Writing about goal setting around New Year’s is probably a bad idea since there will be a plethora of articles about it, but I wanted to share my experiences with the hope that it might be helpful to some people. Goals are simple on the surface (“just do it!”) but become complex and multifaceted animals once you start to grapple with them. They’re our attempts to bring certainty and order to our chaotic lives by creating signposts to look for and reach for. They keep us from drifting aimlessly in this world of infinite possibilities which can drive a person mad with hope or dread. They’re symbols of our worldview and what drives us and motivates us. What we establish as the aim of our lives signals to others what we value and what is the endgame of our existence.
One of the most significant things I’ve done with respect to goal setting occurred during Christmas 2013. I was living in Egypt while working and studying Arabic and had just been informed by the University of South Carolina that my appeals to remain in the country despite the political unrest had all been denied. I had secured an internship in Milan, Italy and didn’t have the money or time to fly home for Christmas. Instead, I traveled to a little beach town in the Sinai Peninsula called Ras Shitan. The travel was an experience in itself since I was traveling alone (and there had been terrorist attacks there recently), but the significant event was that I chose to spend the majority of my 5 days there simply reading, writing, and setting goals, and what came out of that week significantly impacted my future.
All of the traditional strategies promoted for effective goal setting were important in designing my goals, such as the SMART framework (specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, timely), but I want to focus on 5 things that helped me design my goals.
1. Big Picture
It’s hard to imagine setting goals for five days if you’ve never tried, but once you dive in, it absorbs hours of time as you search for a place to even start. I started really big: the meaning of life. I was going through a period of transformation regarding my most fundamental beliefs, so this wasn’t an unfamiliar question, and it was coupled with the need to determine what direction I wanted to take with my MBA. Unfortunately, the meaning of life was not solved during the mere 5 day time period, but I used the fragments of big picture ideas to help guide me.
It’s important to start with the big picture—whatever that might be for you, whether religion or humanism or something else entirely. This is the framework of your life and the context in which everything else acquires meaning and significance. Being as clear as you can about your “mission” in the one life you get helps you eventually narrow down to what you need to do today. The big picture may evolve, and that’s OK, but the crucial thing is to have something—anything—to ground yourself.
The horizon with which you plan is crucial to the success of goal setting. Focusing simply on the new year is the default, but it's a sure path to failure. One year is far too short to achieve anything of lasting importance. I established 25 years as the upper limit of my goals. It could’ve been 50, but 25 years is a good horizon to accomplish big things without getting into complete speculation. In addition, every year when I revise my goals, I’m placing them into the same buckets even though my reference point has changed. 25 stays 25 so I'm continually planning further out in manageable increments.
The horizons I chose were 25 years, 10 years, 5 years, 2-3 years, 1 year, and 6 months. I also created yearly and monthly buckets for things I wanted to continually accomplish, such as exercising or reading at least 50 books a year.
I then broke down my life into specific sections: Physical, Spiritual, Mental, Professional, and Social. Diverse goals were important to me in order to improve myself holistically, not myopically. Setting goals in only one area of life can lead to stagnation or boredom.
Using these categories, I started to brainstorm and think through what I wanted to accomplish in those areas within 25 years. Once I had the big ideas defined for each category (3-5 per category seemed manageable), then I worked backwards and started placing more manageable, incremental goals into the “horizon buckets” I had already created.
Working backwards and breaking down big idea goals is important. For example, one of my goals was to read 2000 books in 25 years. This type of goal takes consistency over multiple years. To achieve that goal, I created a yearly goal of 50 books (yes, it doesn’t add up, but I’m assuming I’ll read more books as the years go on). Another major goal I had was to start 3 successful businesses within 25 years. This is much more general, so working backwards, I set the goal of starting one to two within 10 years, basic business plans drawn up in 2-3 and 5 years, and a brainstorming goal every week.
Skills are critical to reaching big picture goals because they are the tools with which we form the world into our dreams. I recommend creating a list of skills and using that to drive further goals.
Once everything is laid out and put into the proper buckets, the only thing left is execution. This is obviously the hardest part and requires a determined sacrifice of time and energy. One of the most important keys to success is to keep your plan constantly in your mind. For me, I created notes in Evernote for the full list of goals, monthly goals, and the skills list. Evernote has a reminder feature you can enable on individual notes so I set them for weekly review. Every Saturday, I get a notification on my phone and computer to review these goals.
This method is not for everyone and I’m sure it can be improved, but it has helped me tremendously and brought a directional aspect to bear on my free time. I’ve also accomplished more than I thought I would in faster time frames than I anticipated.
The critical thing to remember is that goals are not ends in themselves. Running that marathon you’ve always dreamed of won’t make you happy if you treat it like an end. Goals are means of enjoying this one, beautiful life we have in more and more diverse ways without getting lost in a sea of options and ending up treading the water of uncertainty.
We should probably call them “Means” instead of “Goals.” But it just doesn’t sound the same.
Feel free to share things that have helped you set goals and stay with them in the comments!