Living by design: 2016 edition

2016 was the second year in a row that I used a fairly rigorous goal-setting system to increase my productivity and enjoyment in all areas of life. Some call this “living by design” or “life hacking.” To me, it’s about taking a more proactive approach to living, to treating life as a fun experiment, and to pursuing your dreams armed with a plan. You can read more about my system here.

Now that the year is over, I thought I would share my results and reflect upon the pros and cons of my approach.

So how did it go?

Overall, it was a good year. I was able to achieve (or come close to achieving) many of my goals for the year, as you can see in the graph below (yes, I’m a big dork). Three big accomplishments this year were: creating and teaching a new leadership course on how to think and act like a change-maker; raising over $10,000 for the Project Change Foundation; and traveling to five new countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia). Also, I was able to achieve most of my professional and financial goals even though I was out of the country for almost five months. This is reassuring as I continue to adopt a more location independent lifestyle. On the flip side, I struggled with some of my health goals and it was challenging to keep up with my spiritual practice while on the road.

Notes: i) For privacy reasons, I have elected not to disclose my revenue targets. ii) I did in fact set romantic goals, but I’m way too bashful to reveal them publicly. Ask me about it offline.

The Pros

Developing a set of meaningful goals, and sticking with them over the course of a year, takes commitment and serious effort. So what’s the payoff from all your hard work? From my experience, here are some of the main benefits:

A sense of direction – There’s almost an unlimited number of things you can do over the course of a year. This is exhilarating, but also intimidating. It’s easy to feel adrift and uncertain on what path to take. Goals act like a ship’s rudder: they provide direction as you navigate the ocean of possibilities in life.

Greater purpose – Having direction is important, but you also need to be heading in the right direction. To do this, my advice is to align your goals with your core values and long-term aspirations. This takes a bit of work, but it ensures your goals will contribute to a greater purpose.

Balanced lifestyle – Creating goals in different areas of your life helps to promote a more balanced lifestyle. This is especially beneficial for people who tend to focus too much on one area of life at the expense of others.

Better decision-making – Everyday, you make many decisions on how to allocate your time, energy and money. For example, let’s say you have an hour of free time today. How should you spend it? These kinds of decisions might seem trivial in the moment but, since you make so many of them, their cumulative effect over months and years can have a huge impact on your life. Using goals to help guide these decisions can return long-term benefits to your health and happiness.

A kick in the pants – Creating a list of goals, and tracking them over time, is a good way to keep you motivated and accountable as you work on things that are important to you. As an added incentive, the act of checking a completed goal off your list provides a boost to propel you towards your next big undertaking.

The Cons (and how to deal with them)

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, however. Here are some disadvantages with my approach and tips for overcoming them:

Too much structure – Sure, developing a wide range of goals can promote a balanced lifestyle, but it also forces a lot of structure on your life. Like a lot of things, structure is healthy in moderation but can be detrimental in the extreme. There’s a point of diminishing returns as you add more and more goals to your list (with 32 goals in 2016, I might be guilty of this). Tip: Don’t spread yourself too thin. Focus on one or two goals in each area of your life that will produce the biggest return on your effort. Put your energy there.

A distorted view of reality – Most of us believe that our goals will better our lives in some way. However, the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that comes to mind when you first dream up a goal can be quite different from the actual experience. A goal that seems amazing at first glance (e.g. “I’m going to write a book this year!”) might turn out to be utter torture in reality. Tip: Do a small pilot project before taking on a bigger goal. For example, create a preliminary goal to write one draft chapter of the book. Doing a pilot experiment is a good way to test the waters and can give you the confidence to go after your big, audacious goal later on.

Opportunity cost – Focusing a lot of time and energy on your goals can mean that you miss out on other awesome experiences in life. Tip: Reduce the number of goals in your list so that you’ll have time to pursue unexpected opportunities. Also, create a few goals that encourage spontaneity and experimentation (e.g. “Try something new at least once a month.”)

