My “anti-resolution” approach to goal-setting: Set fewer goals, more often

Personally, I really don’t like “resolutions”. I think a much better practice is to think seriously about our goals and what we want to get out of life regularly, all the time, and not just at the turn of the year, once a year. 

In the age of productivity and growth hacking, “goal setting” has become a bit of a buzz phrase. At the start of a new year in particular, people set grand self-improvement goals to change their lives for the better. Then, they almost just sit back and wait for them to happen — and, more often than not, they never do… Yet still, time again, they set new goals and think, ‘This time, it’ll be different!”

Spoiler: It probably won’t work. Doing the same thing and expecting different results seldom does.

Instead of setting a goal to build new habits or achieve something you want, make goal-setting the habit you nurture. The former helps you with one thing, the latter has a constant return.

People like James Clear have done research-backed studies and analysis on goals and habits, and it really does come down to a few heuristics:

  • Set your goals well: If you don’t get them right at the start, it’s like trying to build a house on putty. You might get the floorboards in, but once you work on the walls things start to fall apart.
  • Eliminate your goals more often: If your goals are no longer serving you, or if you have too many goals, eliminate them sooner and more ruthlessly. If you really want to write that book, it might be a good idea to drop learning a new language, travelling more, and building a terraced garden.
  • Reevaluate your goals all the time: How do you know if your goals are serving you, or that you’re doing things that actually drive the needle? Track, measure and reevaluate your goals all the time so that you know where you are, and whether or not those goals are still things you want from life.

In this post, I wanted to start by briefly outlining James Clear’s framework for how to set goals that you’re more likely to stick to, because it’s really helped me set better goals in my own life.

From there, I’ll share how I came up with my latest set of goals, and two ways that help me track where I am with my goals.

Setting goals that I’m more likely stick to

When it comes to the process of setting goals, I often revisit James Clear’s outline for what makes goals easier to achieve, and more likely to happen.

Ruthlessly eliminate

When you have too many goals, they compete for your attention and time. Having too many goals risks spreading yourself so thinly that, instead of doing one thing exceptionally, you do many things averagely.

Instead of spending time on a lot of things that make a few steps difference in many directions at once. Eliminating habits helps me remove the habits that no longer serve me, and lets me focus on the stuff that’s really important, and that really drives the needle.

That way, I focus my energy on fewer goals, and inevitably make bigger strides in directions that matter.

Stack your goals

Trying to insert a new thing or habit into your life can be hard at first. For example, if you want to talk to your parents more often, phoning them first thing on a Saturday morning can be harder to do when you’ve already got a morning routine you follow.

Clear says that an easy way around this is to stack your new habits onto existing ones. Your goal might look something like: “Before/after/when I do [existing habit], I’ll do [new habit].”

For example: If you want to start a company, and need to read more startup books, you might say: “When I have my morning coffee, I’ll read 10 pages of my current startup-related book.” This helps you attach the things you’re trying to do onto things you already do all the time.

Set an upper bound

When I set goals, I often phrase them as “I want to do at least X amount of Y”. In these cases, I’m setting a minimum threshold, but Clear says that it can be more useful to set a maximum — or upper — bound as well. He says:

“You want to push hard enough to make progress, but not so much that it is unsustainable. This is where setting an upper limit can be useful. Upper limits make it easier for you to sustain your progress and continue showing up. This is especially critical in the beginning. In the beginning, showing up is even more important than succeeding because if you don’t build the habit of showing up, then you’ll never have anything to improve in the future.”

Upper bounds help you not always focus on more and more and more… which can, and inevitably does, lead to burnout. Conversely, setting too high a goal can lead to laziness. Having a minimum and an upper bound lets you build a habit, and focus on building a system that lasts, more so than simply achieving a goal that starts and ends.

Align your environment with your goals

I design my environment all the time: If I want to exercise, I make sure my yoga mat is easy to reach so that it doesn’t require effort for me to get it. If I want to drink a glass of water, I put it next to my bed before I go to sleep so that I don’t have to first pour it when I wake up. If I want fewer distractions at my desk, I keep my phone elsewhere and turn notifications off on my laptop.

Designing my environment is 90% of achieving the things I want to achieve.

