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How to Set Goals – To Create the Best Year

Photo by Kevin Russ

For New Year’s Eve 2011, Jeremy and I sat down and made our goals for the year. We made sure the goals were measurable, challenging, and lead us in the direction we wanted to go. After all, the experts say to set SMART goals. As diligent students, we complied.

Well, I accidentally opened up this document last week, for the first time since we created it (more than a year ago). I had completely forgotten about it. Reading through every line of the document, I felt a surge of guilt and disappointment.

You know that feeling in your stomach, almost ashamed that nothing on the list—of supposedly important items—were achieved. I didn’t end the year with 30K facebook fans, I didn’t do yoga everyday (In fact, not even once for the whole year), I didn’t become an early riser, and my living & working space is still messy.

In the same document, I looked up my husband’s list and email his weight training goals asking where he is compared to those targets. He replied with, “I was stronger when I set those goals than I am now.” I sensed disappointment in his words and instantly regretted sending him such a gloomy reminder.

And then I was thinking, isn’t this what we do to ourselves every year? We either set no goals or too many goals. If we fail to set goals, we’ll torture ourselves for feeling like a failure, because we have no goals. And if we do set goals, we’ll torture ourselves for feeling like a failure for not accomplishing the goals.

Year after year, we set long list of goals (if we actually set them) with arbitrary quantities to mark as targets. Then feeling disappointed when we review these goals some time down the road. We create the suffering. We bring it on to ourselves.

Let’s find a new way of setting goals and creating New Year resolutions that will actually make us feel good, and will actually help us.

Problem with Goals & Resolutions

Before diving into a better solution, let’s review some inherit problem with setting a bucket list of goals and why New Year resolutions doesn’t work.

1. Lack of Focus

Too many goals make it impossible to focus on any one.

The more diffused our awareness become the harder it is to focus. Without focus, we cannot achieve or produce or create anything.

Having too many things to focus on leaves us feeling overwhelmed and uncertain as to where we shall begin. Our brain, which naturally seeks the path of least resistance, will want to shut down, and will unconsciously start to avoid the goals all together.

For example, my goals for TSN last year (one of many categories) was the following list of random targets:

  • 1,000,000 monthly pageviews
  • 30,000 facebook fans
  • 30,000 rss subscribers
  • Community features

I had completely forgotten about this list and thus failed to focus on any one item. My brain had gone into shutdown mode. There are simply too many things to focus on.

2. It’s Easy to Focus on Failure

We tend to focus on what we didn’t do than what we did do. When reviewing our goals, our eyes and hearts will gravitate towards all the things we didn’t do, and then we feel bad.

This is the problem with a list of any kind–even to-do lists. It’s far too easy to undervalue and thus fail to celebrate our achievements, because it’s just one item out of a long list of uncrossed, unachieved goals. When we review our goals and achievements in list form, it creates the illusion that we have failed, when in reality, we achieved all that we needed to do.

In my personal example, 2011 was one of the most transformative years of my life. I overcame my limited beliefs about money and had freed myself of the painful belief (from childhood) that “I didn’t deserve good things.” which significantly limited my ability to receive. My relationship with Jeremy became closer, as we had envisioned from our couple’s goal.

TSN‘s traffic have more than doubled compared to a year ago, and continues to grow. Additionally, we added more websites into our “Simple Life” network, and collectively exceeded over 6 million impressions each month. Almost overnight, our hobby sites became a business.

That’s a lot of blessing that deserves celebrating. But somehow, when reviewing my bucket list of goals from last New Year, I had forgotten about all the good that’s happened. Now I realized, I’m not such a failure. I’ve actually won. I’ve done all that I needed to do, and everything is as they should be. Everything is perfect just as it is.

3. We Experience Guilt

Since it’s so easy for us to notice and thus focus on what we’ve failed to achieve, we experience guilt, regret, and even shame. We forget that, after all, our list of goals is just an arbitrary list of “shoulds”.

No amount of guilt or disappointment will change the past. It becomes wasted energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

Big lists and many goals can make us feel bad, unnecessarily.

4. Failure to Review

Unless we review the goals regularly, we won’t make any progress. This is because our short term memory is limited to just a few bits of information.

