
And you may know itIf you may know it

Neil Diamond, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Roles Help Us Find Ourselves

I've played many roles in my life: physician, professor, a college dean, a college president, a window washer, a retail store manager, consultant, and a guy who cleaned eyeglasses and hawked some lens anti-fog stuff...yes, many roles and obviously not in that order.

You probably have played several, too. There is nothing wrong with playing these roles. But like we do in perfecting our golf swing or crafting the perfect cup of coffee, hopefully...eventually...we find a sweet spot. We find that one type of role within which we could stay in character for the rest of our lives.

Roles help reveal what comes easily to us. On a deeper level, we call these traits, talents, and strengths. Over time we experiment with different roles to determine our interests. I see roles as hugely important because the results of these experiences ultimately inform us about our deepest work. 

The rest of this post is somewhat autobiographical. It discusses various phases in my life and the roles I played. It talks about the fractured process of discovering my strengths, talents, and ultimately, my deepest work and concludes with how you can avoid a similarly painful 40-year search for your deepest work.

The Early Years


The path to my deepest work has been anything but linear. As an aspiring actor in high school, I was the poster boy for 'Most Likely To Succeed.' My yearbooks were filled with remarks like, "Remember me when you accept your first Academy Award," and "Be sure to sign my yearbook so that I have your autograph for when you're too famous to remember me."

It seemed that my destiny to be a performer; to impact others with my ability to delve deeply into the character and bring the intimate detail of their struggle to the screen, small or large. With roles to my credit such as the overbearing father Lord Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, the mentally challenged Charley in Flowers for Algernon, and other lead and supporting roles, I was poised for greater roles and larger venues.

My fellow actors and I in stage production of M*A*S*H

That didn't happen. The dream of becoming an actor never occurred because I gave up on it, far too easily I might add, not long after graduating from high school. I acted in a few student films, one for my close friend Bill, who today is Billy Dickson, A.S.C., an award-winning television and film director/cinematographer.

My fellow actor and high school friend, Brad 'Taylor' Negron also went on to appear in numerous films, write and produce plays, and perform stand-up comedy. Another actor and friend, Michael Mendelsohn, today is a performing tenor in the San Francisco Bay Area with several light opera and theater companies.

The chief reason I gave up before mounting any serious effort, was that I had no support at home for anything but a traditional college trajectory. If I wanted to be an actor, I'd have to be enrolled in college; that was the edict from the parental units.

The gauntlet was thrown and the ultimatum issued; So I enrolled in Pasadena City College, about ten miles from where I lived. Unfortunately, my schedule didn't include any acting classes, only algebra, English composition, and other general studies. These courses didn't interest me in the slightest.

I was miserable every day I was there. I hated college so much that I withdrew and bought a ticket to England to lose myself in another country. And though the time I spent in the UK was transformative in many ways, it was a substitution for doing what I wanted to be doing. I was still the same directionless, unmotivated kid I'd always been, just on another continent; the unfulfilled longing to connect with my art remained a gaping wound. 

Before this seems like a pity party, let me state that it's no one's fault but mine. For years I blamed my parents for my lack of direction, for my fractured life, but the truth was evident. I simply didn't want it as bad as my friends did, and who are today in the arts.

I feel as if I owe my friends a deep apology. (My parents and I have long since discussed this in case you're wondering.) It was my own directionless state that I chose to remain in; it wasn't like anyone had a weapon pointed at me. (Actually, that would happen later in a McDonald's restaurant robbery in San Francisco, but that's not important to this discussion.)

The Young Adult Years

Fast forward ten years, and I found myself married for the second time, still substituting any kind of work for my unknown deepest work. I was a father of three, attending medical school (I ultimately did finish college with a bachelor's degree in biology) and I thought I was headed into an illustrious career as a surgeon.

I graduated from medical school, completed a residency in orthopedic foot and ankle surgery, and for a few years, all looked good. I wasn't making much money as practice opportunities weren't plentiful for new kids on the professional block. I loved treating patients and the intellectual aspect of medicine was certainly stimulating, but there remained a visceral level of discomfort deep inside that I still wasn't able to articulate.

Needing to earn some additional money, and kind of on a whim, I answered an ad for a teaching position at a local college. My income at this point wasn't very impressive and I figured I could make some extra money teaching anatomy & physiology, a topic I was fluent in. 

I loved teaching immediately. It was an immediate fit for me in that I found something I was as comfortable with as acting. My ability to lead students into levels of knowledge and skill attainment was a natural consequence. While medicine was intellectually thrilling, it lacked the same fulfillment I had when acting and performing, and now teaching.

A part-time teaching gig led to an offer for a full-time teaching load. After some soul-searching, shedding some actual tears morning the loss of my anticipated medical career, I took the full-time teaching job. My youngest son Jay had just been born and I needed to provide some stability for my family.

For a while, I felt I'd betrayed myself. But in reality, I was moving along a path I didn't know I was on. In retrospect, if I hadn't moved into teaching, I'd never have found my sacred calling or my most meaningful work.

