It’s almost the new year. For many, this is a time to start thinking about new year’s resolutions and what lofty goals will be achieved in the upcoming year. Maybe you do the same. After all, you tell yourself that 2019 is going to be your best year yet.

You’re excited as you write out the significant changes you’re going to make. You tell yourself:

“I am going to lose those 20 pounds of ‘holiday weight.'”

“I am going to get that promotion.”

“I am finally going to follow through with that business idea of mine.”

You almost get a high just thinking about the progress you are going to make. You daydream about the type of person you will become when everything goes as planned.

But by the end of the year, you inevitably fall flat. What seemed like laser focus at the onset slowly morphed into an array of half-baked attempts. Somewhere along the way you lost focus and decided to change directions.

Why exactly does it always seem so difficult to follow through with our new year’s resolutions?

Why Your System Failed

Setting resolutions at the beginning of every year then failing to accomplish over half of them is something I am intimately familiar with. Every year I would do my due diligence by taking out a notepad and pen and spend a good 30 minutes hashing out my goals for the new year. It was thrilling to write out the results that future me was soon going to accomplish (present me is always so optimistic about future me).

But as the year slowly came to an end, I realized I still had a lot of my goals left unaccomplished with not enough time remaining. Many were either forgotten about or abandoned due to a change in direction. I simply lost motivation. I lost focus.

After reflecting on making these same mistakes for many years, I think I finally understand why I and many others are bad at sticking to our goals. Here are a couple of reasons that I have observed:

Lack of Clarity – Often I am so excited to create new goals for myself each year that I overlook “the why” of what I am doing in pursuit of “the what.” After all, don’t we all want to be healthy, wealthy and happy? Not having a clear understanding of why I am doing something leads me to work on what is most urgent instead of what is most important.

Shiny Object Syndrome – In the age of the internet where it is so common to see the fruits of others’ success, it is easy to think that you can quickly mimic their path with similar results. After being disappointed by your lack of instant success in learning something new, you get distracted and pursue the next “hot” thing. You continually pursue the short game instead of opting for the long game.

Setting Unachievable Goals – We are naturally bad at making predictions about future outcomes. It’s easy for us to ‘dream big’ when writing out our goals but we don’t take into account how much time it will really take to achieve something. We often overestimate what can be accomplished in a year but underestimate what can be achieved in five or ten.

Fear – We often recognize that in the presence of fear lies an opportunity for growth, but it’s still difficult to follow through. It’s effortless to declare that this is the year that you will finally attack your fear head-on. It’s another thing entirely to spend the time to logically break down your fear into manageable pieces that you can overcome step-by-step.

Procrastination – We are all aware of this one but are all still guilty of it. It tends to be more of a symptom of the previously listed reasons rather than the root cause itself. Having an understanding of why we are procrastinating is often the first step towards progress.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”

—Seneca

Know Yourself

So what can you do to set more effective goals for the new year? First, I would start the process by looking backward before taking the first step forward. Allow me to explain.

If I were to pinpoint the one change I made that has helped me go from creating aimless goals to making purposeful goals that garner action, it would be this: self-reflection.

That’s it. It sounds so simple yet is something that has taken real effort to achieve. Only by taking the time actually to understand what you want out of your life can you then start forging a path that aligns with your core values and desires. Think of it as defining the map before beginning the journey.

So what exactly is self-reflection and how has it worked for me to define better goals?

My initial response would be that it is a dedicated time for mental housekeeping. I use a journal to pick my brain as I answer questions such as how my day is going, what’s going well so far in my life and what isn’t working. It’s a time to measure progress made on the habits and targets I have set. To also gauge my current emotional and physical state. To take a moment to be thankful for what I already have.

I keep track of my reflections in a daily journal that I fill out each morning and evening. If there are more significant questions ruminating in my head, I will perform a brain dump into another journal that I use to collect random ideas and observations. This entire process takes about 10-15 minutes each day divided up between the morning and evening. I then sit down over the weekend (typically Sunday evening) to perform a weekly review to make a note of my progress towards my goals.

