Love it or loathe it January is the month when we are inundated with advertisements for the perfect life planner or goal setting tool, exhorted to boldly live our dreams and find our purpose! As we’re typically just recovering from the excesses of the Holiday Season, this shift from indulgence to rigorous discipline in the pursuit of worthy goals can find one feeling somewhere along a scale from, energized and ready for the challenge, to the more tepid end of, lacklustre resignation. Wherever you find yourself on this scale, and no matter what date the calendar shows, I’m going to share with you the tools that will show you how to crush your goals with ease, every time.
I want to show you how to begin to live your best life now, but without the drama and without selling you any shiny life planner. If you’re a little overwhelmed by the onslaught of messaging overflowing in your social media newsfeed and inbox telling you that you need to diet, detox and de-clutter, let’s just step away from all that and focus on the important stuff.
It’s very easy to slide into tasks and projects that keep us busy but that aren’t the right tasks and projects to take us where we really want to go. Many people feel so pressured to be seen to know what they’re doing and to have a plan, that they tragically under-prepare for the most important thing - their life. Goal setting, and SMART goals in particular, are crucial to our success in life but they need to be built on a solid foundation.
So often we merely focus on what we want to do and how we are going to do it (in the form of those lovely goals we fill out in our life planners) but we so often neglect the most important step of all - why.
We’re all in pursuit of the same thing, except it’s not a thing at all, it’s a feeling. Whatever you’ve actually decided that you want in life is based on your belief that its acquisition will make you feel happy. As the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal put it:
I’ve been to conferences, and live events, and “masterclasses”, and vision board workshops, and the whole gamut of activities where groups of eager individuals seek to gain clarity on their life’s purpose and define the dream life which they then endeavor to put a plan in place to achieve. I’ve noted the similarity of the vision boards with the beachfront homes, and all the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle of expensive cars, designer clothes, and fat bank accounts. I must admit my vision board used to look like that too. Not any more.
We have known for sometime though that Americans who earn $5 Million a year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 a year. The economists and psychologists who have spent decades studying the relationship between wealth and happiness have come to the clear conclusion that wealth increases happiness where it lifts people out of poverty and into the middle class, but thereafter wealth has what economists refer to as “declining marginal utility.” That means that once you reach a certain level of security and comfort, each additional dollar brings less happiness.
I know, I know! You may be thinking you’re prepared to risk the disappointment of getting wealthy and feeling a little less happy than you predicted, right? Fair enough! Believe me, I have no objection to wealth whatsoever. Nobody likes to be lacking financially. But before we start making our happiness conditional on having that $1M in our bank accounts, we may want to pause and consider why the “Money = Happiness” message has been so heavily sold.
We live and function within a market economy and for a market economy to flourish, people need to continually buy and consume one another’s goods and services. If we all decided that we had enough, and that more money and the material goods it could purchase were not the route to happiness, the economy would experience significant problems. Hence the slick marketing messages from companies so invested in selling us the belief that wealth and the latest stuff will make us happy. It won’t and most of us have overflowing closets, rooms, houses and even paid for excess storage to prove it. But the economy needs us to believe that it will.
On one side Marie Kondo is urging us to declutter and pursue a lifestyle of less and on the other we’re inundated with advertisements urging us to acquire what Marie will later encourage us to audit for “joy” (and which we will doubtless determine does not in fact meet the joy test and so discard).
So let’s set goals that actually make sense and which are firmly aligned with our pursuit of genuine happiness. This is our starting point to setting goals we can crush with ease every time and to living our best lives.
A Life Well Lived - Start At The End
I’m results-oriented and I believe in starting at your ideal finish line and working backwards. It makes sense whatever you’re planning, be it a wedding, NASA’s next mission, or your life. So ask yourself the question; What does my life, well lived, look like from the finish line? Fast-forward to the end of your days and write your own ideal obituary or eulogy
Sure at first blush that may sound a bit morbid but think again. Have you ever found yourself reading those posts on your social media feed which are in the form of life lessons from someone at the end of their life? Maybe you’ve read the bestseller, “Tuesdays With Morrie”, about Professor Morrie Schwartz’s reflections on his life as ALS began to rob him of his. We try to imagine how we will feel in the future but our imaginations are flawed and fallible. A much more reliable source for how we will feel in the future is the present or recorded experience of someone who is living their final days.