I'd been teaching for a while when I was appointed Dean. This meant less time in the classroom and more spending more time on administrative tasks. I took the promotion because of the money involved though I immediately missed the engagement in the classroom. The Dean's position led to being named President of another college a few years later. That job was more of a headache than anything else; it lasted two years. Part of my job was to complete accreditation studies -think multiple volumes of writing and supporting documents- that kept Title IV Federal Financial Aid funding in place for students.

This was to be the link that introduced me to writing as a profession. It introduced me to the corporate side of writing, something I'd not heard of at that time. I got a job -just a time filler, or so I thought- with an engineering firm. They needed some writing help and some other things that I could do. 

I spent the next two decades honing my business writing skills, something I'd always done well. I found work as a project manager writing and managing proposals for complex infrastructure projects over $50 million in construction value. I was successful in winning projects that included the US/Mexico International Border Fences, numerous light rail projects like the Las Vegas Monorail as well as the California High-Speed Rail projects.

It was good work, it paid well, but it had little to do with my deepest work. I endured the toxic corporate atmosphere for far too long and my health suffered because of it. I'd become a single parent to my youngest son, now seven-years-old, and was solely responsible for raising him. For the next twelve years, writing would become evident as a primary component of my deepest work and support my tiny family in the process.

I wrote for business clients, developed and taught online courses, and published books. I developed a loyal online and offline following, and over the next few years, enjoyed considerable success. In quiet moments I pondered how the transition from physician to Internet business owner was even possible. It seemed to me like a strange series of linked events, yet here I was living the reality.

I enrolled in online courses from experts that helped me drill into the deeper aspects of the work I enjoyed. I took several online courses of six months in duration and a longer 12-month program as well. I continued to explore those creative areas that seemed to put me in a place of peace and fulfillment investing over $12,000 in my ongoing education over the next several years.

I knew that if I wanted to make world-changing contributions, I'd have to find and develop my deepest work.

Bringing All the Pieces Together

After forty years of working seemingly independent jobs, a pattern emerged. I started to see that my years in acting, teaching, and writing were a natural expression of who I was and were activities that produced flow. When I engaged in any of these activities, I was in-the-zone, totally absorbed in my art.

Here's what I noticed about this pattern:

  • Acting and performing placed me in flow
  • Teaching and working with students one-on-one (another form of acting and performance) coupled with communicating critical information, allowed me to help others find their way to greater achievement
  • Writing and publishing books, eBooks, teaching online courses brought all of these activities together 

From this pattern, I derived a list of terms that I classified into types of work. I found they correlated to Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs classification. In the list below, my terms -in bold text- are followed by Dr. Maslow's classifications in underscored italics:

  • Work - those activities that enable us to meet basic needs related to physiologic survival and safety 
  • Meaningful Work - activities that tap our natural strengths and talents and allow us to meet the higher level needs of esteem, love, and belonging 
  • Most Meaningful Work - work that magnifies our ability to meet and exceed lower and higher level needs but also allows us to achieve the highest human need, self-actualization

I later added two additional types of work:

  • Toxic Work - that work that detracts from our happiness because it interferes with our abilities to meet the higher needs of esteem, love, and belonging
  • Deepest Work - repetitive contributions to the world that are only made possible by engaging our Most Meaningful Work, leading us to prolonged periods of self-actualization

It occurred to me that before I knew my deepest work, I'd habitually settled for jobs that I've since classified as toxic work. They interfered with my ability to meet higher aspirations and needs for esteem, love, and belonging. I also considered those jobs that propelled me toward meeting these same needs and knew that these jobs were accessing aspects of my most meaningful work.

Now that I knew the difference, charting a course to make lasting contributions was a matter of working through the processes that led me there.

Evolving Your Deepest Work

It took me 40 years of introspection, experimentation, and action to fully know my deepest work. In my mind, it would be criminal to keep this process a secret.  That's why I created the Evolving Your Deepest Work online course.

I've distilled my process for discovering and engaging my Most Meaningful Work into a 9-week process. I've taken everything I've ever learned through my own experience, various learning environments, and my work with clients and students, and created a 9-week, detailed process for fully knowing and engaging your deepest work. It begins by discovering your sacred calling, a calling that originates in your biology.

I am convinced that each us has a sacred calling that's coded into our very DNA. Unless we do the work of discovering our deepest loves, favorite activities, talents, and strengths we will not reach that state of flow that accompanies self-actualization.  

Your deepest work allows you to change the world. When you know your deepest work, all limitations drop away and you're empowered to change the world. 

My youngest son Jay, who I mentioned earlier, is now 21 years old. He's a talented musician and resides now in Santa Cruz, California. When he was just seven, my marriage to his mother ended and I gained custody of him.

While he was growing up, I felt my sole purpose for living was to raise him to adulthood and see him occupy a place of autonomy and maturity. It was a responsibility and mission sacred as any in my life. Even now, when I write about it, it evokes much emotion. 

I've said many times that during the darker times in our lives, it was he who saved me, and not the other way around; it was he who finished raising me instead of the reverse; that it was he who shared his innate luminescence and lit my path.  

You'll recall that I wrote above having no support in my aspirations as an actor. In Jay's case, I decided early on to allow him to choose his path based on what he found that he loved to do more than anything else.

His music, his most meaningful work, his deepest work, is already evident and he is actively engaging it at 21. He has a lifetime ahead, as all of us do, but he possesses more direction at 21 than I did.