So, you want to set goals—but you’ve done that before, and it hasn’t gone so well? Lovely. I know this terrain, and I’ve got a few things to say about how to set goals that you actually follow through on, and that feel good. But first?
When it comes to goals, as it comes to everything else in life, there’s this: in pursuing them, you must walk that line between wildly unrestrained ambitions that serve your deepest purpose as a human being, and using goal-setting as a tool for a process rather than an outcome.
Translation? When asking yourself how to set goals you need to go beyond just the “how.” To enjoy goal-setting for your year, you don’t hold yourself back in terms of how big your vision, but at the same time, you recognize that goal-setting is just a tool. It’s part of process, and as soon as you get attached to outcome, it becomes a miserable process.
When I’m setting goals for the year, and I want that process to feel good, what I describe here is exactly what I do. I’m a fan of a large sheet of un-lined paper and Micron pens, but other people love the feeling of keys under fingers—however you work through this process, make sure that where and how you record what you record feels nothing less than delicious.
1. Go wild with what you want. In this stage, you’re letting it all hang out and you’re breaking the bounds of “reality.” When I’m goal-setting from this place, I’m writing down everything I desire without telling myself to “be realistic” (which is a real joy-killer). Do I want to wake up in a gorgeous apartment in Florence that’s outfitted with mid-century modern furniture, and my toddler is in a great mood and our family takes a walk to our favorite cafe for breakfast, and I’m fluent in Italian? Well, then—that’s what I’m writing down.
2. After you expand, contract. Start narrowing down what you’d like to do with your year by looking at what you could make happen in quarterly or six month increments. For one year, I typically stick to threes: three things you’d like to experience, three things you’d like to have, three things that you’d like to “achieve.” The things you’d like to experience would be the one-offs: dinner at Chez Panisse, go zip-lining in the redwoods. The things you’d like to have are possessions: a new pair of black boots or an easel. The things you’d like to “achieve” are the things you’d like to do, this year: train for the triathlon, have more coffee dates with friends, get involved in the activist community.
3. Don’t get attached to outcome. Both when I’m going wild with what I want, as well as when I’m starting to narrow in on some of the specifics that are time-bound for the year, I keep in mind that I’m not interested in the result/outcome, so much as I am in the process. Process is everything, folks. Because I might never get that apartment in Florence with a cheerful toddler where I’m speaking fluent Italian, but just thinking about that a.) lights me up, and b.) has me conjugating a few Italian verbs, which results in c.) my brain starts to whir. Maybe we could put our house on AirBnB…maybe there’s a family in Italy who would want to spend a summer at our place while we stay in their place…does the local community college offer an Italian class? Let me check…
4. Make goals that feel good. Which is why I’m always, of course, referring people to Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map process.
5. Work backwards from goals, and set up milestones. If I want to train for a triathlon, I’ll look at where I need to be, distance-wise, by race day. Then I’ll work backwards and think about what steps will lead up to that. What mileage will I need to have trained up to, by the time I’m halfway to race day? Same goes for things that I want to have—how much time or money will I need? When will I anticipate having that item, and what do I need to do on the way to getting there?
This process works for life, and for business. Let’s say that you start with step number one and write about the goal of making a billion dollars, money is no object, and hey, you’re also creating wild advances in social justice and humanity. Fantastic. You went big-vision with no limits, and that’s the best place to start.
Step two, you narrow things up—you get time-bound with what feels like a resonant goal for just the year, and you decide to make your first $50k or six figures.
Now, don’t get attached to outcome. If you enjoy the process of hitting $50k, you’re going to be far better off than if you’re rigidly attached to MUST HIT MY NUMBERS and make yourself miserable in pursuit of it. Make sure that the idea of hitting those numbers feels good, too.
Last, work backwards from your goals and set up milestones. What do you need to be doing, consistently, each quarter, to work towards that goal?
I suppose there’s one other step, which is trusting that you can handle however it all pans out. In other words? I’ve set plenty of goals that haven’t panned, out but because I don’t equate finishing the goal with my worth as a human being, I tend not to get too upset when things don’t go as I’ve planned.
All you can do is decide to put the work in, consistently, and the rest will unfold how it unfolds. If you decide that the process of how to set goals matters more to you than the final product—the goal itself—you’ll find that you do make recognizable shifts towards changing your life, and the entire process feels resonant and real, as something that supports your life without overtaking your life.