Goal Setting

I really love setting goals.  My husband teases that my greatest talent and most beloved hobby (besides reading) is goal setting.  In fact, New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday because, like the first fresh page of a new notebook, it marks the start of a fresh new year.  The possibility of all those personal breakthroughs, those life-changing moments, is as exciting to me as Christmas morning.  In fact, I always ask for goal-supporting gifts for Christmas in preparation for the new year.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me share with you a list of tools that I use to help me achieve those goals, and the process of how I set and achieve goals throughout the year.


  • Notebooks — Never underestimate the power of pen on paper for thinking and planning.  I have a system that keeps my really important thoughts and ideas organized, but before those thoughts and ideas get put into that system, they start out getting hashed through on several pages in a “junk” notebook.  Brainstorming is fun, guys.  The first step in goal setting for me is always brainstorming and thinking on paper.
  • Bullet Journal — These are so hot right now.  You can find general info about what a bullet journal is here, but you probably already know all about it.  I’d always wanted to try one, so this December I requested an “official” bullet journal and some basic supplies for Christmas so I could give it a year-long trial this year.  For the month of December I “practiced” with an old notebook to get into the habit and learn what worked for me and what didn’t before I started in on my beautiful new Leuchtturm 1917 bullet journal in January.  [Look for a project page devoted specifically to my bullet journal with a lot more detail coming soon.]  The bullet journal is my main system for writing down my goals and tracking them month to month.  I review my goals every morning and evening, and sometimes during the day . . . which means that I’m keeping my goals in mind every day, which means I won’t just “forget” to do them.  In fact, consider tracking my goals the real tool!  If a bullet journal isn’t for you, any system that helps you keep your goals in mind each day and holds you accountable will work.
  • The 30-Day Trial — Not necessarily a thing, the 30-day trial is still one of my biggest tools for achieving goals.  Most goals I make are habits or behaviors I want to try and are not necessarily bucket-list type things that have a finish line (I have those, too, but they’re usually broken down into habits).  Instead of thinking “I’m going to start waking up at 6:00 in the morning . . . for the rest of my life,” I tell myself I’m going to just try it for a month.  If it’s a total fail, I can either try it again later, change it a little bit, or abandon it completely.  But here’s what usually happens: I am able to do it for the full 30 days because it’s only temporary.  If it’s hard, I know I won’t be doing it forever.  I’m just trying it.  It’s basically transforming a habit-type goal into a bucket-list type goal–I’m creating a finish line.  The neat thing is that by the time the month is over, I’ll have a good idea about whether this is a habit worth keeping.  I’ll also know if it needs to be adjusted slightly if I choose to continue it for another month.  And best of all, by the last week, it’s often changed from a hard thing into a reasonably easy thing!  Turns out, a lot of other successful people use this tool, too.
  • Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin — This book completely changed the way I think about goal setting.  It mostly addresses habit forming and how you should apply it to yourself in specific ways depending on your unique tendencies, but I believe that it also applies to bucket-list type goals.  For example, if I have the goal of running a marathon, I’m going to need to break it down into smaller steps, habits even, that will lead me to my end.  This book shows me that I’m the kind of person that has the most success with accountability–so I’ll sign up for the race first thing!  And I’ll probably plan to run it with someone else, and maybe do my practice runs with that person.  If accountability doesn’t motivate me as much, I might use some other tools, and she has a lot of them!  Using her ideas helps me make more effective choices about what goals to set and how to set them so I have the most success.
  • Training Tools — Like my “practice” bullet journal, most of my really big goals get a practice run in some way.  For example, I wanted to try hot yoga.  To practice for that, I went to a smaller, gentler studio for a month first so I was comfortable with the idea of going to a class and doing yoga in front of a lot of other people [see my Yoga course for more about this].  My month of hot yoga was challenging, but I was so far prepared to go to a class and not be the best student in there that I had no problem just focusing on my own experience, and I wasn’t crippled by nervousness that others were judging me.  You might be thinking, “But isn’t that like the 30-day trial tool?”  Not for me.  Some goals don’t need a practice period (like reading to my kids every day).  Some, like waking up early, might require a month of ramping up to 6:00 am gradually before I dive into the intensity of daily early rising, which is the real goal for me.
  • Goal Coupling — Some goals are better achieved when combined!  For example, I want to learn Spanish.  I also want to have a really productive morning routine that gets me going in the morning.  Since I use the Duolingo app to learn Spanish, and it’s important to me to do two lessons each day (which only takes 10 to 15 minutes) . . . and I know it’s hard for me to even get out of bed and get my brain going first thing, I simply use my Spanish lessons as the one thing that I can do while still in bed that gets my brain going first thing.  My alarm goes off and without thinking I grab my phone and do my lessons.  It’s fun, easy, and I get the added benefit of feeling good about accomplishing one of my goals first thing in the morning.  The rest of my routine naturally follows!  I’ve done this with so many things!
  • Flexibility — I’ve hinted at this, but let me designate it as a real tool all its own.  I think my goal-achieving success can mostly be attributed to the flexibility with which I approach all of my goals.  As the next month approaches, I take a moment to think about what goals did and didn’t work in the current month.  If I find myself in the early days or middle of the month and realize that my main goal was a mistake for me, I can either drop in a “practice” goal for next month or try something else, or just take a break.  I don’t have to do anything.  I set goals because I want to, because I’m trying to be a better, happier person.  If I realize that running a mile every day before breakfast is making me yell more at my kids because I’m too tired, then maybe I need to try some form of exercise that’s gentler (like a walk), more enjoyable and less arbitrary, or that I need to do my run at a different time of day.  I don’t quit because it’s unpleasant for me alone, but I don’t have to punish my family for an ill-chosen or poorly executed goal just to check a box.  This month was supposed to be a daily at-home yoga challenge.  On day ten, I realized that I was having a lot of pain.  I tried pushing through for another two days, but finally realized that I needed to change something.  I could do either gentle stretches each night instead of a full yoga sequence or just take the month off and work on adjusting my morning wake-up time gradually to 6:00 to prepare for next month.  I chose the latter and I’m pretty happy about it.  I’m not feeling like a total failure, because I’m flexible! Maybe not as physically flexible, but . . . you know what I mean.  🙂


