The Art of Goal Setting: 4 Simple Steps to Master Now
We’re in the middle of a pandemic, but setting new goals and making plans might actually be more important than ever.
The new year is a wonderful opportunity to take a completely new perspective on who you want to achieve in 2021 in your career and your life in general.
2020 gave each of us an opportunity – or even forced us – to take another look at our goals, plans, careers, and priorities. So why develop 2021 goals? After all, 2020 didn’t really give us a chance to achieve many of the goals, so don’t we just grab our 2020 list and change the deadlines? If 2020 left you feeling disoriented, you may try to take a new approach to goal setting. Let’s take a look.
Step 1. Perform an audit of your desires
Okay, your old list of goals may be still working – but how do you set goals in a new way? Here’s how you should approach the “life audit” suggested by the excellent journalist and researcher Ximena Vengochea. Here’s a brief outline of steps how to conduct an audit:
- Get a thick pack of 100 post-its (you can take more, but not less).
- Lock yourself in a room where you would have no access to the internet or be able to communicate with people for two hours. Don’t leave the room until you’ve finished the process.
- Write one goal, dream, or challenge on each sticky note. Yes, you need to write 100 or more.
- When you’re done, group the stickers into categories. You could have stickers about “relationships”, “professional skills”, “adventures” and so on. Now you have a ready-made distribution of life priorities: the more stickers are in a category, the more important this area of life is for you.
- Put the list to work. In the next few sections, you are going to learn the steps to how to start chasing your dreams.
Why it works:
The audit allows you to take a peek into your subconscious. Writing the first 30 stickers is very easy but the real fun begins later on. At first, it seemed that you have listed all of your dreams in these 30 stickers. You may even get a little sleepy (Remember: there is no phone or people in the room. But then you may get a breakthrough and start writing amazing and inspirational goals that you had no idea you ever wanted to achieve.
Grouping stickers by topic opens your eyes to your priorities. You may develop a strong emotional attachment to many of the goals on this list. These were not just “useful” or “right” goals to be achieved. For example, instead of the trivial “go on vacation”, you may add a real dream “to fly into space”.
The list may include goals that only require time to achieve and now new skills or other resources. For some goals, very little time is needed. You may complete dozens of goals from the list during the first two weeks after the audit. By enjoying these low-hanging fruit, you set the right vector for achieving the rest of the goals.
A life audit is a great source of inspiration for the next step.
2. Formulate goals for life
So now you have a list with a hundred goals and a new understanding of what was important to me. But working with the new list turned out to be even more difficult than with the New Year’s promises: it was banally longer and without a strict deadline, and some goals seemed completely insane.
Now it’s time to apply the lessons learned by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ryan Ellis. In his 1200-slide presentation Lessons from my 20s, he talks about setting long-term goals.
Here’s how to set goals for life correctly:
- Create a simple table in Google Sheets made of several (up to seven) rows and three columns
- In the columns, enter three levels of goals: for the next year, for ten years, and until the end of life.
- Write your goals on the lines (ideally five to seven in each column).
- Print two copies on the printer. Yes, you are going to need a paper copy.
- Date and sign each copy by hand.
- Insert sheets into two frames. Place one in your bedroom and the other on your desk.
- Update the list once a year.
You may also use one of the templates for goal setting:
Why it works:
While the list of goals turns out to be small, you can keep them all in your head and use them to align your daily decisions. Signing the document is very important. A signature means a contract, and we all take contracts seriously, don’t we?
Before formulating goals for life, we may think that goal setting would increase pressure because now goals will have to be followed, which means you work harder and follow new tasks. It turned out to be exactly the opposite: the stress in your life will suddenly diminish. The clearly defined goals significantly simplify your choices. Now you spend only half the willpower on decision-making: for half of the life situations, the answers are obvious based on your list of goals.
The list of goals hanging above your desk may cause a stir. Your colleagues or family members may start discussing these goals with you which can make you feel embarrassed, especially if some of the goals are personal. But at the same time, you will gain valuable skills in defending your goals.
Finally, the formulation of long-term goals has been extremely helpful. The emergence of long-term goals allows you to test relevance, and you became more aware of the areas of life that these goals cover. A year later, half of the long-term goals may remain unchanged, which gives you a chance to clarify some of them without changing the essence.
So there are your goals. They are focused. How can we effectively move towards them now?
Step 3. Start planning every day
Big goals look scary. We have heard many times about the concept of breaking a big business into many small steps. Get yourself a notebook and start three levels of tactical planning: tasks for a month, a week, and a specific day. It takes discipline and willpower to get the process started at first, but soon, it will work like a clock.
Tactical planning process:
- In the morning, write down the key tasks for the week ahead. Try to limit yourself to five or eight essential tasks.
- After writing down the tasks for the new week, reflect and note what happened in the last week and which tasks have been completed.
- At the same time every morning, write down tasks for the day ahead. For example, you may want to write them down in a notebook and tick them off as you complete the goals.
On the first Monday of a new month, separately write down the five to eight main tasks for the upcoming month. Also, check the status of the tasks from the previous month.
Why it works:
Weekly progress tracking and reflection allow you to systematically improve the quality of your work while looking for areas for growth. For example, to understand what routine work has to be repeated, which means that you can delegate.
At first, you may write down only work-related goals, but later on, you may create a unified list of goals for the day without dividing work and life outside of work. This allowed us to see the big picture and significantly improve the life/work balance.
Formulating goals early in the day helps to focus on value-increasing, benefit-yielding tasks instead of urgent ones. As you go ahead and optimize the planning system, you now have to optimize yourself in order to drive enough willpower, self-discipline, and motivation to follow this plan.
Step 4. Build your routines
If you dig deeper into the nature of willpower, you will quickly realize that this superpower is finite. A person can make a limited number of decisions in a day, and then the will, which is necessary to make decisions, simply depletes.
When we embark on something new, we experience a surge of motivation, but when the novelty wears off, the motivation quickly diminishes. The brain begins to expend its willpower to keep the progress going.
Thankfully, habits require no willpower. In order to use your will fuel effectively, you need to form good habits so that you do not waste willpower on regular decision-making. BJ Fogg talks about this in his TEDx talk.
Here’s how to create a new habit:
- Define the trigger which would be the event or action that the habit will follow.
- Identify the minimum action that will get you closer to forming the habit.
- Figure out how to reward yourself for doing the right thing.
- Repeat the minimal action after trigger for at least 30 consecutive days. The brain takes time to retrain.
- Use the newly formed habit as a trigger for the next one.
Why it works:
Building a combination of habits has proven incredibly effective. It allows you to complete a lot of things on full autopilot. This way, more things get done, and you have more energy than before. New habits allow you to spend your will fuel on really important, value-yielding goals and spend the rest of the energy on achieving these goals.
Bonus step: List your 2020 accomplishments
This simple goal-setting system could be complete but here’s another exercise to boost your goal-setting morale. Starting your 2021 goal-setting journey by first listing all your accomplishments in 2020. Yes, all of them, however little or insignificant they may look to you. Looking at the lines or patterns in these accomplishments will reveal where they are leading you.
We all need a guiding light to help us through the darkest times. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are always prepared for the unexpected. If you’re committed to your goals and dedicated to achieving them, you’ll find yourself energized by the possibilities and motivated for success well into 2021.