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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

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. KTO

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. As I struggle with a stack of “goals” and “to do lists” after the first of the year, the entire month of January I was paralyzed and unable to move on any of them. By choosing just a single word (TBD) I think I can overcome the overwhelm and start moving onward and upward with my life. Thank you for the inspiration!

  2. michelle

    really helpful article!

  3. michelle

    oh and I’m going for “calm”

  4. Karen

    What a great idea ! Such a simple thing, but I can see this working so much better for me than a whole list of things. Thank you <3

  5. Karen

    I almost forgot, my word is “joy”. Our family faced many challenges last year. I need to work on seeing the joy in life and not focusing on the difficulties.

  6. Jenny

    My goal for 2012 is Happiness. I’ve always been goal-oriented and many times I’ve focused on goals just for the sake of achieving them, without really thinking about my happiness. Lately, I have been pondering about what’s really important in my life, and I’ve realized that I just really want to be happy and content with the present, without trying to get to the next level as soon as possible. So… my theme for 2012 is finding happiness.

  7. I absolutely love this idea. I get too bogged down by an entire list of goals that I cannot focus at all. A theme for the year is just the relief my brain has been searching for! This year my theme is “Simplicity”, I can’t wait to figure out all the ways to make it happen!

  8. Paulina

    My word for this year is TRUST.

    I want to learn to trust myself, the universe and the people around me that I am on the right way.

  9. 2012 – Happiness.

    Love the simplicity of this idea. In November, I launched in an attempt to give sassy happiness a proper place in today’s media, to teach people to choose joy in life and follow life’s little hints to find their own happy place. The world needs a little more love and it can start with me!!! Love TSN. Such a light in my life. Thanks.

  10. Karen

    WOW, WOW and WOW again, what a wonderful and timely post! I have been lost as of late and feel that I am anew and ready to begin again with one simple exercise. Discovering and setting a one-word theme is feeling so amazingly effective and has already lightened my heart. I not only know what my word is but have made a banner to put inside my office above my door (which I face from my desk) so that I see it all day long as a constant reminder when my brain gets to busy.

    My one word? GRACE

    The grace to accept the days challenges (no matter how big or small). The grace to bless others lives. The grace to allow myself to see the beauty of life and living.

  11. Chris

    “59-60” Recently turned 59 and am on my way to the big 60! I want this to be my best year so this has become my theme or motto. So I find myself approaching this threshold with a good degree of excitement and anticipation. I have some goals and actions planned, but it is not simply about doing. It is also about becomming. It is sometimes more of a challenge than you think it will be, but a hopeful and worthy pursuit nonetheless.

  12. Rachel

    my word theme is Present….
    so many variations of meaning, all of them relevant!
    Best regards

  13. Lynne

    This is an amazing time for this article since I have decided that this is “my year”!

    It took me a while to choose just one word but my word is POSITIVITY.

    My focus this year integrates better well-being (health), improved career path/goals, and being able to wake up grateful for everything, smile and laugh a lot, kinder to everyone around me and being able to give back. I also am focusing on just trusting and believing that everything happens for a reason and to let things be if I cannot do anything about it…hence the word positivity.

    I do not typically win in drawings but I believe that if it happens, then it is meant to be.

  14. Victoria

    So much to think about :)

    Mine: De-Clutter (mind & material)


  15. Aneesa

    woww thank you so much for this article!! i’m a senior in high school and i realized that some of the mistakes you mentioned definitely apply to me. (like the list of goals we make) >w<

  16. Oleg

    ReaLife! Thanks, Tina!

  17. Charley

    One word? Almost seems impossible. My first grandchild is due in June, and I want to be able to fully enjoy this eagerly anticipated child. So …. one word …. HEALTH. Physical, mental, spiritual and financial health.

    Thanks for this message – you really made me think about how much one word can mean.


  18. Mike

    Great post! I will think about this tonight. I like the idea of using a physical item as a reminder :)

  19. Gina

    LOve your posts. So glad I stumbled across your blog!

  20. I’ve been using the one-word theme idea for a few years now. I also choose themes for weeks and months as I need to change things up. Interestingly, my theme for this year is also “balance.”

    I do a small painting of the year-theme-word every January and hang it above my desk. Total irony – it took three tries and three different hanging techniques to get “balance” to balance!

  21. I almost laughed out loud reading your description of yours and your husband’s experience looking back at your goals because something very similar happened to me. In December 2010 I wrote a letter to ‘Dear random family member who will never read this because you are fictitious’ dated December 2011 (because all the ‘experts’ said you should claim those goals by writing about them in the present tense!) in which I did the annual round up of what had happened in the previous 12 months. And, like you found, none of it came true and, for a moment or ten I was gutted!

    And then I looked back on the 12 months that had actually happened and, while it was nothing like I had planned for myself, it was still a fabulous year and I reminded myself to take a moment to be thankful.

    I love the idea of just setting a word. Mine is ‘growth’ because I ended 2011 launching a new community so I’d love to see that grow, but I’d also like to grow in my relationships with my three children and husband as well as grow personally. There’s always so much to learn.

    Thank you for making me think and for making me smile. Such a delightful antidote to the usual goal setting advice.

  22. janet

    Explore is my theme for the year. After doing your exercise, Questions to discover your life purpose, this word kept popping up. It also expresses where I am in my life right now, exploring what I want to do and considering new options for my life. Thank you. I don’t think I found your website by accident. :)

  23. What a great post! I definitely need to become more focused this year and stop overwhelming myself with too many goals.

    Thanks Tina!

  24. Larissa

    Hi Tina

    Newbie to your site here. Not one for leaving comment but this one hits the mark:). For the past few years I’ve marked my goals and intentions for each year with a word as my beacon of light. Hope, Couage and Reinvention have come and gone. This year my word is Discovery. For me, I want to discover my passion, my purpose, my joy…..maybe who I really am.

    I also just finished reading all your early blogs and… thank you for sharing and writing. I’m very grateful for stumbling onto your site.

    Take care,

  25. Alvaro

    My theme for the year is, definitely, “Purpose”.

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