NOVEMBER —  I find it quite natural that when I start thinking about my blessings in life (isn’t Thanksgiving such a beautiful holiday?), I start thinking about my life in general; I start evaluating my progress and trajectory, my goals, and I start preparing for the next year.  It’s beginning to get darker and colder outside, so I find myself spending more time inside, too.  Now is the perfect time to brainstorm with a notebook.  I re-evaluate my principles [you can find my list here], I add to or remove goals from my main list of aspirations for my life, I spend a lot of time breaking down some of my bigger goals that seem ripe for the tackling.  I especially think about what problems I’ve been having, what my biggest faults are lately, what habits I need to form or break.  This kind of thinking can happen at any time during the year, of course, but that preparation feeling hits me hardest in November.  Some people do this part when the school year starts, when schedules change, and “real work” has to get done now that summer is over.  I do a lot of work with daily routines at that time, which makes it really nice come January when I want to get a lot done–I already have a good, productive rhythm going.

DECEMBER — After my big brainstorm in November, I’m excited to get started!  By this time, I’ve identified the main goals I want to accomplish in the upcoming year, which I thoughtfully assign to each month.  I tend to put the biggest and most foundational one first, consider celebrations and seasonal weather for the others (choosing to start running in May instead of February is a great idea if you prefer to run outside), and choose something light for the later holiday months when I’m busier.  If I’m not full swing into another goal for December, I’ll use that month to practice.  Want to be better at following a budget in January?  December is the time to create and test that budget.  As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to try bullet journaling, but instead of making it a 30-day trial starting in January, I wanted it to be a tool for my entire year’s worth of goals.  I decided to try it out in December–not only because I wanted to be sure it was a good idea for me, but because it was exciting and felt more like a treat than a goal.  I requested the supplies for Christmas.  I do this every year.  In the past, I’ve requested yoga gear, art supplies, a fancy alarm clock or headphones, things that are meant to be tools to help me accomplish my goals.  I find that this helps my husband feel more invested (financially and emotionally) in helping me achieve my goals, too!  I also like to request gifts that are more experience-based, like a gym membership or a class.  But guess what? My family and friends really like getting gifts that support their goals, too!  Or even trickier, get your family gifts that help your goals.  I wanted to read to my kids more, so I indulged in buying them a lot more fun books for Christmas last year that we’ve been reading together.

JANUARY and beyond — This is where the fun part begins.  For each month, I create a spread in my bullet journal–or you could use a notebook or whatever system you like–where I track my main monthly goal (like doing yoga every day), my “regular” daily goals (like flossing and sweeping the kitchen), my weekly goals (like watering the plants and reading one book), and my monthly goals (like updating the family blog and balancing the budget).  The daily, weekly, and monthly goals are often things that were once big 30-day-challenge goals!  As I move through the year, my most successful big goals are added to these.  I tried drinking a gallon of water every day one month last year, and now it’s part of my daily to-do list; same goes for my daily cleaning routine–there was once a time when I needed to give that a more important, dedicated trial, though now it’s just part of my day-t0-day.  Do I have to stick to my 12 original big 30-day-trial goals for the year?  No way!  I get passionate about stuff and follow that, or I just change my mind.  One month I had a decluttering plan to get rid of one thing every day as my main goal.  But before that month started, I realized that would be really easy for me and added it to my list of daily goals and chose to do something a bit more challenging instead.  Throughout the year, I implement my tools, especially flexibility, and achieve my goals gradually.  I find that I’m actively improving instead of passively suffering the consequences of my action or inaction.

How do you set goals?  What goals do you set?  How have you achieved specific goals in the past?

For more goal-setting help, check out my Goal Setter Workbook in The Workbook Shop [coming soon].


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