You know the importance of goals. What you’re missing is a system for setting goals, a template you can follow. In this post, I’ll detail my goal-setting system step-by-step and help you set goals for this year.
I’ll be covering yearly goals but you can use this exercise for any period. Replace yearly with quarterly and you’re good to go.
Finally, this goal-setting system has worked for me but might not be perfect for you. Read it, see what makes sense to you and take the best parts to your own system. In the words of Bruce Lee: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
I broke down this guide into 3 major sections:
- Setting the Ground Work (Steps 1-3): the core of your goal-setting system
- Goal Setting (Steps 4-5): define what you want to achieve and how you’re going to get there
- (Re)Evaluating Your Goals (Steps 6-7): how to track and review your goals
To copy my template, click here and select “File -> Make a Copy” in the upper left.
What’s the best place to look when you want to optimize the future? The past.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Review Last Year
The goal of this step is to come out with a list of your highlights, improvements, and insights.
Before jumping into this year’s goal setting, you need something to compare against. And that’s why you’ll start by reviewing your previous year.
I write mine on Workflowy since I can organize per category. It looks like this:
But any medium works. So use Workflowy, Google Docs or Word, Notion or Evernote, or a piece of paper. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is the message, not the medium.
You’re looking for the answer to 3 questions:
- What were my biggest achievements?
- What could I have done better?
- What’s missing from my life?
The first question helps uncover your highlights. The second your improvements. The third your insights.
These are your wins of last year, what went well. Some will immediately jump to mind while others will take some work to remember.
If you’re already doing goal-setting this process should be straightforward. Go through last year’s goals and measure against them. If you use categories, list your highlights and improvements in each of them.
It’s your first time setting goals or want to start with a blank template? No problem. Just create two categories: work and personal. And then list your highlights and improvements for each one.
Start by writing down everything that you can remember and classify as a win. Here are some examples:
- Got a raise or promotion
- Moved to a new department or job
- Landed more responsibility or managing people
- Learned a new skill
- Developed a new habit (meditating, journaling, or reading more books)
- Quit a bad habit (spending too much time on social media or smoking)
- Ate healthier or exercised regularly
- Lost weight or acquired muscle
- Saved money
Next, uncover what’s not immediate to you. Give your mind a hand by going through last year’s records. Look at your calendar, email, note-taking apps or notebooks, and photos. This will help you remember many other wins from last year.
List as many things as you can, no matter how small. It feels good to write down everything that went well. It validates the feeling that you are awesome (because you are).
After finishing your highlights, move on to your improvements.
There are always things you could have done better. These are your areas of improvement.
Again, some things will jump to you while others need further reflection. An easy way to spot areas for improvement is answering the question: “Where did I fail on my goals?”
You wanted to get a raise or read more books but life got in the way. But before listing things as improvements, take the time to consider if they still make sense.
Do you still want to get a raise? Are you willing to put in the effort to read more or you think it’s nice if you read more? If they still make sense, write down as improvements. If not, discard them. They’re of no use to you anymore.
Don’t have last year’s goals to compare? Use the two categories – work and personal – and write down what you could have done better. Find your faults. We humans are very good at that.
List what you still want to become better at and you have your improvements list.
Time to move on to the realm of insights.
This is my favorite section. It’s time to reflect on your life and uncover something deeper: the invisible. It’s what you didn’t write as goals but also didn’t do in your year. And you want these things in your life.
Here’s a question: “What’s missing from my life that I also didn’t do?”
Answer that and you’ll arrive at your insights. Another way to look at it? Check your highlights and improvements and find what’s missing on both lists.
For example: when I did this exercise last year, I realized that I didn’t travel in 2018. Apart from a couple of days at the beach with family and friends, I took no vacations.
I like traveling. No, scratch that, I need traveling. I never “planned” traveling, I just went. But my schedule is different now and so I made a goal of traveling to 5 new places in 2019:
And it’s no surprise that these made it the highlights of last year:
But that was invisible at first. So insights are invisible improvements.
You have them too. To uncover your insights, do a simple exercise I like to call “the ideal life”.
The Ideal Life
We all know what we want.
Deep inside of you, there’s a voice that yearns to shout the life you want. “I WANT TO WORK ON SOMETHING MEANINGFUL!” or “I WANT TO LOOK GOOD NAKED!” or “I DON’T REALLY LIKE MOST OF MY FRIENDS!”.
It’s what you are afraid to say out loud but think about constantly.
To know your deepest desires, picture your ideal life. In this magical world, there are no objections – time, money, relationships, etc. None. What would you do?
Or in fewer words: “What life do you want?”
This exercise is both simple and hard. It involves answering one question (anyone can do it) but might take you places you’ve never been before. Don’t stress. Life has more questions than answers.
Think of the direction you want for your life. How can you make progress this year?
I like to write down a story of my life for the upcoming year. Think of it as Future You writing only you get to read it right now.
