For about a decade now, I’ve set goals for myself at the beginning of each year. Ambition has no expiration date, of course, but I’ve found that yearly goals are a good timeframe if I really want to get things done.
Getting my master’s degree, following my chosen career path, learning how to read tarot, traveling to retreats on my own, vacationing in Sweden, and starting a business were all things that happened for me because I set out to accomplish them. And sure, these aren’t earth-shattering things, but we can’t learn and grow from our experiences without planting those initial seeds.
Yet in order to make things happen for myself, I’ve found that I first need to be in the right mindset. In the past, I’ve struggled with depression, had a one-time dream career fizzle, and dealt with unemployment.
Story time: I used to work as an adjunct lecturer at a couple of local colleges. Honestly, I loved working with students, but the pay was very low and the workload was heavy. As a part-time employee with no benefits or job security, I didn’t feel respected, and some semesters the work just wasn’t available.
I didn’t think there was much I could do with my degree, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing. I thought teaching was my only option–and the one I wanted most of all–even if it did mean a very unsteady paycheck.
Today, I work as a content marketer. I’ve also begun Words & Wands as a freelance writer, editor, and consultant (and for a time as a tarot reader, too). And I’m working toward publishing my own fiction writing.
What changed? I stopped trying to pursue something that no longer brought me happiness.
At first, the realization that my dream of teaching wasn’t working out was a serious blow. I felt lost at sea, wandering aimlessly for nearly a year.
Then I thought about how I wanted to feel instead: Creative. Respected. Paid what I’m worth (and then some). Proud of what I do. Successful.
That’s when other options opened up before me. I no longer looked at my life with such a narrow definition of accomplishment–or somebody else’s definition, for that matter.
Coming up with a plan for what you want your life to look like isn’t easy. Yearly goals, however, are an excellent way to build momentum and work toward whatever your dreams are. The most important thing is to write your goals down (and there’s science to back that up!).
Here are just a five of the resources I’ve used to examine what I want out of life and set meaningful goals for myself each year:
1. Look back before looking forward.
A few years ago, writer Gala Darling hosted an online session on goal-setting (or “making magic”) for the upcoming year using a series of questions. I answer these five questions every year now and have found them to be amazing for evaluating what I truly want in my life.
- What worked in the past year?
- What didn’t work in the past year?
- What do I want to release/leave behind this year?
- What do I want to bring in next year?
- What is my overarching goal for next year?
You can use these questions or put your own spin on them. Simply taking the time to look at the past year and reflect on lessons learned is a good first step before you leap into the next year. (If you really want to dive deep, Gala has another video on questions to ask for the new year, too.)
With a new decade upon us, I also used Marie Forleo’s Decade in Review exercise to review the 2010s and get ready to level up in the 2020s. I highly recommend checking out the three-part series here.
Side note: using a really cute planner to write all this stuff down is an added bonus. Gala has recommendations on how to use a Filofax or similar planner system on her site. I used to use one and can say that they’re definitely the ultimate in organization! For 2018, I used an adorable astrology-themed agenda from Kate Spade; for 2019, I had a bullet journal. In 2020, I’m using a fancy hardback notebook from Moo, where I also bought my business cards.
2. Choose how you want to feel NOW.
Last year, I read The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte, and it completely changed my view of how I set my goals.
In the past, I made lists of what I wanted to do, thinking that the end result would be my key to true happiness. But I realized that setting a goal is often kind of backwards when it comes to our personal satisfaction. These statements probably sound familiar to some of you:
- “My goal is to get a promotion at work, and then I’ll feel abundant.”
- “My goal is to travel abroad so that I can feel happy.”
- “My goal is to lose weight, and then I can feel beautiful.”
But why not reverse it? Why not start at how you want to feel and go from there?
It’s easier said than done. For example, if you want to feel beautiful, you could set aside time to paint your nails each week or spring for a new outfit every month. But you could also stop doing something. That might mean no more reading fashion magazines that encourage unhealthy spending and dangerous eating habits in order to fit someone else’s definition of beauty.
Here is a basic overview of the Desire Mapping method:
First, think about all the ways you want to feel over the next year (or some other timeframe). You can write down as many words as you want to. Look up dictionary definitions. Compare synonyms and antonyms.
Then begin narrowing down your favorites. You can break them out into categories, like creativity, health, career, or other aspects of your life. Danielle recommends choosing three to five of these words. These become your Core Desired Feelings, or CDFs: all the ways you want to feel.
At the start of 2017, I chose five words: abundant, balanced, creative, enlightened, and powerful. (Remember, words are wands.) Ideally, everything that I would set out to do this year would circle back to at least one of those feelings. If it doesn’t make you feel the way you want to feel, then you can evaluate whether it truly serves you.
The next step is to decide on the things that you want to do, or the intentions you have, that will make you feel that way. When I looked over my CDFs for the year and the things I wanted to pursue, I realized I could summarize them in three words: Travel, create, and share.
3. Practice gratitude.
I really like thinking about what went right over the past year rather than dwelling on my shortcomings. (Who has time for that anyway?) At the end of every year, I make a list of all of my favorite things that happened over the past year: where I traveled, what I created, the memories I shared with others–even the littler “wins” of the past 12 months.
I started doing this at the end of 2013, which was a difficult year personally and professionally. But when I looked at my list, I realized that so many other wonderful things happened, and the year wasn’t as awful as I could have made it out to be.
Each year that I’ve done this, my lists have grown in size. It’s true: the more you recognize the good things happening in your life, the easier it is to find them.
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor delves into the psychology behind retraining your brain to find the positives in life. His daily gratitude exercises are a great way to get into this habit, too.
