Why I’m not doing annual goals anymore (hint: it doesn’t work)

I used to set annual goals (aka New Year’s Resolutions), but like so many others, I typically didn’t accomplish them. So I do a couple things differently now:

1. Break the year into smaller chunks (quarters and months) and do things around those timeframes

For example, I set quarterly goals for a few different areas of my life, like income, or finish a particular phase of a project, etc. The 12 Week Year and Pick Four are both good resources for this.

I also have started doing habit and one-off goals per month. So for 2015, every month I’m doing a set of one positive habits (do something every day), one negative habit (don’t do something at all), and one new experience.

For example, during January I meditated every day (positive habit), abstained from alcohol (negative habit), and tried out cryotherapy (experience). I’ll write up a separate post tomorrow on the monthly habits and experiences, and an overview of how Jan went and what I’m doing for February.

The only exception I can really think of right now is that I have a goal to read 100 books this year (more on this later). I probably should break that down to 25 books per quarter or 8-9 books per month though.

2. Focus my efforts on habits and systems over goals.

This helps me to focus my energy and attention on what’s actionable today, rather than something months away. I do still set some goals, but mainly as a way to calibrate my habits and systems.

So what’s the best way to figure out realistic goals and habits that fit together?

It depends on the topic, but I use one of two methods for goal-setting and habit formation:

Habit first: I look at the progress I’m making with current habits and the trend I’m currently on, and I extrapolate out from there to figure out what a realistic target goal is.

I’ll also typically add bit to the goal so I have to push myself. So if I’m reading an hour a day as a habit, and the books I typically read take 8 hours to finish, that’s ~3 books per month, depending on whether I do that habit on weekends. So I might set a quarterly goal of 10 or 12 books, instead of the nine that my current habit would predict.

Goal first: I look at where I want to be by a particular timeframe and then figure out what I need to do on a daily basis as a habit to reach that goal.

Which I use really depends on the subject. Sometimes I want to accomplish something by a particular date because of other things going on in my life, and I’d use the goal-first method. Mostly I think it’s a good idea to use the habit-first method, as it’s easier to nudge what you’re already doing into better performance than to overhaul everything all at once to meet some lofty goals. Although some things do require you to go cold turkey, so I guess there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule :)

But regardless of which method I use, I do a sanity-check with the opposite method. So if I’m wanting to read 25 books per quarter and I back that out to be 2 books per week, but my current reading habits have me reading a book every other month, I need to be thoughtful about whether I can shift my habits to the degree required to reach my goal.

Sadly, I’ve gotten out of the habit of keeping written goals, and that’s a terrible shortcoming. I think I focused so much on written goals back when I was setting annual goals that I basically got discouraged and felt that written goals weren’t worth focusing on. But in retrospect, I definitely feel that I should be tracking all my goals and habits in one place. I do track my habits, but I’ll be adding my goals to that list as well.

I’d love to hear from you what goals, systems, habits, etc. have worked (or not worked) for you in the past and what you’re doing these days.