We can keep track of one goal continuously. We cannot, however, keep track of 10 goals without reviewing it regularly. Our short term memory simply doesn’t have that kind of capacity.

I read somewhere that our short term memory can hold 5 (+/-) 2 pieces of information at a time. That means between 3 to 7 pieces of data (by the way, this is why phone numbers are 7 digits long broken up into 3 to 4 digit chunks).

5. Lack of Meaning

Sometimes, we set goals for the sake of setting goals. “It’s time to set goals!” we tell ourselves, and ends up doing a brain-dump of everything we’ve ever wanted. This usually includes an exhaustive list of things we think we should be doing, and things we think will make us happy.

And then we learn from productivity experts that we should set goals that are measurable (I know, I’ve been guilty of this), so we randomly invent a number and attach it as our target. As trivial as this may seem, this little number has the power to make us feel bad when we haven’t reached it at year’s end.

But the number is meaningless. It’s unimportant to us.

What we want is not the number, but rather to feel successful, attractive, happy, and fulfilled. And we think that if we reached this arbitrary target, then we will experience those positive emotions.

As time goes by, we start to forget why we set the goals to begin with. We forget why they were important. They become just another item written down on a list (that we don’t look at again).

When we forget why, it’s hard to feel motivated and inspired to take action on them. When we have many goals (ie. more than one goal), it’s easy to forget why.

A New Approach to Goals

how to set goals
Photo by Cari Wayman

Instead of setting a list of goals at the start of each year, I want to promote a new tradition: Setting a one-word theme for the year. I got this idea from Mari Smith. And it’s a powerful one.

You can remember one word throughout the year. It’s easy to think about and focus on just one theme. It’s also a lot easier to take action and make progress towards this one theme. Having one theme also makes it possible to set realistic follow up goals and milestones.

It’s like having a guiding light beaming in one direction (instead of several directions). All you have to do is to follow that light.

My one word theme for 2012 is Balance.

What this means to me is a general sense of personal wellness, fulfillment, and balance between work & life. It’s a feeling that cannot be objectively measured. I’ll know whether I feel balanced or not. Right now, I feel balanced (because I’ve been writing to you and all the while embodying and integrating the intention of “Balance” today).

Focusing on one word, which I have a positive association with, is so much easier and rewarding than focusing on something arbitrary like “Get 30,000 Facebook fans“. And because there is only one word, there is no struggle to recall what it is.

I think about it often, and carry the essence of it with me as I enter into each day. The result? No matter how rough or how ordinary the day is, I end the day (on most days) feeling good knowing that I had integrated the most important quality that I need into my day: Balance.

Whenever I feel like setting goals for the day, I just ask myself “What can I accomplish today that will help me feel balanced?” The answer may be tackling particular to-do items, or taking the afternoon off to play with my son, or de-cluttering the kitchen counter. I’ll do them, and will feel a great sense of inner fulfillment and wellness.

Having one theme allows me to laser focus on the one thing I need the most.

Last year, my theme was Abundance. And I entered each day with similar intentions. Suffice it to say, last year was complete magic filled with abundance in its various dances.

I also love the one word theme concept because a single word can be interpreted in several ways, thus I can always find a way to integrate the word into my day, without the heavy feeling of disappointment for not hitting a random goal.

For example, when I take care of my body–getting rest, drinking lots of water, eating well and exercising–I am living in accordance with my goal of “Balance”, because those acts promote personal wellness. As such, I feel happy from the act of taking care of my body.

On the other hand: If I had a traditional goal of say “losing 10 pounds in 30 days”, the experience will be different, because my happiness will be tied directly to the digits on a scale. Even though I exercised and ate well, I won’t feel satisfaction until a certain amount of weight loss is reflected from a scale. The former (one-word theme) approach is much more peaceful, gentle, encouraging and reinforcing.

How to Find Your Theme

Enough about me. Let’s work together to find a one-word theme for you. Okay?

