How to set life goals that are meaningful and effective

As the end of the year approaches, it’s natural to start contemplating the year ahead. Like many people do at this time of year, I usually take a few moments to set some goals for the twelve months to come.

In the past, I didn’t bother with much formality in carrying out this task. I simply wrote down a handful of things I wanted to do or accomplish, both professionally and personally. This year, however, I decided to put a lot more effort and thought into my annual goal-setting practice. My aim was to create more meaningful and effective goals that would help me to achieve the life I want. Here’s how I did it.

Align goals with your values and life purpose

I previously wrote a post on the merits of living a life that’s grounded on a larger purpose. I made the case that living in harmony with your values and purpose is one of the surest routes to happiness and fulfillment in life.

That’s all very well in theory, but how do you go about this in practice? Once you’ve clarified your values and overall life purpose, living them everyday can be tricky business. Here’s where goals can help. Setting and working towards concrete and actionable goals can help to translate your values and purpose into real life.

Aligning your goals with your values and a greater purpose means that you’ll take action on things that are important and worthwhile to you. Your goals will be inherently meaningful, and achieving them will bring a deep sense of fulfilment.

However, creating value-based goals doesn’t mean they all have to be profound and lofty pursuits. Sure, some of your values may be highly principled, but others can be quite carefree. For example, two of my values are “adventure” and “fun.” This leaves a lot of room for lighthearted goals too.

Seek balance amongst all areas in life

It’s fair to say that most of us have set goals before, at least in some areas of life. Perhaps you have created goals for your career, finances, or even your health. But have you ever created a romantic goal, or what about a goal focused on your spiritual practice?

Goal setting is a powerful tool. It helps you to focus your energy and efforts on achieving the things you want out of life. This is all well and good, but creating goals that focus only on certain aspects of life may mean that other areas are neglected. My advice: create a breadth of goals that encompass all the important areas of your life. Balance your professional, financial, and health related aspirations with goals that focus on family, friendships, romance, spirituality, and more.

As for me, here are the categories I decided to use for my goals this year:

  • Professional
  • Writing
  • Leadership, Service and Contribution
  • Family and Friends
  • Romance
  • Fun
  • Health
  • Learning
  • Spirituality
  • Travel and Adventure
  • Financial

While there’s no magic number, I recommend creating at least 2-3 goals per category. Try not to overload any one category; instead, strive for a healthy balance amongst all the different areas. As well, don’t overdo it by creating a huge number of goals overall. You don’t want to force so much structure onto your life that you rob yourself of the joy that comes from spontaneity and happenstance.

Create goals that are effective

Some goals are better than others. In fact, how a goal is expressed can sometimes be the difference between accomplishing your objectives and falling short.

One of the best ways to ensure your goals are effective is to use the aptly named S.M.A.R.T. criteria for goal-setting. First presented in a paper in the November 1981 issue of Management Review, the criteria have been modified and adopted in a wide range of contexts. The five criteria are often defined as follows:

  • Specific – Make sure the goal is clear and concrete, rather than ambiguous and general. It should be something you can easily take action on and doesn’t leave any wiggle room (“take the stairs at work” is better than “lose weight”). Check out this post for more on the power of using concrete goals.
  • Measurable – Make the goal quantifiable. In other words, you should be able to measure progress towards it, and know when it has been completed (“read at least 20 books” is measurable; “read more books” is not).
  • Attainable – The goal is realistic and achievable (“go to the opera” appears on my list; “sing opera” does not). Tip: It’s okay to include some easy goals, but make sure to stretch yourself too. If a goal is ambitious, however, don’t make it so extreme that it’s impossible to achieve.
  • Relevant – The goal should matter to you; it should be meaningful and worthwhile. Notice that by aligning your goals with your values and life purpose, they will be relevant by design.
  • Time-bound – Ground the goal within a clear timeframe. I gave myself a year to complete most of my goals, though many can be finished in shorter order.

Using these criteria, here are a few examples of goals I created for the year ahead:

  • Publish at least five articles in major news outlets [Writing]
  • Start a charitable foundation [Leadership, Service and Contribution]
  • Take an acting class [Fun]
  • Spend at least an hour in nature every week [Health]
  • Read at least 20 books [Learning]

When creating your own goals, remember that wording matters. Strive to craft goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It’s a sure-fire recipe for developing goals that work.

In review

With the fresh start of a new year comes optimism for the future, making it a perfect time to set some new goals for the twelve months ahead. Here’s my advice for creating goals that are meaningful, balanced, and effective:

  1. Identify your personal values and overall life purpose. Aligning your goals with your values and purpose will make them more meaningful and inspiring to you, and make achieving them more fulfilling. Need some guidance? Check out this past post on living with purpose.
  2. List all the areas in your life for which you want to develop goals. Convert this list to 8-12 general categories. Strive for balance: make sure all key areas of your life are captured, without over-representing any one realm.
  3. For each category, create at least 2-3 goals. Use the S.M.A.R.T. criteria to ensure your goals are effectively stated. Remember, your goals should be worthwhile pursuits. You should feel compelled to complete them, even if they are ambitious.
  4. Start mapping out a plan for achieving your goals, especially the more involved ones. A big goal can appear less daunting once you break it down into smaller, actionable steps.