Too results focused – It’s tempting to create a list of goals that focus solely on the results you want to achieve in life (e.g. “earn a six-figure income” or “lose 10 pound”). These goals are useful for describing a desired outcome, but they don’t provide guidance on how to get there. This can leave you feeling frustrated if you don’t make much progress on your goals during the year. Tip: Use actionable goals that are within your locus of control. “Submit two proposals every month” and “walk at least 30 minutes a day” are examples of actionable goals – you have complete control over them and they can help to achieve your desired results. 

Face to face with failure – Tracking your goals is a fun way to celebrate your achievements throughout the year. However, it shines a bright light on your failures too. Staring at a list of incomplete goals can be downright depressing. Let’s face it, no one likes to be reminded of their failures. Tip: Think of your goal-setting practice as an experiment rather than an indication of your self-worth. Just like a good scientist, try to learn from your failed trials. Ask yourself: What changes can you make based on your experience? What would be the probable outcomes from making these changes? Remember: Not all experiments will be successful, but all of them can teach you something.

How to create the future of your dreams

In 2005, a year after he was first diagnosed with cancer, Steve Jobs, the CEO and co-founder of Apple, gave a moving commencement speech to the graduating class at Stanford University. In the speech, Jobs urges the newly graduated students to do what they love and to never lose sight of their dreams. Reflecting on his cancer diagnosis, Jobs suggests that awareness of your own death can be a motivator for doing what’s truly important in your life:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” – Steve Jobs

Realizing that you’re going to die soon is an incredibly powerful way to diminish the grip that fear has on you. Contemplating your own death – and the ephemerality of life – can help give you the courage to overcome any fear that’s holding you back. For example, say you want to give an inspirational speech but you have a fear of public speaking. What’s the worst that can happen? You give a bad presentation? You feel embarrassed? So what. It really doesn’t matter. Trust me, in 100 years’ time, when you’re dead and buried, no one is going to remember or care. Like life itself, fear is ephemeral.

Here’s the silver lining: embracing the impermanence of life can free you to go after your dreams. If you want to start a company or a charity, do it. If you want to create beautiful art, make it. If you want to do international aid work in Africa, go for it. Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you. Don’t let the risk of failure stop you. These are just transitory blips in the grand scheme of things. When fear falls away, anything is possible. So go for it — follow your heart, pursue your dreams, and create your future legacy.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” With this in mind, here is an exercise you can try to create the future of your dreams.

This exercise will take approximately 30 to 60 minutes to complete, though it might take longer if you delve deeper into the questions. Find a quiet and comfortable place free of distractions. You’ll need a pen or pencil, and some paper or a notebook. Before you start, I recommend that you turn off your cell phone and other electronic devices.

1) First, imagine your life in 50 years’ time. Imagine that you’ve lived a good and fulfilling life. You’ve stayed true to yourself, you’ve followed your passions, and you’ve pursued your dreams. Fear has not stopped you from doing what’s important in your life. You’ve lived a life that you’re proud of; one that has brought you much happiness and a deep sense of meaning. Thinking back on your life, what are your biggest accomplishments? What have you achieved? What have you created or done? Consider all areas of your life: family, relationships, professional, financial, educational, spiritual, health, travel, adventure, etc. Write down your 50-year future.

2) Next, imagine your life in 10 years’ time. To be on track with your 50-year future, what should your life look like in 10 years? What are your accomplishments in 10 years? What have you achieved or done?

3) Next, imagine your life in one year’s time. To be on track with your 10-year future, what should your life look like in one year? What are your accomplishments in one year? What have you achieved or done?

4) Now, come back to the present moment. What’s one thing you can do today to help create this future? What can you do by midnight today to put you on track for this future? Write it down, and then go out and make it happen. Just do this one thing today, and see how it feels.

The point of this exercise is to illustrate that you are the ultimate creator of your own future. You have the ability to shape your future into something special. To do this, first envision the type of future you want to create, and then make choices and take actions in life that will help make this vision a reality. The formula is really quite simple: 1) dream (big), and 2) take action.