When you ask yourself, “What do I want this year to be about?” you may instantly and intuitively feel an answer pop out. If not, try answer the following questions on a piece of paper (instead of just thinking about it) and see what words emerge for you:

  • What does your ideal life look like? What do you want? What do you want to be doing? How do you want to feel?
  • Complete the sentence: I want ____.
  • What one change can you make that will significantly improve the quality of your life experience?
  • If you had to pick just one thing? What do you want the most?
  • Does the word feel good? There are no wrong answers. What you pick is personal and meaningful to you. If it feels good, go with it.

Got it?

Don’t continue until you have your word. I’ll wait.

Using Your Theme

Once you have your one-word theme, here are some thoughts on integrating and using the word into your life.

1. Expand on the Word

One word can have many meaning. Clarify what your word means to you.

I mentioned earlier that the word Balance means (to me): a general sense of personal wellness, fulfillment and balance between work & place.

Ask yourself the following question:

  • What does this mean to me?

Additionally, you can dive deeper into what this picture looks like for you, by answering the following question:

  • What does “a life of [insert word]” look like?

When answering, write down each block of thought in bullet points, without editing. Keep writing until you have nothing else to say.

For example: for me, a life of “balance” looks like:

  • Consistent work schedule and productivity, from which I drawn in a sense of fulfillment.
  • Separation between work and home.
  • Being fully present with my family when I am home. Do not check work email.
  • Time for myself to reflect, read, write.
  • Taking care of my body and health.
  • Living and working in a clean, organized and uncluttered space.
  • Rising with the sun. Getting a beautiful early start to my day.
  • Feeling balanced and well on a daily basis.
  • Taking breaks. Allowing rest and play.

The more clear you can be in describing your picture, the easier it will be to further integrate the word into your experience (because you know what activities you can do to access this experience).

2. Symbolic Reminder

goals
Photo by Karrah Kobus

One trick I started doing last year and found helpful was to get a piece of jewelry that I loved, and using it as a token—a physical representation—that served as a reminder for the word.

Energy Muse had sent me this beautiful necklace last year. When I received it, I named it “Abundance” and whispered a little prayer “You will remind me of possibilities and abunance in this Universe. I thank you in advanced.

I wore it everyday, and when I touched it or saw it in the reflection of a mirror, it reminded me that I am an abundant person living in a incredible universe filled with goodness, good people, and of infinite possibilities. It made me happy.

Additionally, I found two other sources of “conscious jewelry ” which I also love: Zen by Karen Moore (Our soul sister Cat Li Stevenson swears by the hand made jewelry lovingly made by Karen Moore) and KA Gold Spirtual Jewlery (I loved this piece, and wore it until the chain broke from my son pulling on it).

Alternatively, if you have other jewelery or pieces of token that you already love, you can use them too. The point is to have some physical reminders of your “goal” that you can carry with you, and see regularly.

3. Create Goals From Your Theme

If you completed the above exercise on clarifying what the word means to you, you’ll notice that many of the items you wrote down can be converted into mini goals that contribute towards your one-word theme.

For my personality type, I still like to work with goals on a daily basis. But now I set short-term goals that will support my theme, instead of a list of random goals that I think I should be doing.

To find these mini goals, you can either expand on your word, like the exercise proposed from #1 above, or setting goals based on answering the following question:

“What can I do to integrate [insert your word] into my life?”

Allow whatever answers to show up, and write them down without judging or editing.

Please note that these are just ideas. Nothing is set in stone. You do not have to achieve every one of these ideas in order to feel satisfied. Anyone will do the trick. The point is to create a habit of goal setting based on your theme—what’s most important to you.

4. One Goal at a Time

If you did the above exercise or creating goals based on your theme, you will have a list of goals (once again). You will get overwhelmed if you try to work on all of these at once.

Pick just one sub goal, and focus on just that. Work on this goal everyday for at least 21 days, until it’s become a habit. Once the goal is reached or becomes a habit, you can move on to the next mini goal. You may dabble in other related goals if it feels good to you, but always have one as your highest priority.

For example, I’ve just completed the small goal of “separation between home and life” by moving my office completely outside of our home and not taking work home, and I’m currently working on “rising with the sun” by developing the habits of becoming an early riser. Once I develop the waking up early habit, I will focus on de-cluttering.

5. Be Gentle On Yourself

Through out the year, you will experience days where you feel like you are moving in the opposite direction of where you want to go.