Science has given us so many facts about “the average person” but the most reliable of all these is the fact that the average person doesn’t see herself as average! Don’t fall into this trap of believing that you are so unique that these lessons won’t apply to you. Here are just a couple of quotes from Tuesdays with Morrie to give you a flavor of what the average person will have realized at the end of their lives:
At the end of your days what will your story be? Write that and that is the starting point for everything. I did this for the first time this year and in real detail. I sat down and I wrote the ideal eulogy for my funeral. I took quiet alone time to really contemplate how I wanted my husband, children, siblings, extended family, friends and colleagues to remember me and I wrote it down. It was me telling myself how I wanted my story to be told. It took a while and then I edited it and reworked it until I thought, yeah, if this were true at the end of my days I would consider that I had lived my life well. That felt priceless!
What Really Matters To You?
When you think about how you want to be remembered after your time is through you’ll have honed in on the things that really matter to you in life. A partner and children will probably have featured highly and you may have made mention in your eulogy to artistic or professional achievements. Maybe a desire to make an impact on some social justice issue revealed itself or a drive to contribute to some charitable project. Knowing what matters is the key to successful goal setting and ultimately to living your best life.
So let’s consider some categories for you to assess in determining what your life plan encompasses and from there we shall begin our goal setting.
Extended Family (Parents, Siblings,+)
The above list is just a guide to prompt you but it does cover the key areas one typically considers. You of course are at the center of this process. Your health, your physical, emotional and spiritual well-being are key. When you are in harmony within yourself you are in the best possible position to have the most positive and successful impact on your external life through your personal and professional relationships, your professional work and your creative life and play.
It is from these areas that we derive our goals so review the list and rewrite it in a way that speaks to you. For example maybe you’re an animal lover so you include a heading for pets or maybe you have no children or partner so you remove those sections too. If that’s the case, but you are interested in finding a partner in the future, add a heading to reflect this -“Romantic Relationship” for example.
Once you’ve edited the above list to make it your own, you need to prioritize your list. Number the areas from one to eight, or whatever number you ended up with, in order of importance to you. As the flight attendant’s remind us every time, you can’t help others until you’ve helped yourself first, so make sure you rank your personal needs at the very top. Beyond that, it’s entirely up to you and what feels right. Don’t spend too long on this step. Just get a sense of what feels comfortable and then we’ll move on.
Emotionally Charge Your Destination
When we’re goal setting it’s incredibly important to our prospects of success to make our envisioned future (i.e. our lives with the goals achieved) achingly seductive. This gives the goal massive “pull power” and that sense of inevitability; that we are being magnetically drawn towards a future reality where these goals are achieved. How do we do this though?
This is where your “why” comes into play and it reveals itself, or not, when you start to write your envisioned future in relation to each of your prioritized headings from above.
Starting with our top priority area we begin to plot a course to our ideal future status in that particular area. So, for example, if my number one priority category were “Self-Care” my Envisioned Future might look like this;
I am strong, healthy and fit. I work out with a trainer twice a week to focus on building a strong lean body. I run with my running club three evenings a week and run regular 10Ks. I feel self-confident, vibrant, and truly alive. I eat healthy foods that nourish my body and serve my fitness needs. My skin is glowing and I have an abundance of energy for all areas of my life. My partner and children all benefit from my increased energy and vitality. I smile easily, have increased patience, and am always ready to engage with my children in sports or play. I sleep a minimum of eight hours a night to ensure I receive all the immune system and other health benefits of a healthy sleep habit. I take quiet time each morning to meditate and journal to ensure my emotional and mental healthcare needs are met. I greet each day with optimism and joy, ready to meet each challenge from a place of abundance and calm.
The idea is to weave your “why” into your envisioned future so that it feels absolutely compelling to you. When you do this your Envisioned Future will evoke real emotion for you and you develop a feeling of ownership over it. It belongs to you and you feel drawn to realize it. This is where the magic of real goal setting resides.
This is the non-negotiable foundational work you must do to if you truly want to crush your goals with ease every time.
[You can DOWNLOAD my FREE Goal Setting Guide to accompany this post HERE]
Look Around You And Get Real!
We can’t improve what we don’t assess. No matter how far away we are from our envisioned future is irrelevant. What is essential though is that we are 100% honest with ourselves about that. Only by clearly identifying our starting point can we build the bridge to take us to our desired destination.
For each area we now must describe our current reality. Here a bullet pointed list will suffice. It’s an audit so we can identify clearly where we need to take action and to what degree. Let’s take the Self-Care example from above again and look at how this next step might look.