A good metaphor is to think of your life as a canvas. It begins blank and, over the years, you create a work of art that marks your journey through life. The thing is, you only have one canvas. Rather than filling it haphazardly – hoping that something of beauty and value will eventually emerge – why not visualize the masterpiece you want to create ahead of time? This is what visionaries do – and you can do it too. Realizing that you are the artist of your own future is a powerful way to live your life. The question is: What will you create?

Some of you may have no idea what you want to create yet. Trust me, that is completely natural, and there is nothing wrong with you. If you haven’t figured out what you want to create with your life, don’t worry, there is lots of time ahead of you. It might not become apparent until years from now. That’s okay. Everyone is on their own unique life path. For now, my advice is to try a lot of different things and be open to new opportunities. Treat life as a big, fun experiment. If you keep an open mind, when the time is right, you’ll find something that fits and you can run with it. Till then, never stop dreaming.

Living by design: My experiments in goal-setting

Last year, I ditched the practice of making New Year’s resolutions, which, let’s be honest, rarely work out in the end. Instead, I decided to experiment with a more rigorous system for setting my annual goals. My aim was to create goals in different areas of my life that would be more effective and meaningful to me. I previously wrote about my approach here.

Now that the year is over, I thought I would share my results, along with some lessons that I learned along the way.

So how did it go?

In short, it was a good year. I was able to achieve (or come close to achieving) many of my goals for the year, as you can see in my ultra-nerdy graph below. Two big accomplishments this year were starting the Project Change Foundation, and traveling across the country to meet with some truly remarkable people as part of my Better World Tour this summer. Mind you, not everything was a roaring success. I failed miserably at making progress on “the book”, I was far off my health goals this year, and my credit card balance isn’t where I want it to be. There is always 2016, right?

Goals - 2015

Notes: i) For privacy reasons, I have elected not to disclose my revenue targets. ii) I did in fact set romantic goals, but I’m way too bashful to reveal them publicly. Ask me about it offline.

What did I learn?

Reflecting on my experiences this year, here are some strategies I learned to help move your goals forward:

Set yourself up for success – Perhaps most importantly, take the time up front to create goals that will work for you. I previously wrote about my own process for creating life goals that are effective and meaningful. Based on my experiences this year, there is very little I would change with this approach.

Track your progress – Create a simple system to monitor progress towards your goals. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated or time-consuming. My own tracking system was old-school basic. I made a printout of my goals, with space next to each one where I could pencil in some notes and check things off as I completed them.

Keep your goals close at hand – Whether at home, at the office, or on the road, remember to keep your goals within easy reach. I kept the printout of my goals in my laptop bag that I pack around everywhere. That way, I was forced to see my goals nearly everyday. Once you’ve created your own list of amazing goals, don’t file them away in a place you rarely look. Keep them front and center in your life.

Just do it – A few days might go by where you haven’t made any progress on your goals, or there will be days where you may feel like giving up on the whole project. When you hit a rough patch, try asking yourself, “What’s one small thing I can do today to advance just one of my goals?” It could be the tiniest thing imaginable: call a friend, go for a walk in the park, or read one page of a book. It doesn’t really matter what it is, just move the ball forward.

Strive for balance – The reason for creating a range of goals in different areas of your life is to promote a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Keep this in mind when working on your goals throughout the year. If you focus too much on goals in one aspect of your life, other areas may suffer. My advice: work on your goals in parallel, not in sequence.

Share with others – Recruit a friend or two to do a goal-setting project with you. It’s a good way to stay motivated, and it is way more fun to celebrate your triumphs and laugh at your tribulations when your friends are around.

Be open to spontaneity – Used effectively, goals can help you achieve a lot in life. But like a lot of things, goals are best used in moderation. You don’t want to be so rigidly structured that you miss out on the joy of spontaneity. If an unexpected opportunity emerges or a random adventure presents itself, go for it!

Don’t beat yourself up – This is a big one. You may very well fall short in achieving some of your goals. And you know what? That’s just fine. At the end of the day, a goal is just something that you’ve made up. It’s literally just words on a page. Don’t make it mean anything more.

Wishing you much fun, fulfillment and adventure in the year ahead. Happy New Year everyone!

Warmly, Joe