Please remember, and commit to, be gentle on yourself.

Every one of us will encounter and experience such days. It’s completely normal and expected.

When these days occur, just give yourself the permission to have “off” days. It’s okay to feel depressed, sad, off-track and cranky. This, like all days shall pass. Everything will be okay. Tomorrow is a new day.

Before You Go …

I wish you a beautiful, productive and happy year from any starting point. Not just for this year, but for all years to come.

Now, before you go, spend a minute to share with me (in the comment below) what your one-word theme is for this year?

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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195 thoughts on How to Set Goals – To Create the Best Year

  1. harmony collins

    Love this! Thanks;)

  2. Jessica

    Love it! thank you for sharing! Love the Energy Muse necklace too!

  3. Great post.

    Sometimes the problem is not with having many goals, but rather lacking priorities. It’s difficult to only set one goal and still be able to keep a balanced effort in all areas in life. What I find working is to have a few goals (3-5) but prioritize them based on either importance and time (long term/short term, etc.), and then also prioritize the tasks you do for these goals as well.

    Finally, most important thing about prioritizing things is that you must really stick to the rule that you finish higher priority tasks before evening think about any less priority things.

  4. Ruth

    Changing mine from “normal” to “healthy”… physically, mentally, emotionally, whatever… just “healthy”.

  5. I wrote a blog post at the end of 2010 titled Resolution or Revolution. It was about just what you are talking about here–realizing that the goals we set every year are not always in our best interest. For about 10 years now I have used a word theme, just like you suggest. My word is always a verb. It is not a resolution or a goal. It is a focus word. I write it on little cards that I put in places where I’m sure to see it through the day. My word for 2012 is Shine.

    Wishing you a balanced year! Love your blog.

  6. Mary

    Wow! Thank you for this. I think I might just make my word “focus.”

    I’m constantly upsetting myself because, whenever I want to set goals, I’m always overwhelmed. There’s so much I want to do, so much I should do, that I get distracted. For example, how could I possibly choose learning to cook over learning to sew over learning an instrument? Which one takes precedent? I become distracted and discouraged because I don’t know what to focus on. There are a million and one things I want to and should be doing, trying, conquering. The knowledge of being unable to do it all is such a hindrance. But I know I cannot let it be. I need to choose one goal, accept it, and focus on it. Step by step. So hopefully, by making my word “focus” I will learn to collect all of my energy on one thing at a time. Take it task by task, day by day, and get what I need and want to done without worrying about the opportunity cost, so to speak.

    Nonetheless, my indecisive tendencies still have me a bit unsure about what I want my word to be. I’ll go back and to your exercise. I thought about “confidence” also, which would be beneficial. But I think focus needs to come first. We’ll see. I guess I should really just choose — I needn’t matter what I choose, only that I begin and, well, focus! haha.

    Sorry for the book!

  7. Kim

    Absolute perfect timing for this share, tweet and post, thanks to Energy Muse for tweeting this post. This confirms and motivates what I already have in process. For 2012 my word is WELLNESS! Thank you for a great read, a boost and a little shove back onto my chosen path!

  8. Kim

    Passing this on to my team! Thanks again.
    2012 the year of WELLNESS, personally, physically, emotionally and financially. Life is good.

  9. Leah

    2012- the year of Love. Love myself, love my family, love the world around me. Find work that I love. It’s going to be an amazing year!

  10. Healthy! 2 year cancer survivor and need to start living like I want to live!!!

  11. Jennien

    My theme word for 2012 is forgiveness…life is hard and we and people fail all the time. I believe if we learn to forgive others as well as ourselves …there is a joy in accepance of what we can not change. And all this stems from finding the strength to forgive. It is a real skill and life is so much lighter and happier with less baggage from holding grudges and being the victim. Send and recieve love and light….forgiveness is my theme : )

  12. Stacy

    My word is Peace.

    Great article, thanks!

  13. Desiree Brown

    Patience….may I have the patience this year to trust in the cycle of life and the right timing of when things should and will happen. No more rushing the process of right timing. The universe knows when the time is right for everything to happen and I want to trust, live, feel and know that all is happening when it is meant to so I can let go of the fear.

