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

100 books in 4 years: Tips for reading more regularly

I have always been an avid, albeit spotty, reader. I’d burn through a book one week, but then read nothing but the newspaper, an occasional magazine article, or some online fluff pieces for the next month.

A few years ago, I decided to amp up my reading practices. I wanted to see if I could form, and stick with, an everyday habit of reading more substantive literature. So beginning in 2012, I set a goal to read 100 books in four years.

I’m happy to say that on October 28, 2015, I finished my 100th book, Finding Your Element by Ken Robinson. From start to finish, it took me three years and 301 days – 1,397 days in all – to complete this goal. That’s an average of one book every two weeks, for almost four years.

Along the way, I learned some valuable strategies for how to make reading a regular part of your daily routine:

Set a goal – Create a reading goal that is clear and concrete. You should be able to measure progress towards the goal, and know when it has been completed. For example, my goal to “read 100 books in 4 years” is concrete and measurable; “read more books” is not. Check out this post for more on the power of using concrete goals.

Read every day – Set aside some quiet time each day to read. Personally, I like to read for 30-60 minutes every morning over coffee. This routine works because I was able to link a desired behaviour (reading) with an established everyday habit (my morning coffee). It helps that I have a caffeine addiction. The key lesson is this: if you want to read more regularly, try combining it with one of your existing daily habits.

Track your results – Keep an up-to-date list of the books you’ve completed. Tracking your progress will help to motivate you to read more, and give you a sense of accomplishment each time you add a just-read book to your list.

Make a list of books you want to read – Create a list of new books you want to read and keep it close at hand. I use a notebook to jot down the names of books and authors I want to check out in the future, and revise it often. Alternatively, you could create a list on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer.

Ditch the newspaper – I used to read the newspaper almost every morning. While it helped to keep me abreast of current affairs, in truth reading the daily news did not enrich my life much. The news is almost always negative (“If it bleeds, it leads”), is largely superficial in its analysis, and rarely impacts your life in a meaningful way. Rather than reading the newspaper – or online news sources – use that time to read books instead.

Borrow books – Buying new books can be expensive. To keep the costs down, borrow books from the library or from a friend. Sharing one book among many readers is better for the environment too. However, if you really want to own a copy of a book, consider picking it up from a second-hand bookstore.

Give books away – Let’s face it, most books you will never read twice. So once you’re done with a book, rather than squirreling it away on some dusty bookshelf, give it to someone else to enjoy. It’s an easy way to practice giving more regularly and will infuse a small boost of happiness into your reading regime.

In case you’re curious, here is the complete list of the 100 books that I read (those marked with an asterisk are personal favourites).

  1. Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change, by William Marsden
  2. The Third Man Factor: The Secret to Survival in Extreme Environments, by John Geiger
  3. Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, by Jeff Rubin
  4. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert Hare
  5. The Beach, by Alex Garland
  6. Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene *
  7. Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
  8. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann *
  9. The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb
  10. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut *
  11. The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson *
  12. A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
  13. The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
  14. Ace on the River, by Barry Greenstein
  15. How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
  16. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller *
  17. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  18. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  19. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
  20. The Skillful Teacher, by Stephen Brookfield
  21. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan *
  22. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
  23. The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt *
  24. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
  25. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
  26. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl *
  27. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
  28. Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds
  29. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie
  30. Night, by Elie Wiesel *
  31. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls *
  32. Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom *
  33. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
  34. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway *
  35. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway *
  36. Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson
  37. The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe *
  38. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
  39. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood *
  40. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving *
  41. The Power of Why, by Amanda Lang
  42. A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah *
  43. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess *
  44. Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom for Today’s Leaders, by General Rick Hillier
  45. Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen
  46. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho *
  47. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan *
  48. Golden Vision, by Thomas Dodd
  49. Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
  50. The Great Work of Your Life, by Stephen Cope *
  51. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
  52. Switch, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath *
  53. The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff
  54. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu
  55. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, by Robin Sharma
  56. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing *
  57. Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown *
  58. Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, by Jose Bowen
  59. The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs
  60. Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman
  61. The Positive Dog, by Jon Gordon
  62. The Optimism Bias, by Tali Sharot
  63. Positivity, by Barbara Fredrickson *
  64. The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
  65. Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman *
  66. Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis
  67. The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, by John Izzo
  68. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  69. One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer
  70. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy *
  71. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  72. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
  73. Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton
  74. The Bhagavad Gita. Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran *
  75. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, by Tina Seelig
  76. Manuscript Found in Accra, by Paulo Coelho
  77. Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis *
  78. How To Be Interesting: (In 10 Simple Steps), by Jessica Hagy
  79. The History of the World, by Frank Welsh
  80. The Power of Giving, by Azim Jamal & Harvey McKinnon *
  81. Quiet, by Susan Cain *
  82. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
  83. How Will You Measure Your Life?, by Clayton Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillon
  84. The Happiness of Pursuit, by Chris Guillebeau
  85. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson *
  86. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
  87. Didn’t See It Coming, by Marc Stoiber
  88. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi *
  89. An American Dream, by Norman Mailer
  90. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut *
  91. Count Me In, by Emily White
  92. Drive, by Daniel Pink
  93. For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  94. The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle *
  95. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle
  96. The Pilgrimage, by Paulo Coelho
  97. The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman *
  98. Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert *
  99. In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick *
  100. Finding Your Element, by Ken Robinson