Once you create your list, you can also connect it to your personal goals. I picked about a dozen of my favorite experiences from this year and looked at how they made me feel.
No surprise: my top five hit on most or all of my core desired feelings. They may not have been what I had in mind on January 1, but they were just what I needed to feel the way I wanted to feel this year. Looking back at what you made you happy can help you pinpoint what you need more of in your life.
4. Deconstruct (and reconstruct) your life.
A couple of years ago, a work colleague recommended the book Design the Life You Love by designer Ayse Birsel. One of the first steps to designing a life you love is to deconstruct your present life, which is done by breaking it down into its smallest parts.
I decided to “workshop” this on my own by dividing my life into several key categories, such as home, relationships, work, and creativity. From there, I branched out into more specific aspects of my life, like my job, my living situation, the creative projects I was working on, and even my emotions surrounding these things.
Laying it all out there really let me see that one portion was crowded and not completely positive, and the other areas of my life were getting shortchanged because I wasn’t prioritizing them as much.
From there, I was able to put the pieces back together. What goes and what stays? What do you want to change? You can choose a metaphor or “design” for reconstruct your life. (Mine is a rainbow–beautiful and bright, it needs every “color” to signify a life well lived.)
The book’s lesson is this: take a look at how you’re spending your time, figure out what you need more or less of, and create your own unique recipe for a more awesome existence.
5. Find a method that resonates with you.
There are plenty of systems out there for setting goals and prioritizing what matters most. If you’re someone who prefers numbers to feelings, for example, then SMART goals may work better for you. The acronym can vary, but in general these goals are:
It’s not vague like “I focus on my health.” Instead, it’s something like “I do Meatless Mondays every week” or “I quit eating processed sugars.”
Break it down into smaller steps if it’s something big. Writing a novel is a big task, but finishing a chapter each month makes it easier to track your progress.
Is the goal something you can actually do? Will you have to work with others in order to accomplish it? Consider the logistics before you get started.
Winning the Boston Marathon may not be realistic if you’ve only just started hitting the gym, but maybe running a local 5K or half marathon by the end of the year is totally doable for you.
The goal should be accomplished by a clear end date to keep you on track.
I’m really not a numbers or metrics kind of person. However, using the above example of traveling to Stockholm, the goal became much more manageable when I broke it down into individual, achievable steps and kept track of deadlines.
By my definition, the purpose of goal-setting isn’t to have your goals dictate what you should do but for you to decide how to achieve those goals. If your personal goals feel too much like work, it’s probably a sign to reexamine them.
If you’re stuck, think about the specific actions you need to take to make those things happen.
I knew that this past year I really wanted to travel to Sweden; my grandfather was born there, and he always wanted to go back to visit, but sadly, he never did. Taking an international trip definitely signals abundance to me, and it was also something I viewed as enlightening. Plus a vacation is good for feeling balanced between work and play. So I started by thinking about all the things I would need to do in order to make a trip to Stockholm happen:
- Joe and I didn’t have passports, so that was an obvious first step.
- We needed to decide when to go and take time off from work.
- Flights get expensive fast, so I knew I’d have to book ours early.
- I wanted a suite because going back to a room the size of a broom closet after a day out is not my idea of feeling abundant. I did research into what accommodations were available and where they were in Stockholm in relation to major attractions. Once Joe and I found the best place, I booked it.
- I had to figure out what we would do once we got there–and how we would get around. I made a list and developed an itinerary.
- While some things in Stockholm are free or cheap, many of those attractions cost money, so I developed a budget and outlined our potential expenses.
- I used Duolingo to learn a bit of basic Swedish, which was helpful even though almost everything over there is in English, too.
Once I broke it down into manageable steps, it no longer seemed as daunting. Moreover, the more I checked off the to-do list, the closer the trip was to reality. We took our trip in August and September 2017 and had a wonderful time, with few if any hitches in our plan.
What if a year isn’t enough?
If a year doesn’t feel like enough time to go after what you want, try breaking the goal up into smaller steps for each year. If it’s really big, however, or if you think you’ll need more time, choose another end date, like by a milestone birthday or a different calendar year. I did this with my 40-before-40 list, or 40 experiences I want to have before I reach my 40th birthday. (If you’re keeping score at home, I’ve got about six-and-a-half years left!)
Some of these are silly, like partying on a yacht, getting a tattoo, and baking a really elaborate dessert. But some of them are more meaningful to me, like publishing a novel, making and selling artwork, and starting a business (check!). And some items, like traveling internationally and attending a conference, I’ve already checked off my list.
I may not stick to my entire 40-before-40 list. Maybe I’ll revise it as the years pass. For now, I’m using it as my compass to point me toward the life experiences that matter most to me.
What happens if you fall short of your goals?
One year, I wrote down a long list of lofty goals, almost none of which I actually completed. At first, this seemed like a disappointment. Why couldn’t I do these things? Why did I stop going after them?
Looking over the list, I realized that I wasn’t really into those ideas by the end of the year. What’s more, I wrote out the things I did accomplish and realized I liked those things way better. Some of these were later additions to my list of goals, too.
It’s okay to stop going after something if you realize you no longer want it. If you start getting to that point, don’t be afraid to refresh your goals for the year. It’s okay if your definition of success evolves over time.
Finally, take the time to evaluate your progress at the end of what timeframe you’ve decided on. Maybe you’ll find that you did more than you thought you would. Decide on your next steps to keep up the momentum. And if it’s something that’s over and done, figure out what made it so successful, so you can replicate that process in the future.
Above all, you design your own roadmap. You’re in the driver seat, which means you get to choose how and when you arrive at your destination.
How do you like to set goals? Have you achieved something you once thought was impossible? Tell me about it in the comments.