This process of taking the time to observe where I am in life has led me to live a more conscious life. It has made me more aware of the mistakes I make as well as what habits are having the most positive impact on my life. It has helped me better understand my energy cycles so I know when is the best time to get work done and when I should take time to rest.

Along the way, it has also taught me how to set intentional goals. By paying more attention to my system for setting goals and less on the goals themselves, I have come away with a few keen observations. These observations have since become three methods that I use to design my goals.

Systems Over Goals

The first step to accomplishing your goals is knowing how to properly define them. Many people are bad at defining their goals because they base them on outcomes instead of their identity.

For example, how often have you heard people say, “I want to lose 20 pounds this year” or “I want to run a half marathon.”

These goals get based on a particular outcome. They may be well-intentioned, but for the majority of us, this type of thinking falls short.

We set outcome-based goals because they take no time to think up and write out. We create a target number and attach a deadline to it and call it a day. What we fail to do is give clarity to our goal. We define the result but we aren’t clear on the path to get there or why we should pursue it at all.

Let’s take the “I want to lose 20 pounds this year” example and see how we can add clarity to it, so it becomes easier to tackle.

First off, you must understand why you want to lose 20 pounds. Is it because you are overweight and you want to live a healthier lifestyle? Or are you trying to impress other people online by posting photos of your physique during the summertime?

While either intention is likely powerful enough to motivate you in the short term, the second intention is unlikely to drive you to keep those pounds off forever. The reason being your first intention is rooted in identifying yourself as a healthier person while your second intention is rooted in impressing others. When the seasons change or if you lose interest in the opinion of your peers, your goal gets separated from its purpose.

When you identify yourself as the type of person that is healthy you will want to operate your life in a way that aligns with your identity. Your goal shifts from being outcome driven (I want to lose 20 pounds) to being process driven (Did I work out today?).

Tying your identity to your goals will have you better prepared to stay on track when motivation inevitably fails you. Having the identity of someone that is a healthy individual prompts you to build systems in your life that make the goal manageable.

So the first step to creating purposeful goals is to understand what type of person you want to become. From there you can begin to develop habit-based systems that push you towards success. So if losing weight is a goal of yours in 2019, consider the following systems that you could implement right now:

  • Create a shopping list before going to the grocery store and only buying what’s on the list. If there is no junk food in your kitchen, it will become much more difficult to eat.
  • Pack your gym bag before you go to bed to eliminate one additional step for going to the gym in the morning.
  • Schedule a workout on Saturday mornings so that you won’t be tempted to stay out late drinking on Friday nights.

All of these steps are inherently easy to commit to but can have profound effects. By planning ahead, you remove resistance from your life for those difficult moments when you are stressed, tired and unmotivated. Trying to constantly brute force yourself into completing goals is either going to be met with resistance or burnout.

Eliminate to Gain

Every new year I would always write out a multitude of goals pertaining to health, wealth, knowledge and self-improvement then attempt to attack them all simultaneously. And every year I would end up having to put some goals on the back burner while doing my best to try to maintain the others. I had good intentions but it was just too much for me to keep up.

Having goals competing against one another for your time and attention will ultimately cause you to come up short. I’ve since learned that the best way to achieve success is to have fewer goals to strive for. Find out what your most important goal is at the moment and put the rest on pause. You will be amazed by how much you can accomplish when you focus on one goal at a time.

Since I still have more than one goal a year that I would like to achieve, I have incorporated a 90-day system. Essentially, I have 90 days to fully focus on achieving one goal. This is roughly 13 weeks of time that I use to break down my goal into manageable chunks. This allows you to have a laser focus on four major goals throughout the year instead of committing partial effort towards a multitude of goals all at once.

This system also sharpens your ability to determine what is most important for you to focus on when presented with countless options – a valuable skill within itself. Knowing that you only have 13 weeks to make real progress will keep you from wanting to jump around from goal to goal thus preventing shiny object syndrome.