The age-old practice of tithing is still relevant today

In ancient times, tithing was a common practice in Jewish and Christian communities. People would be required to give a tithe, equal to one-tenth of their income or in some cases agricultural produce, to the church. While not as common today, some people still practice tithing voluntarily by giving to religious organizations or for charitable purposes.

The appeal of tithing is its simplicity. It provides clear structure to one’s giving, leaving no wiggle room for digression. A tenth is a tenth, plain and simple.

But does the age-old practice of tithing still have value today? I wanted to find out for myself. So with the fresh start of the New Year, I decided to try my hand at tithing for all of January.

Intent on finding a modern, secular version of the practice, I consulted the book The Power of Giving by Azim Jamal and Harvey McKinnon. The authors describe three types of tithing that can be used by almost anyone (thankfully, none of them involve harvesting crops):

  • Money tithing: give away one-tenth of your income.
  • Time tithing: give one-tenth of your free time to others or to causes.
  • Idea tithing: share 10 percent of your good ideas with others.

Doggedly, I vowed to complete all three forms of tithing as part of my experiment. I would give 10 percent of my income, free time and ideas to others for the month of January.

Money tithing

First up, giving away one-tenth of my income. I opted to base my calculations on after-tax rather than gross income, which resulted in a more achievable albeit conservative tithe. I won’t disclose exactly how much money I gave away; let’s just say it was not a game-changing amount, nor was it pocket change.

Of the three types of tithing I test-drove, this one was the easiest to complete. In less than five minutes, and in only a few mouse clicks, I made a one-time online donation to a local charity called The Lipstick Project.

Based in Vancouver, TLP is a volunteer-run organization that provides free, professional spa services to patients who are in recovery or approaching the end of their lives. On a personal note, I witnessed first-hand the calming and comforting effect that gentle physical touch had on my own father in the last stages of his life. So I can attest to the benefits of TLP’s work. Their services make an enormous difference in people’s lives, and they do it all on a very lean budget.

My donation to TLP was fairly painless. Sure, I would have to pinch some pennies to mind my budget, but it wouldn’t require too much sacrifice. I’d just have to skip out on a few restaurant meals or some other discretionary purchases during the month. Hardly the realm of Mother Teresa.

The minor sting from parting ways with my money was soon displaced by a deep sense of fulfilment from making a positive contribution to a great cause. According to The Lipstick Project’s 2013 Annual Report, my modest donation represented almost 5% of their annual operating expenses for all programs, administration, and marketing. Knowing that my gift will make a meaningful impact to the charity’s work is the ultimate payoff of goodwill.

Tip: If you live in Canada and want to donate money to a good cause, check out Money Sense Magazine’s rating guide of Canada’s biggest 100 charities. This guide uses data from the Canadian Revenue Agency to assign grades to the country’s largest charities based on their efficiency, transparency and other key factors. While the guide excludes smaller local charities, it does provide an insightful look under the hood of the larger charities in Canada.