I’m a member of a gym but I’m only going about twice a month and not following any specific plan
I haven’t been running consistently since I did the 10K about 6 months ago
I eat relatively well but I tend to binge on high sugar and salt snacks when I stay up late
I’m about a stone over my ideal weight
I often feel lethargic and can be short-tempered with the family
I don’t engage in sport or physical play with the kids very often and I know this disappoints them
I often only sleep five and a half to six hours a night
I’ve tried meditation and enjoyed it but I never seem to have time in the mornings
I hear friends say that journalling is a real stress reliever but I’ve never tried it
So, this is the no sugar-coating look at where we actually are. This section has to be totally honest and reflect how you are living today. It will probably feel unpleasant to admit to ourselves that we’re doing pretty poorly in some areas of our lives but that’s ok. You can’t improve anything that we’re not prepared to get real about.
In fact I invite you to celebrate yourself a little at this point. Most people just cobble together a vision board with pretty pictures, get themselves a sparkly planner, and write in the goals they think they should have and spend a whole heap of time, effort, and often money, in pursuit of the wrong things in the wrong way. But you are ready to crush your goals so you’re not going to follow the crowd but instead invest in really understanding where it is you want to go and why.
It’s only when you’ve completed every step that I’ve laid out above that you can actually begin to identify and commit to your goals.
Not All Goals Are Created Equal
You now know very clearly where you want to go in each important area of your life, your Envisioned Future. You also know exactly where you’re starting from, your Current Reality. Now we’re going to plot our course with your SMART Goals!
This acronym is very familiar to many but to be clear it means Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time bound. Yeah that sounds way too “business speak” I know! Essentially you’re making specific commitments based on the gap between where you are now and where you want to be. It’s important to insert a time element so that they don’t drift along in your calendar and not get measured or completed. Again I’m going to provide an example of what this might look like, continuing with the Self-Care example we’ve been using up to now. I’m going to assume I am making these GOALS on Sunday January 20 2019 for the purposes of inserting specific times and dates for the goals.
Book initial trainer consult at gym by Wednesday 23 Jan with a view to starting new strength training program, 2 sessions per week, week commencing 28 January
Enquire about 10K training group options with local running clubs by Friday 25 January with a view to joining one by week commencing 4 February
Commit to non-negotiable 8 hours sleep nightly by setting phone reminders, with 30 minute wind-down alert, for 10:30 pm weekday nights and 11:30pm weekend nights. Track sleep quality with Fitbit. Start immediately and review weekly on Sundays.
Plan meals in advance for the week on Saturdays and shop for, and pre-prepare, majority of meals by Sundays 4pm. Commence Saturday 26 January.
You should get the idea from just the few specific goals I’ve set above. They are not overly onerous, they are specific and time-bound. Obviously there will be review elements which you would diarize as you got further along and you may need to tweak some of your goals post-review. However, you have a specific starting point to work from and you will learn from there what works and what doesn’t.
It’s also really important not to fall prey to the terror of perfectionism. If something isn’t working for you, re-read the relevant Envisioned Future statement to tap into the power of that feeling and re-affirm your ownership of that future. Then just open your mind and get creative about what other route you might take. Maybe you’ve over-scheduled yourself and just been unrealistic about how many things you can take on in one go.
It’s useful to stagger the goals when you are implementing a lot of change at once. For example, maybe you want to leave the meal-planning element until you have the exercise habit established as well as your sleeping habit. These two powerful changes alone will no doubt have the ripple effect of regulating your appetite and you will most likely find that you now naturally gravitate toward more healthy food choices. You may find the earlier post
The trick is to prioritize within your SMART goals to maximize any possible ripple effects and avoid any sense of overwhelm.
Life is full of change and challenge. The average American moves more than 6 times, changes job more than 10 times and marries more than once in their lifetime and so too your life plan must adjust with your circumstances. It is not a static document you produce once but rather a living document that will evolve with you and your changing circumstances. Barring any major life change, an annual review should suffice. A 4 week review for your SMART goals, at least during the first year of your plan, should ensure that you keep on course and make adjustments as necessary.
This plan takes time to set up the first time. I spent probably 8 hours on mine plus another 2 hours when my husband and I shared our individual plans with each other, and then worked on the overlap areas to make sure we were in sync, and to allocate shared goal responsibilities. The whole process served to strengthen our relationship as we re-committed to working together to support each other in our individual goals, and to work in full partnership toward achieving our joint goals. Win-Win!
Let me know in the comments if you already have a Life Plan in writing or whether you’re going to try this process for the first time. Don’t forget to download the free planner to guide you through the steps! Living your best life won’t happen by accident but through planning. You deserve an awesome life; one you can look back on with no regrets
Best of luck!
You’ve got this!