Here’s a snippet of mine:
“I’m proud of what I accomplished this year. I worked with fantastic clients and helped them get more customers and revenue. I put out content that changed lots of people’s lives and inspired them to perform better. I’m especially proud of my YouTube channel because it helped me lose my fear of creating videos. And I finally visited Cuba, that was fun!”
Take a few minutes and write yours.
Step 2: Theme Your Year
This one I picked from Noah Kagan. A theme is a constant reminder of the direction you want to take. It sets an intention for how you want your year to flow. It’s your mantra.
What’s a constant thing you want from your life? Find it and turn it into a single word. That’s your theme for this year.
My theme for 2019 was “Wealth”.
It didn’t mean making money but rather designing the life I wanted. Freedom to work on what I wanted. To do things I enjoy. And to take good care of my body and mind. “Wealth” served as a constant reminder to judge things by value rather than cost.
I pair my theme with a quote to add a little more context. It acts as a little nugget of inspiration. In 2019 it was: “Doing what you like is freedom, liking what you do is happiness.”
For 2020, my theme is “Leap”.
It means to think in 10x terms by default. It’s about working smarter rather than harder. It’s about looking at the best in a particular field and see how they operate and think. “Leap” means learning straight from the pros.
For example: let’s say I want to improve my diet. Who are the professionals in this field? Answer: athletes. For professional athletes, a 1% increase is huge. You bet they hire the best to improve their diets. Let’s think “Leap“: What can I take from an athletes’ diet that I can apply to my own?
Or say I want to improve my blog design. I could read about industry best-practices all day long and do it myself. Or I could leap and hire a professional designer.
Find your theme and write it down. Pair it with a quote if you’d like.
Examples of Themes for Your Year
Step 3: Choose Your Categories
We finally enter the realm of goal setting. To start, you’re going to break down goals into categories. Why? Categories help both brainstorming and organization of goals.
In 2019, I used Work, Mind & Body, Growth, and Life. I kept the first two for 2020 but changed the others to Personal and Fun.
I’m self-employed so work goals = business goals.
Examples of work goals are achieving a revenue target, scaling up agency work or growing my list.
Work for a company? Goals could be winning new business, getting a promotion, or completing projects.
Goals that make me a better human being. I use this category loosely. It includes relationships, financial, and growth goals.
These could be making new friends, getting to a certain amount of savings or learning a new skill.
Mind & Body Goals
Taking care of the machine.
Health goals could be exercising, eating healthy, developing a skin-care routine or meditating.
True geeks plan their fun 😉
Examples are traveling, going to concerts/shows with friends, or hosting game nights.
It might be easier for you to create two lists, one for work goals and another for personal goals. That’s completely fine. Just don’t go overboard and create lots of categories inside each area. Less is more. Choose 3-5 categories max.
Choose your categories from this list:
- Personal Development/Growth
- Quality of Life
Your categories act as your areas of focus. Choose wisely as they will set your intentions for the year.
Once you set your 3-5 categories, it’s time to move on to setting your goals.
Step 4: Goal Setting
This is the step most people consider when they think of goal setting. It’s time to write down what you will achieve.
Start by doing a brain dump. Grab a piece of paper and write down everything that’s on your mind. I like to do a goal cloud, organized by categories:
Goals vs Systems vs Progress
What you want to achieve can take many forms: goals, systems, or progress.
The first is Goals in the traditional sense. Goals help keep things clear. They’re a guiding light, not the path. Since you’re not detailing steps, all alternatives are on the table. This is a great way to optimize for optionality (for more on this read Antifragile Planning). For example: make $10k in revenue is a good goal. It’s quantifiable and there’s room for experimenting with different options.
Systems are best for the continual development of a certain area or skill. For work, these are recurring tasks. In your personal life, systems are great for habits. For example: be an active participant in 80% of your meetings or meditating daily.
Finally, Progress is something between goals and systems. It’s best for areas where you are uncertain of what are good metrics and what you need to do. For now, you’re happy with becoming better. For example: growing your email list or losing weight. With time, you’ll either move them into goals (if you can/want to quantify) or systems (a repeatable process).
So those are the 3 forms. Some people will tell you to choose only goals, others to focus on systems. Truth is, it doesn’t matter. Go with whatever mix works for you.
Choosing Your Goals
Let’s agree to only set 1-3 goals per category. That’s it, that’s all you get. It’s better to focus on making progress on a few things than failing at 10 different things. Force yourself to focus and wonderful things will happen.
Now, go back to your goal cloud and choose the one that jumps immediately to the eye. That’s your first goal. No scientific process here, you’ll feel it.
You already know what you want. Repeat until you have 1-3 per category.