Time tithing

Before I could start tithing my time, I first had to calculate how much free time I had available in the month. Thankfully, The Power of Giving provides easy-to-follow instructions for doing the math.

According to the book, you start with the total number of hours available in the month, and then subtract the time needed for sleep and other essentials, such as work, commuting, preparing and eating food, performing toiletries, cleaning clothes and doing other household chores. The tithe is 10 percent of the ensuing number.

Based on my calculations, I had about 320 hours of free time in the month, resulting in a tithe of 32 hours. I split my time more or less evenly between formal volunteering (with a charity) and informal volunteering (outside of any organization).

My formal volunteering was done with a local organization called Community First Foundation. I helped out with their Backpack Buddies program to deliver healthy, nutritious meals to Vancouver’s inner-city school children. Now in its third year, the program supplies over 400 kids with enough food to last the weekend throughout the entire school year.

Students at Collingwood School in West Vancouver loading the Backpack Buddies' sparkling new van with food en route to Vancouver's inner-city schools (Photo by Joe Kelly)
Students at Collingwood School in West Vancouver loading the Backpack Buddies’ sparkling new van with food en route to Vancouver’s inner-city schools (Photo by Joe Kelly)

 

Informal volunteering generally includes any unpaid help given to people who are not relatives. For example, one evening I helped a friend to de-clutter her home; another day I offered free babysitting for a friend’s birthday; and on a few occasions I assisted colleagues with their job searches.

Needing to give away a few remaining hours at the end of the month, I decided to undertake a fun experiment on social media. I posted on Facebook that I was looking to donate some time to anyone needing help with anything, anything at all. After weeding out the obligatory jokes, I was pleased that my offer was taken up by two people. Somewhat surprisingly, they were both loose acquaintances – people I hadn’t seen in person for a decade or more. It proved to be a lot of fun reconnecting and helping them out in a small way. It also goes to show that social media isn’t all bad; these experiences wouldn’t have been possible without Facebook.

For many people, giving time is a challenge. We live busy lives, and volunteering your time means you have fewer opportunities to do other things you enjoy. However, I believe it’s better to think of volunteering as an investment rather than an opportunity cost.

Investing your time in a cause or in others helps to build up the social capital of your community. Not only does your investment help to make the community a better place for all, but it can lead to a healthier, happier and more fulfilled life for you too. And in my books, that’s time well spent.

Idea tithing

I was looking forward to trying out “idea tithing.” It was the first time I heard of the concept, and it sounded like a fun and creative way to practice giving.

My plan: I would carry a pocket-sized journal wherever I went and, whenever an idea struck, I’d take a moment to write it down. Thinking of myself as a big ideas guy, I envisioned a long list of thought-provoking ideas flooding the pages of my leather-bound notebook. For every ten new ideas I dreamed up, I’d dole out one of the better ones to someone who might benefit from it.

Wake up Walter Mitty. My harsh realization from the month: I’m not a big ideas guy. In fact, at the pace I was going, I’d be lucky to give away one idea by month’s end. I needed to change tactics, and quickly.

So early in the month, I amped up the challenge. Instead of a mere 10 percent, I’d now give away every single one of my ideas. No messy calculations. No need to select which ideas I would pass along and which I would keep for myself. They would all be set free.

I’d like to say all my ideas were mind-blowing brainwaves – perhaps a new way of solving a problem or an innovative break-through that would improve someone’s life. Again, delusional thinking.

Most, in reality, were run-of-the-mill suggestions to help friends and colleagues in small practical ways. Over the course of the entire month, I thought up one or two ideas, tops, that I would classify as good. The best of the lot, in my view, was a new idea for an article, which I passed over to an editor at The Vancouver Sun.

So what did I learn?

The bad news first: You don’t dream up nearly as many new ideas as you think you do. And most of those you do come up with aren’t especially profound. We can’t all be Sir Ken Robinson. Bummer.

But, here’s the good news: It’s easy and it feels great to give away an idea. It’s free to do, and even the smallest germ of an idea can grow in the right hands.

That’s the true value of giving – whether it’s your time, money, or even an idea. Your gift represents possibility. Just as a single seed can bloom into a flower, so can a simple generous act blossom into something special in the right circumstances. But that’s only possible if you freely share your contributions with the world, no matter how humble they might be.