Defining Goals for the Coming Year (and Reflecting on the Past Year)

In the past, I wrote a post in December each year evaluating the successes and failures of the previous year and establishing some goals for the coming year. Last year, I didn’t really do this, as I instead focused on more practical helpful guides, such as a review of goal-oriented planners and guides on low cost strategies for achieving common annual goals and resolutions, such as getting fit or building new friendships or saving money or reading more. Early this year, a few long time readers wrote in and asked about my goals for this year and whether I was going to share them, but I decided instead to wait until the end of the year, review my goals for the past year and how I did, look ahead at my goals for the coming year, and talk about some tools I use to help me with managing goals.

So, let’s get started with the most obvious question of all: Why have annual goals?

Why I Use Annual Goals

Each year, I define a few goals for myself to ideally achieve in the coming year – usually, I define five goals.

I don’t do it because I believe there’s something magical about a year. I do it simply because a year is a reasonable timeline for reviewing and adjusting goals and themes.

For me, the most powerful unit of time for a big goal is a day, not a year. I center almost everything I do around one key question.

What can I do today to move forward on the big things in my life?

I don’t really want to wind up in old age full of regrets. I don’t want to leave things undone, and I don’t want to undermine my body and my mind if possible.

For me, the natural “meeting point” between “my life” and “today” is about a year, and thus it’s a natural place to review and rethink things. I spend some time each December rethinking what it is I want to be doing with my life and what exactly I need to do over the coming year to put myself on that path.

For me, the most important part of that is establishing good habits and improving old ones. When I set a goal for a year, it’s mostly oriented toward trying to improve my everyday behavior so that the big goal becomes inevitable.

I do that by breaking down a given year into quarters, the quarters into months, the months into weeks, and the weeks into individual days. At the end of each of those periods (and the start of the next), I review how things are going and set things for the next period.

At the end of a day, I look back over the day and ask myself whether or not I did my best in each of the areas I’m working on to improve myself, an idea taken straight from Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith. I then set up my to-do list for the next day and, in the morning, I review it and the tings I want to be working on. This is the nuts and bolts of building better habits.

At the end of a week, I mostly try to make sure there aren’t any big things left undone and think a little bit about how things are going.

At the end of a month, I think about whether or not I’m making meaningful progress toward what I want to do this year and I pick out a few new specific things to work on for the next month that usually are intended to nudge me toward my goal. (I call these “thirty day challenges,” as a month is a good period of time to figure out if something’s going to work well for me.)

At the end of a quarter, I tend to rework things, trying to eliminate things that aren’t really clicking and adding new things with a strong eye toward my annual goals.

In other words, it’s all about cycles and review, and the period of a year is a very useful one for setting big goals and themes.

Looking Back at My Goals This Year

I had three (or five, depending on your perspective) major goals that I wanted to work on for the past year.

The first was to strengthen my relationship with my kids as they approach their teen years. My oldest child is now a teenager and my middle child is a tween. I wanted to really focus on how to refactor my parenting strategies with respect for how my children were growing and changing.

I really broke this down into three goals, one for each child, so this was really three of my five goals/points of focus for the coming year. I wanted to establish a more mature relationship with each of my children individually that centered around helping them to prepare the runway into independent adulthood above all else. How could I do that most effectively for each child, given that they have very different personalities and values?

I think this goal was pretty successful. I believe I have a pretty strong rapport with each of my children – yes, even my teenager. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how to parent teenagers with a strong focus on preparing them for independent life. I do not want to be a “helicopter parent,” but I do want my children to feel always able to come to me for advice without threat of punishment for their mistakes, and I think we’re on a good track for that.

The second (or fourth, depending on how you count) was to take on a sequential series of home renovation projects with an eye toward doing them inexpensively and maximizing the usefulness and value of our home. This is a chain of projects that started with a small addition and is going to end up with a better office for me and a bedroom for my youngest child (who currently shares with his older brother).

This is about halfway done. The big task – the addition – is basically finished and will be completely done within a week. It just needs a few final things done to it. We handled many elements ourselves but hired a contractor to help with parts that we felt were beyond our abilities. The renovations of other rooms are all in progress and all well within our skill level. I’m estimating everything will be finished by February.

The final goal I had for the year was to achieve the rank of brown belt at my taekwondo school. I joined taekwondo two years ago because I wanted a more organized fitness program that I could do with my family – all of us participate in it. I’ve deeply enjoyed it so far. Although my progress was a little slower than anticipated, I’m only one level shy of my goal and should achieve my goal in February. This goal is definitely informing one of my 2019 goals.

All of these goals were constantly reviewed as the year went along, and my tactics definitely changed as the year went along. I took what was working and emphasized it and gave careful thought to what wasn’t working and tried to come up with fixes. I feel like my life is in a much better place because of this.

So, what are my goals for the coming year? Let’s start off first with what I consider the theme of the coming year.

This Year’s Theme

One of my favorite podcasts is Cortex, which is a podcast focused on reflection on how the digital tools we use every day impact our lives in ways both obvious and non-obvious. Each year, the two hosts discuss a “theme” that’s going to guide their life over the next year, usually summed up in a single word. It’s a really good unifying practice.