Here are my goals:
- Fly Growth to XX clients (goal)
- Make $XX in revenue (goal)
- Publish 2 pieces of content per week (system)
- Grow email list (progress)
- Savings to $XX (goal)
- Renovate 2 bedrooms (goal)
- Learn how to write comedy (progress)
Mind & Body
- Improve sleep quality (progress)
- Get back to daily mediation (system)
- Exercise 3x per week (system)
- Visit Cuba for 1 month (goal)
- Work from another country at least 1 month (goal)
- Go to concerts & shows with friends (system)
Step 5: How to Achieve Your Goals
So you’ve finished setting your goals. It’s clear to you where you want to go. Pat yourself on the back, you’re doing great!
Now it’s time to put all that motivation into practice. You’re going to define “how” exactly you’re going to achieve your goals.
Yearly goals are great for setting the direction. But quarterly work is where the magic happens. It’s where you actually do the work needed to achieve your vision.
Hence, you’ll be breaking down your goals into quarters very much like a business does:
- Q1: January + February + March
- Q2: April + May + June
- Q3: July + August + September
- Q4: October + November + December
Choose What to Focus on Right Now
First, you’re going to choose what to focus on NOW. It’s hard to pursue 10 different things at the same time. What do you want to do now?
For example, I want to visit Cuba around June/July. Which means late Q2 or early Q3. I do need to plan it in advance but a good deadline would be around April/May. So this is clearly not a Q1 goal.
But going to concerts with friends is something I want to do in Q1. So that stays as one of my Q1 goals.
Break Down Your Goals
For everything that you want to pursue right now, you’re going to break it down into manageable chunks.
Ask yourself: “What’s the next step to achieve this goal?” (nerdy nerds might recognize the “next action” trick from GTD) Try to be as specific as possible.
For example, I want to exercise 3x per week. The best way to stick to exercise is by pre-committing. Schedule in advance so you can’t back out and go with a friend to keep you as an accountability partner. So you can:
- Sign up and pre-pay tennis classes
- Find a gym buddy and set a non-negotiable schedule
- Join a soccer group and play every week
Each of these is a next-step action. I want to exercise by playing Padel. The next step for me is “Research a club close to home to have classes”.
Here’s one more example from my list, “Go to concerts & shows with friends”. The process is straightforward: find shows, think of friends I’d like to go with, see if they’re up to it, get tickets. Since I’m starting from a blank page, I need to find the shows. To be more specific, the next action is “Browse ticket websites and add shows to spreadsheet”.
And boom, you know what to do next.
What I like about the “next action” method is that it stops the overwhelm. Don’t stress about everything that you need to. Just think of the next immediate action to make progress on your goals.
Now go through your goals for this quarter and write the next actions for each one.
Step 6: Track Your Goals
As the old business adage from Peter Drucker goes: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
So you’re going to set a metric to evaluate each goal. This is what allows you to see progress.
For quantifiable goals, set a number you aim to achieve. Think “save $10k”.
For systems, count the total or the times you hit your target. For example: running 3 times per week. You can count the total number of times you ran or the number of weeks that you ran 3 times. I prefer the latter as forces me to achieve my weekly goal.
For yes/no goals (0 and 1), you can either cross them off as you complete them or use a progress bar. For example: taking a trip is a yes/no goal. You can also detail progress as a percentage by each major step.
I track my goals in Google Sheets in the column “Progress”. Copy my template here.
Step 7: Review Your Goals
It’s time for the final piece of the goal-setting processing: reviewing your goals. These involve 2 steps:
- Weekly Review
- Quarterly Review
Every week review your goals and update your progress. I do my weekly review at 5 pm every Friday but others prefer to do it on a Sunday. Choose a day and time and block it on your calendar for the rest of the year.
There are 3 goals for this weekly review:
- Assess your week
- Clear to neutral
- Plan next week
First, write down everything you did this week. Think of it as Step 1 of this goal-setting guide but for your week. What were your wins? What could you have done better? Any insights? Write it all down.
Second, clear the slate. Clean your inbox, files, tasks, and close all tabs. File stuff to the appropriate places or delete it. Your want to start next week from a blank canvas. Don’t let the clutter grow into a big monster.
Finally, plan next week. Look at your goals and next actions and schedule your work and tasks for the upcoming week. I schedule tasks directly into the calendar.
This process takes me around 30 minutes but makes a massive difference in my work and personal life. When I’m done, I clean my desk to signal my brain that I’ve finished my week.
An expansion of the weekly review. First, expand on the process above but for 3 months. Then, use the Quarterly review to revisit your goals and adjust as necessary.
Go through your goals and ask yourself if they still make sense. Discard the ones that don’t and make space for new goals. Do the yearly review process every Quarter to adjust course as you go.
- Review Last Year: list your highlights, improvements, and insights
- Theme Your Year: one word that sets the intention for how you want your year to flow
- Choose Your Categories: choose 3-5, max
- Goal Setting: use whatever mix works best for your from goals, systems, and progress
- Break Down on Your Goals: work on quarters, choose what to focus now and break big goals into small ones
- Track Your Goals: set a metric for each goal to see progress
- Review Your Goals: weekly review to update progress; quarterly review to revisit goals
Copy my template here.
Happy goal setting!