This actually has a scientific name. It’s called choice architecture: “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior… Every habit is initiated by a cue, and we are more likely to notice cues that stand out. If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.”

Deciding on goals that matter to me

That’s how I increase the likelihood that I actually succeed at my goals by focusing on how I set and phrase my goals. But what about knowing what goals to set in the first place?

“Review and revise” model

Tim Ferriss has this alternative approach to “new year resolutions” or goals. He calls it a Past Year Review, and it essentially highlights the “positives” you want to do more of, and the “negatives” you want to avoid.

Ferriss uses it to review the year gone by, but I’ve adapted it to be more multi-purpose so that I can use this approach whenever I set any kind of goal — be it for the week, the month, the quarter, or the year. The point is: Distill goals that matter to me, find out what drives the needle, while also helping me avoid things that don’t benefit me, or that I know make me miserable.

My adaption of Ferriss’ method goes roughly as follows:

  1. Make two columns: One called “Positives” and the other called “Negatives”.
  2. Under “Positives”, list all the people / events / commitments / actions that had the biggest impact on you given your specified time frame. For example, if you’re doing goals for the week, review the previous week.
  3. Under “Negatives”, list all the people / events / commitments / actions that had the biggest impact on you
  4. For each column, highlight the top 20% of those things.
  5. Under those columns, write “Values that those point towards” and use those leaders in each column to see what values emerge. For example, the leaders in “Positives” might all be about the people in your life, in which case “connection” or “communication” might be values that are important to you.
  6. Then, check any goals you want to set against those values, and really ask yourself: Does this goal align with the things I value? If not, what value does it align with? Is that value worth prioritising over the values I identified in my review?

This not only helps me find the things that make me feel good, and those that don’t, but it also gives me something to check my new goals against to see if I’m changing direction, if my priorities have changed, or if my old goals still serve me.

Evaluating my goals regularly

Now that I’ve got my goals, I need to make sure I don’t forget about them or only come back to them in a year’s time. There are two strategies have really helped me get this right:

Cusp Questions

At certain points in working towards our goals, we reach places of transition: We reach a milestone, and start towards the next; we fail, and need to try again; we lose motivation, and are unsure of what to do; we succeed at a goal, and think of a new one.

I’ve found these places — these transition points, or cusps — really great opportunities to check in with myself about my goals. They’re moments for me to reflect, be aware of where I am, and make sure I’m not just blindly following a goal I set months ago.

At this points, I have a few questions I like to ask myself that help me figure out if this goal still serves me, and whether I’m on the right track:

  • Does this still make me happy? If not, what benefit(s) can I see in continuing?
  • Do I still wake up excited to do this? If not, can I change what’s making me dread this thing?
  • Who am I doing this for? If not for myself, is it an act of service, or ego?
  • What am I not doing by focusing on this? How does that make me feel?

Health Metric Tracking

I wrote a previous post about how I measure and track how I’m feeling. I called it tracking my health metrics, and you can read the full post here.

In short, though, Health Metric Tracking is about having a daily system that lets me quickly and easily check in with where I am with the things that are important to me. It’s a daily RAG (red-amber-green) status that I do first thing in the morning: I look at the day before, and I assign a colour to whether I’ve done something in service of each goal or habit I’ve defined on that day.

Over time, if I keep having ‘reds’ on mindfulness for example, I can reflect on whether that thing is still important to me or not — and, if it is still important to me, I can see what’s preventing me from doing that. It gives me data to say, with confidence, “X is no longer important to me because I’m not putting any time into doing it. I will eliminate X” or “X is still important to me, but Y is preventing me from doing that. I will eliminate Y”.

Systems, not goals

At the end of the day, what I’m trying to do is build systems for myself as opposed to achieving thing 1 or thing 2. The key difference is that goals change, prioritises shift, and life moves as you traverse it… Where-as your goals will crack, squish, and elongate, your systems are what anchor you. 

As Clear says: 

“You don’t rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.”

Please reach out to me and let me know what your goals are at the moment, and how you track and measure them. Also, let me know if this was useful, or if you learned something about goals, about yourself, or about stuff in the world in general. I’m always keen to hear from the people who love reading and learning as much as I do!


Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

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