Of course, some goals take much longer than 13 weeks to accomplish. If you expect your goal to take much longer, I still recommend using the 90-day period as an evaluation phase to measure progress and determine if you need to tweak your plan of attack. It is still a powerful tool for training yourself to stop multitasking and direct your full focus towards your goal.

Working Backward

Another method that has allowed me to set better goals is to work backward. I visualize my future self already having accomplished what I want then work backward to determine what steps would need to be achieved to make it true. This type of thinking was inspired by the idea of counterfactual simulation presented in Josh Kaufman’s bestseller, The Personal MBA.

Ask yourself “what if” questions and let your brain fill in the holes as it tries to determine a most believable path to the desired result. This type of thinking allows you to consider outcomes that you would typically dismiss due to fear or uncertainty. Letting your imagination roam free can spur unique ideas that traditional thinking may otherwise overlook.

Take for example you have a goal this year is to double your income. This is a lofty goal that many of you wouldn’t even consider due to it seeming near impossible. But what if you applied counterfactual simulation to this scenario. Say you currently make $50k but want to earn $100k by the end of the year, how could you make it come true?

Ask yourself, “What would have to be true for me to double my income by the end of 2019?”

Would you need to change jobs or negotiate a raise? Most likely either option isn’t enough to raise your income 100%. But could you make the right decisions to negotiate a new position that commands a 40% raise? What skills would you need to develop to find a job willing to offer you $70k?

Say you do find that job that offers you $70k, that still leaves you $30k short of your goal. What do you do next? Let’s take the remaining $30k and divide it by the 12 months you have and that leaves you with an additional $2.5k/month needed in order to reach your goal. What would need to occur in order to earn this remainder?

Could you list your place on Airbnb a couple of times a month? Would it be possible for you to list it for $100/night and have it booked every weekend? This would earn you an additional $800/month on average towards your final goal.

So how could you bridge the gap for the final $1.7k/month needed? What skills do you possess that others value and would pay for? Do you know how to code well enough to help others build their own websites on the side? Are you a skilled marketer that could sell your services to new brands that need help promoting their products or services?

Think about what skills you have developed that you find easy that others struggle with and learn to promote yourself. If you can prove your worth to potential clients, you could negotiate a flat monthly retainer for your work. Find a client that is willing to pay you $1.7k/month or two for $850/month, etc. You have now created a path connecting you from where you are to where you want to be.

The purpose of the exercise is to be creative by coming up with as many possibilities as you can no matter how crazy they might sound. If anything, you will come away with a better understanding of what it will take to reach your goal. You might end up recognizing that you don’t see a viable path towards success so you re-calibrate your goals to what you think is achievable.

Working backward helps morph your goals from something that appears far off and abstract to something that is concrete only needing the right action steps to reach. Realize that fear and avoidance creep in when we don’t have a clear understanding of something. Once you recognize a path to success is possible, you will be much more prepared to tackle your goal with the necessary focus.

“Never rule out a goal because you think it’s unattainable. Be audacious. There is always a best possible path. Your job is to find it and have the courage to follow it.”

—Ray Dalio

Taking the Plunge

2019 is fast approaching but don’t let a particular date on the calendar dictate when it is okay to start making improvements in your life. Stop wasting time and take action right now. I encourage you to spend a couple of hours upfront to really spend time with yourself to understand what you want out of your life.

Spending time in self-reflection may initially seem like a waste, but the guidance it can give you will pay dividends in the long run. It’s time to stop slapping a bunch of outcome-based goals together so that you can feel good about yourself for being “productive.” Recognize that focus plus direction will inevitably lead to success. So take the time to ask yourself what you want out of this life and how you plan to get there.

“To be able to ask a question clearly is two-thirds of the way to getting it answered.”

—John Ruskin

I definitely don’t have all of the answers when it comes to this, but learning how to approach my goals with greater intention has only been a positive experience. I hope to share my goals for 2019 in a future post to provide an in-depth look into my process as well as create a form of accountability. Knowing that my goals are plastered online for all to see will be enough encouragement to ensure that I follow through with them.