For me, the theme for the coming year is “character” (if you’re curious, the focus last year was “family”). I want to improve my personal character in a number of ways, and all of my major goals tie into that to a degree.

Goal #1: Improve My Eating Habits

You might think of this as a weight loss goal, but it’s actually more oriented toward improving my normal habits regarding eating. I eat healthy foods – I just eat too much of them and I need to figure out better patterns for my own long-term health.

So, let’s back this up a little bit. I’ve been a vegetarian for 10 years. It’s a simple dietary approach that takes care of a couple of nagging digestive issues – my digestive and endocrine system simply doesn’t handle meat very well and it’s not particularly heart healthy, either.

The problem with being a vegetarian is that fruits and vegetables, for the most part, are low calorie foods, but they’re also not incredibly filling. I often find myself hungry again pretty quickly after eating.

Two years ago, I tried several approaches to fixing this as my annual goal and had some really nice success, but I found that some of the approaches weren’t really sustainable and in the past year I’ve gained a portion of that weight back. Again, it’s not because I eat unhealthy foods so much as I eat larger portions than I should.

This year, I’m going back to what worked so well two years ago and trying to do it in a way that will establish habits I can easily stick with. Again, two years ago, I found a really nice balance, but the challenge was that it fell apart when other aspects of my life became difficult. I want to really work on taking what worked so well back then and make it more sustainable, a permanent part of my life.

(What does this have to do with character? I basically wish to practice temperance and self-control with food.)

Goal #2: Get Into ‘Black Belt’ Shape

As I noted earlier, I’m approaching a brown belt in taekwondo after two years and a lot of training. While I’m more fit than I have been in years, the climb to actually achieving a black belt, which I’m hoping to achieve in 2020 or early 2021, requires a significantly higher level of fitness than I currently have. The things that were difficult when I first joined have now become easier, but now I’m starting to do things that are very difficult now (and would have been impossible when I started).

Mostly, I need to work on cardio – not getting winded during long kicking drills and sparring sessions – and core strength, especially balance and stretching. I need to be able to consistently kick really high and hold it there while balancing on one foot, and I need to be able to do it with speed and precision and force. I can do easier kicks and such, but harder ones – particularly the more difficult ones I’m now expected to do – are a real challenge.

I have a mentor helping me figure all of this out and we’ve worked out some things I can do at home. My goal is to make these things into a routine habit so that they’re just a normal part of my morning.

Beyond that, there’s also a need to focus on the tenets of taekwondo – courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. My school puts a strong emphasis on those traits, which I’ll touch on again in a bit. I want to build those traits in myself.

Again, a big part of why I’m doing this is for personal health and for the reduction of long term health care costs. I want to live a long time and enjoy a high quality of life while doing so.

Goal #3: Be a Better / More Virtuous Person

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying the general question of what the purpose of life is and what is the best way to live this life we have. I was really kickstarted down this path by reading Emrys Westacott’s wonderful book The Wisdom of Frugality, which I reviewed in depth over the summer, along with a few books on stoicism recommended by a good friend.

One of the key elements that kept coming up in terms of various perspectives on “the good life” is the idea of being a virtuous person and living your day to day life as close as possible to your idea of what a good person is. As with everyone, the gap between who I actually am and my vision of an ideal person I wish that society was filled with is large at times. In the end, the only person in society that I can really control is me, so if I want society to be filled with virtuous people and I want to really sample the “good life,” I need to start with myself and my own virtues.

This notion was amplified around a year ago, when I read a biography of Benjamin Franklin and was taken by his practice of using “virtue cards” to focus himself on improving one aspect of his character each week on a rotating basis.

I dabbled with Franklin’s system back in the day, but didn’t really incorporate it into my daily life. That’s essentially the practice I’m going to dive into in 2019 – incorporating that system into daily life, with a somewhat modified list of virtues. As noted above, five of them are essentially borrowed straight from taekwondo.

The goal here is to simply be a better person, for myself, as an example for my family, and as a better citizen. I’m not saying I’m a bad person, but like virtually everyone on earth, I could be a better one in terms of character.

In practice, this comes down to a daily routine of reflecting on a list of 13 virtues and striving to really nail one of them each week. Five of them are from goal #2, another is from goal #1, and the rest are basically borrowed straight from Ben Franklin’s list.

Goal #4: Improve My Meditation and Reflection Practices

One practice I’ve done off and on over the past few years has been a daily meditation, where I basically just take 15 minutes or so and try to clear my mind of that inner voice that seems to be constantly running by focusing on my breathing or some other focus point. It’s one of those things where I find a mild benefit from doing it once, but it seems to grow stronger and stronger as I chain together days of doing it. When I break that chain, the benefits persist for a while but eventually that voice gets pretty noisy and distracting again.

To an extent, the same is true for things like journaling and reading challenging books, but in different ways. I find that there’s a lot more benefit if I do those things every day and while I do them most days, I tend to nudge them aside on crazier days.

