The Minimalist's Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals
Setting resolutions or goals for the new year is not only a fun tradition, it’s also a great way to do a complete mental reboot and start the year with a fresh new outlook and tons of enthusiasm.
But: What if you are also trying to make an effort to Iive a slower, more intentional life and live in the moment, rather than always chasing something and waiting for some point in the future? Isn’t the act of setting goals a little counterproductive in that case? Yes and No.
Yes, because you definitely want to avoid becoming trapped in that oh-so common cycle of chasing goal after goal, of never really feeling content and essentially delaying “real” life until you have achieved X, Y, Z.
No, because it doesn’t have to be that way. For aspiring minimalists, the trick is to see your goals not as a rigid system of rules, to-dos and self-imposed deadlines designed to make your life harder, but as an overall, happy vision that excites and motivates you on a daily basis.
And, if done right, setting goals can actually help you live a slower, more intentional life. How? By challenging you to figure out a) what makes you happy and b) how to add more of that to your life, rather than letting everything just kind of pile up and living in a reactive, passive way. And that’s what minimalism and living with intention is all about after all.
Below you’ll find my three top tips for setting (and achieving) goals as a minimalist. If you haven’t yet, take half an hour or so to review your 2014 with these questions before you start working on your goals. Becoming aware of what went well during the past year and what didn’t will help you set more meaningful goals that are truly in line with your priorities.
Goal setting strategy for minimalists
1. Choose a maximum of three goals
My recommendation: Select a maximum of three big, exciting goals to work on at a time. Limiting yourself to only a small set of goals forces you to really make sure the goals you pick are meaningful enough, and also helps you avoid spreading yourself too thinly. Remember, both your time and your will power are limited resources, so be selective about what you spend them on.
Make your three (or one, or two) goals ones that would truly make a difference to your life and that get you super excited just by thinking about them. What are the top three things that you want to achieve in 2015? What one achievement would make everything else you want easier to reach? Choose must-haves, not nice-to-haves. If you can only come up with one goal like that, that’s fine too. And: Aim high! The best goals are those that get you ridiculously excited, but also scare you a little bit. For example, if you want to get fit and currently go for a casual run a couple of times a week, don’t just aim for the 10k, shoot for a half-marathon! Only a big, truly inspiring goal will motivate you enough to move past set backs and push through difficult phases.
2. Understand your motivation behind each goal
If your goal is exciting and big enough, it will take a lot of effort and time to achieve, whether you want to start a business, write a book, learn a language or work towards a promotion. And during that time you will undoubtedly feel tired, exhausted and like giving up at some point. The comfort-seeking parts of your brain will try to convince you that it’s ok to give up, that your current status quo is totally fine and the effort isn’t worth it. Your best safeguard: A written, detailed summary of your entire motivation, carrot-and-stick style.
Reserve at least twenty minutes per goal to really figure out WHY you want to achieve it. Why do you want to find a better job, get fit or start your own business? What is your core motivation for it, what aspects of your life will improve and how will you feel? Open up a new document on your computer and just write, write, write, until you have captured all of your emotions and your reasoning behind your goal.
Focus on both the benefits of achieving your goal AND the downsides of not reaching it or just leaving everything as is. For example, if you want to get promoted this year:
Benefits of getting promoted:
- More creative freedom!
- Less administrative work
- One step closer to dream job
- Higher salary (enough to move into better apartment)
Downsides of staying in old position:
- Less autonomy
- Few development opportunities
- Feeling like I’m not living up to my potential
- Very rigid work schedule
These are just bullet point examples, feel free to go into a lot more detail. Writing everything down like this will not only supercharge your motivation levels, it also helps you doublecheck that you have chosen the right goals: If you find it very difficult to come up with a powerful reason for why you want to achieve one of your goals, chances are your heart isn’t in it.
3. Focus on the process, not the outcome
Once you have figured out why you want to achieve your goals, it’s time to plan out the HOW. Now, instead of mapping out every sub-goal and creating a rigid time schedule, i.e. being very outcome-driven, try a different approach: Focus on the process, the daily habits that will get you there.
For example, if one of your goals is to write a book/paper/thesis in 2015, instead of setting due dates for every chapter, commit to sitting down to write every single day for two hours, continuously improving your craft and enjoying the process. Prepare everything that will help you stick to your habit in advance, i.e. figure out at what times you’ll write, what tools you need, what your work space will look like, what your creative process will be, etc.
Focusing on habits instead of outcomes has three major benefits:
- it’s an effective way to avoid that 'living for the future’ mentality and helps you be mindful on a daily basis.
- it makes it a lot more likely that you will actually achieve your goals, because it bridges the gap between wishful thinking and your daily routine and needs.
- it reduces stress by giving you more control and putting the focus on small, manageable bursts of effort rather than one huge chunk of work.
Plus: Any good habits that you build up for the purpose of one of your goals this year will stay with you long after you have reached that goal. Which means your outcome will not only be easier to maintain, but it will also be a lot easier for you to achieve other, related goals in the future.
Extra tip: Once I have finished all my goal-planning for the year, I like to also write a casual list of all the things that I want to do during the next 12 months for no reason other than that they are fun or interesting. Little things like checking out a new museum or baking something fun, but also bigger things like a trip to NYC for example. The list helps me keep my focus on the present whenever I’m on the verge of getting too caught up in the goal chase.