  14. Leianne

    My theme is peace. The articles on this site are always a source of comfort to me. Thanks for giving me a little bit of peace every day.

    Namaste-

  15. Laxmi

    Love. I intend to create love in my life in form of soul mate, friends and wealth

  16. Xtensa

    Love & Family xxx Blessings xxx

  17. Edyta

    Great article. For planning I recommend app such as Producteev and evernote, these are very helpful for me.

  18. Dan

    Gratitude. If you have that…….all else must be okay

  19. What a beautiful place to spend some time this morning! I found your site from traceyjacksononline. I love the combination of heart, soul, smarts and practicality here. It’s one thing to write a lovely post on goals, another to provide tools that work along with it. Glad I found you, Tina! Warmly – Claire

  20. Maggie

    My one-word theme is Create. As an artist who’s become side-tracked by motherhood, marriage (and a few other things), I’ve lost an essential part of my identity. Creation comes in so many forms and I think dedicating each day to creating one thing, whether it’s an outfit that makes me feel chic (not easy at 6 months pregnant!) or writing an interesting blog post or baking a cake that makes people happy, is what’s going to connect me back to myself.

    Thank you for helping me reduce my resolution list down to a simple theme!

  21. Susan Sutton

    My thought for 2012 is POSITIVITY. I deal with a few painful health issues and I’m learning that focusing on all the positive things in my life helps me to ignore those health issues. I’m reading positive books, meeting and associating with positive people, watching positive tv shows and doing things for myself that make ME happy! I go to deep water aerobics once or twice a week, spend time walking with my dog and throwing the ball for her. I’ve deleted negative people from my FB page and I avoid people, places and things that are negative, stressful and unhealthy. I’m no prude, mind you! I just have a strong belief in the power of positive thinking, both physically and emotionally. I do have a couple of Energy Muse pieces and I love them! I believe in their power and I’m grateful to have found them. More positivity!

  22. Love the post. My theme a few years ago was balance :) May you find it: physically, mentally and spiritually!

  23. I love love love this post!!!! At the start of this year I launched my own online magazine that I had been working on for a year and a half, shortly before the launch I was fired from my job, and completely lost myself in a relationship. I was completely down about life, yet I was accomlishing something I was working on forever. I could not even allow myself to be happy. I took everything that was happening to me as a failure, instead of a blessing. I did not look at although I lost my job, I was taking the first step on the walk of faith and doing what I always wanted to do, that my job didn’t allow me to. I couldn’t be happy in my relationship because I had carried around so much hurt and just knew I couldn’t for once in my life be finding love. SO focusing on a theme for the year is a huge difference in my life. My theme is “happiness” finding happiness in my daily walk, and knowing each day is a blessing and I should be happy in it. What will I do today that makes me happy inside and out. Thanks for tis post. I love your site!

  24. CD

    First of all, Tina, I want to thank you for setting up this blog site. I think I have been battling a poor sense of self-esteem all my life, and I have always thought that as I grow this problem will take care of itself as I meet the challenges of adulthood. Unfortunately I found myself in my thirties & still battling some of those negative feelings, and I can see now that they have inhibited my growth as a person. I am now making some efforts to improve on my own and have found your site to be a good source of help. I’ve read a lot of articles on tips to improve your life; your articles are emphatic but they actually contain detailed steps and questions that I can use to reflect and take stock of my issues. I’ve sometimes found more general tips to be more confusing than helpful, so I want to thank you and everyone at this site for offering these thoughtful & detailed articles that I can print out, take home & follow as exercise for my self improvement.

    Having said that, I think my theme for this year will be “Awakening”

    Thanks again! I’m glad you’ve found happiness in your chosen path, and I hope one day I’ll be able to say the same =)

  25. Percy

    My one word theme is unwind.

    I find that I’m always in a rush to talk to others, to get places, to do things. I’m focused and I meet deadlines – but the hustle leaves little time to build better relationships, to enjoy the scenery, and to just go with the flow. This theme also is pertinent with my work-life balance. Like some others, I leave work physically but not mentally. I’m usually keeping a to-do list in the back of mind of my work deadlines, leaving me distracted from what I’m currently doing.

    So unwind will remind me to slow down and to just relax.

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