What I intend to do in the coming year is just raise the priority of these three things, making them into extremely important daily practices, each for different reasons.

The meditation daily practice is to help my focus and keep the constant internal monologue under control. When I do this consistently, I tend to be much more productive with writing and end up with more free time, but it takes a period of consistency to build it up.

The journaling daily practice is intended to help me work through the ins and outs of knotty problems in my life and thoughts I’m having. When I do this consistently, I tend to feel like I have a better grasp on my life as a whole and make better meaningful choices, but it takes a period of consistency to build it up.

The reading daily practice is something I already do, but I’m biting off a number of really challenging books in the coming year that are really going to require some focus and deep thinking, so it runs parallel with the other practices.

These are all extremely low cost routines that I think will serve as support for the other goals I have for the coming year.

Goal #5: Prepare for a Three-Month Sabbatical a Year from Now

Early in the following year, I want to take a three-month “sabbatical” from writing for The Simple Dollar to focus on some other professional projects that I’ve allowed to go dormant while writing for The Simple Dollar devoured most of my professional focus.

This doesn’t mean my writing will disappear from the site. Rather, my goal is to have three months of articles done in advance before I start the sabbatical and they’ll just appear automatically while I’m doing other things.

During that sabbatical, I intend to still regularly brainstorm and briefly outline article ideas just to get them out of my head, but I’ll save all of those for when I return after about 12 weeks (I intend for the sabbatical to be 12 weeks long, with a single week at the end to get back in the groove of writing for The Simple Dollar as a regular routine).

My big goal in the coming year is to simply prepare in advance for this, something I’ve already started doing. This comes with trying a different approach to writing current articles for The Simple Dollar that I think will be somewhat more efficient than the practices I’ve been using in the past.

So, this mostly amounts to a significant change in my daily writing practices that I think will result in the ability to start putting aside articles for this planned sabbatical.

My Process for Approaching These Goals in Detail

So, as you’ve seen, I’ve already thought about these goals down to the daily level and even to the point of establishing normal life habits, which I think is the right approach for every big goal in life. If you can improve your normal routines and habits, that will put your whole life on an improved trajectory.

I’m using a number of approaches at once to make this happen, things I’ve been using in various ways over the last couple of years.

One, I’m relying very heavily on the daily process described in the book Triggers to establish better habits. I’m actually using this for most of my goals to some extent, but particularly my goal of better eating habits and my virtue-related goals. I’m using a simple graph paper notebook for this and doing it in month-long chunks, where I come up with my list of things I want to work on for the month during a monthly review and then review that list each morning (and a few times a day) and score myself on each one each evening, as described in that link.

Two, I’m using a print version of the Momentum Planner to help me organize the activities that aren’t behaviorally oriented, the discrete tasks I need to do. I mentioned last year during my comparison of goal-oriented planners that the Momentum Planner was my favorite one, but I decided this year to move to the print version rather than the PDF version. This planner basically operates in the same way that I do, in that it’s all about breaking down annual goals and plans down to quarterly chunks, then those quarterly chunks into monthly chunks, then those monthly chunks into weekly ones, and the weekly ones into daily ones. In other words, it perfectly lines up with how I review things. Speaking of reviews…

Three, I have a weekly review that’s really, really, really important for keeping things going. I do this really early on Sunday morning virtually every week (or at another time on Saturday or Sunday if early Sunday morning doesn’t work). Basically, I just go through the last week. Did I take care of all of my tasks that I wanted to do? Have I been making progress on the things I want to improve about myself? What’s coming up in the week to come? What big decisions am I going to have to make? I usually do this as a journal entry that focuses on the “week that was and the week to come.” Once a month, I incorporate some month-long things into this. Once a quarter, I look more discerningly at the things that I’m tracking and focusing on and ask whether or not they continue to be meaningful approaches to my current goals. Once a year… well, this article kind of sums that up.

This Will Work For Your Goals, Too

Although this basic system of goals is one that’s been refined gradually over the last ten or fifteen years or so (and some elements for even longer than that), I can tell you that these elements truly work for me. Almost everything of significance I’ve accomplished in my life has been due to good practices with goal setting, breaking down those goals into very small pieces, and taking action on those pieces.

A lot of the specific elements in this article are just specifics of how I make things work for me, but that overall pattern will work for you as long as you consistently stick with it. Take whatever your big goals for the coming year (or the next few years) are, keep breaking it down until it’s all about daily tasks and behavioral habits, and focus on nothing but those things except when you occasionally review and see whether or not you’re moving in the direction you want.

Nothing else matters more than the choice you’re making in the moment. If you can get yourself to where you’re consistently making the “good” choice, your entire life is going to be moving in a new and likely better direction. This applies to everything in life, but it applies particularly well to things like spending habits and matters of personal discipline.

Goals are all about giving those choices in the moment a bigger framework and direction, nothing more. What matters most is that you have ways to keep your focus on the day to day and momentary decisions and not get lost in a big goal.

Good luck!

More by Trent Hamm:

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.