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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. Tina Doan

    I love the idea of a theme for our goals! That’s a great way to tie it all together and keep focused. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Love this post! Thank you so much for the kindness with which you shared your story. It gave me courage to be more gracious to myself.

    I’m in the process of setting goals for 2012 for my own life an business. I’ve determined to use your method (or, rather, Mari’s) of determining a theme for the year.

    Mine? Freedom.

    Yes, I want to be successful, fulfilled and all the other “typical” things, however I want freedom. Freedom to be more myself and freedom to touch more lives and connect in more profound ways.

    Powerful! I’m off to clarify and expand my definition of what freedom means.

    Thanks so much for this timely insight.

  3. Janet Moncada

    Peace! Great article.

  4. Lisa L.

    This is a good reminder that new years goals are meant to have you grow as a person, so my word is growth. I want to have a distinction between who I am now and who I will be next year. Love this post!

  5. Uma Murthy

    Productive! Thanks.

  6. Donna Moore

    Great idea for goal setting!!! I love it!

  7. Wonderful ! values towards evaluation and estimation.

  8. I have been consistently looking for balance in my life, but none of my past years goals have reflected that focus. Thanks Tina for bringing this to light.

  9. Failure to review… that would be me. I’m great at setting goals, but making them a measurable success is the tough part.

  10. Tina Soul Sista’ ~ What a wonderful piece!

    My 2012 word is “mindfulness.” I love this simple approach … kudos to you and Mari.

    P.S. I met Mari last year at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in the Bay Area. What a vibrant, beautiful woman. I’d take her advice any day :)

    ~ Cat

  11. I can totally relate to your 2011 goal-setting experience…I, too, just wrote down a bunch of random goals…and surprise, surprise, didn’t check off too many of them.

    I love your idea of having a theme for the year! Mine instantly chimed in: Independence. I can’t wait to follow your steps and come up with a plan.. :) I also loved the idea of a symbolic reminder – that really caught my attention. I’ll definitely be checking out your suggested resources and looking for one that just screams “independence.”

    Thanks, Tina, for an awesome article!


  12. Thanks for the article I will try my best to integrate the one word theme in my life. I have decided that my word for this year will be FOCUS. I need it desperately to stop being so scattered both mentally and with my environment and possessions! I hope I win the necklace too!

  13. sarah r.

    my one-word theme for the year LAST year was balance. :) great minds think alike! this year, it’s “embrace.” as in, embrace each moment.

  14. KC

    I’ve always thought resolutions were over-rated and ineffective. I however set 2 resolutions this year. The first was to do a gratitude journal once per week (which I have kept up for the 1st 5 weeks) and the second was to meditate at least 10 minutes every day. I have probably missed 5 days so far, but overall it has been going pretty well. However, I like the idea of a word. My word for the year is love. I want to love myself, love my friends, love my family, and love the people that I have seemingly nothing in common with. Through love I want to be much less judgmental of myself and others.

    Best of luck with everyone and their words or resolutions/goals!

  15. Cheryl

    Thanks Tina!

    My word is ‘confidence’. I was incredibly surprised that as I read the article, the word ‘confidence’ immediately sprang to my mind. The more I think about it the more I think that it will be the one thing that will help every aspect of my life. Wow.

    I have done the setting goals thing and then reviewing a year later and been disappointed. It’s almost like just magically expecting things to have happened just because they were written down!

    Good luck in living a balanced 2012 : )

  16. I did this during Lent last year and found it very helpful. My word is honesty.

  17. Luvlee

    Thanks so much for this, Tina.

    I thought a bit about making “happiness” my theme for this year, but I actually think “abundance” is a better, more direct goal for me.

    I had some very high highs and low lows last year which resulted in me setting up some lifestyle changes (meditation, eating healthy, yoga, reading, decluttering, gratitude journal) in order to get myself balanced. I see that I’m doing the work now and seeing the benefits moment by moment. I know that I need to allow myself to receive all of the positive results of this practice. No questioning or skepticism. Just gratitude. Hence the theme of abundance.

  18. Joanna

    Thanks for the awesome post! :)

    My word for this year is ‘adventure’. I want to stay focused on tasks that will help me achieve adventure in the future (backpacking in Europe this summer) as well as see adventure in everyday life. I want to enjoy doing artwork more and not see it as a chore, and also be more spontaneous everyday, talking to new people or working outside in the sun.

    I think step 4, ‘One Goal at a Time,’ is especially helpful because I have so many things I’d love to do or be great at, but when I’m honest with myself, I can only do a few things. So if I pick a few simple goals and make them habits, one at a time, I won’t feel the pressure of failing to achieve my goals and become overwhelmed. Thanks for the tips! :)

  19. Misty Cannon

    I am in process of trying to define my life theme for the year. I wasn’t aware that I had so many scattered goals that keep me distracted. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I find them encouraging.

  20. Divya

    Great Post Tina! When I started reading this, two words kept flitting about in my mind- Faith and Balance- So i guess thats what my year is going to be all about.

    Great site by the way…loads to take away from it :)

  21. Wee

    Hi Tina,

    Always <3 your piece and inspired by them but never really have the courage to write you a comment.

    My theme for this year is "Change". I actually just got a tattoo on my wrist that says "Anicca" – impermanence, earlier this year. I use it as a constant reminder that change is the only constant in this world.

    I have this strong urge to change, to quit the job that left me unhappy, to live the life I always wanted. And inside my head I have lots of ideas I felt like I should do to make this change a reality, but none of them has been done. After reading this piece, I know what I need to do. I need to focus on one goal at a time.

    Hopefully by the end of the year, I can proudly say that I have lived my theme. Thank you for the inspiration!

  22. My theme is going to be ‘change’. :)

  23. I like this approach. I use something similar in working with clients and I think the power of focus, driven by a single theme, is largely lost in this multitasking, everyone should be everything world.

    Exceptionally well said!

  24. Jenica

    I love all your articles and find them very inspiring. My theme for this year is recreation. It has helped me in re-creating each space in my home. I am re-creating my approach to relationships with family and friends. Also, I am trying to include more physical activity and fun into my everyday. Happy New Year!

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