Living with purpose: Or why I dislike the term work-life balance

Work-life balance. I don’t like the term.

It conjures up an image of a two-sided scale, with one side labelled “work” and the other “everything else.” As if the secret to achieving a satisfying and fulfilling life is to carefully apportion your time between the two opposing sides.

I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that overall well-being depends on allocating just the right amount of time between different areas of your life. A scale isn’t the right analogy here. Instead, it’s better to evoke the image of a sandbox.

In my childhood, I loved to play in the sandbox in our backyard. I would build elaborate sand cities, complete with buildings, roads, and other golden hued structures. I might have even made an airport once. Sure, I was hard at play. But I was also doing work to give shape and form to all that sand.

In a sandbox, there is no division between work and play. I was doing both, in pursuit of a larger purpose: to create something special, to accomplish something. Even if that something was a city made from sand, it was an important and worthwhile cause to me.

The morale of the story is this: when you have a clear purpose, and it guides your life, the dividing line between work and everything else fades away. Guided by a larger purpose, there is a oneness to all you do. And when you fill your days doing things that align with that purpose, the different areas of your life weave together as one, all in support of a greater cause. I call this living with purpose.

So how do you determine your life purpose?

The best way I know is to first identify your personal values. These are the principles or standards of behaviours that guide how you want to behave in your life. As an example, here are the values I try to uphold in my own life:

  • Adventure – be open to new opportunities
  • Boldness – think big, take risks
  • Community – connect with others
  • Contribution – make the world a better place
  • Creativity – bring new ideas to life
  • Fun – have fun in life and in work
  • Growth – grow, develop, expand
  • Integrity – be true to my word, walk the talk
  • Leadership – lead by example, engage and empower others
  • Respect – respect for people and the planet

Collectively, I like to think of these values as providing a character sketch of the best possible version of me. I know that if I stay true to my values for more days than not, I will be the type of person I truly want to be, the type of person I can be proud of.

Your values will be different from mine. That’s okay. Values are highly personal, but here’s the thing, you need to believe in them. You need to feel they are important and worthwhile qualities that you can aspire to. You need to feel they paint a portrait of the type of person you want to be in the world. You will know your values are true when they make you feel that you’re looking at a reflection of an ideal version of you.

You can find a lot of examples of personal values on the Internet (here is one list). These samples provide a good starting point, but, from my experience, your values will be more authentic and empowering if you express them in your own words. This will take some time, but the investment is well worth it.

Your life purpose should flow from your values. I have found the best way to express a life purpose is with a personal mission statement. Shaped by your values, a mission statement should succinctly describe your purpose, or, more bluntly, your reason for being. It’s like a blueprint for what you want your life to represent. Here is mine:

My mission is to live with courage, compassion and contribution. I will have the courage to follow my heart and pursue my dreams. I will have compassion for people and the planet. I will contribute to others and strive to make the world a better place. Every day, I will live with integrity to my values.

A mission statement provides a guiding light, or a true north, to guide your actions, decisions, and interactions in all areas of life. By grounding your life on your mission and values, you create a sense of unity in all that you do.

Getting clarity about your values and life purpose, and then living them everyday, is one of the most powerful ways to gain a deep sense of happiness and fulfillment in life. No longer will your job seem like it’s on one side of a scale, separate from everything else. Instead, all areas of your life – from work to family, friendships, leisure, service and spiritual life – will feel interconnected and aligned in support of a greater calling.

Just like a kid who creates cities out of sand, fulfillment comes from living in harmony with a larger purpose.

How to get the most happiness out of your travels

“It’s got brilliant white sand, umbrella-shaped trees for shade, clean clear water, a few little waves here and there to make it interesting, dozens of great little beachside cafes and bars, and enough local life to remind you that you are indeed in Bali.”

That’s how my pocket-sized Frommer’s guidebook describes one of the many beautiful beaches that encircle the popular Indonesian island. Sounds like paradise, and for many people it is. Tourists from around the globe flock to Bali to soak up the tropical sun on scores of postcard-perfect beaches. It’s just not for me.

I’ve been in Bali for a month now, and have yet to log an hour of beach time. Frankly, I find the whole “drop-and-flop” style beach holiday boring. Not to mention my skin has the colouring of a marshmallow and it takes to the sun much like those fluffy white treats take to a campfire. Sun and sand holidays are just not my thing, and that’s okay with me.

I’m happiest when actively exploring the local culture, art, music, architecture and natural landscapes of a destination. Lucky for me, Bali has a wealth of these assets too. Here, paradise for me is discovering a ruined temple while trekking through the rice fields, immersing myself in a traditional religious ceremony, or striking up a conversation with some locals at a roadside food stall.

Travel is a highly personal experience. What is holiday bliss to me may sound like a travel nightmare to you. So to get the most pleasure out of your own holiday, it makes sense to base your travel choices – on everything from where to stay, to where to eat, to what to do – on how happy you expect these experiences will make you feel, in both the short and long-term.

However, not all types of experiences deliver the same happiness bang for your buck. According to the book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, four kinds of experiences are especially good at making us happy. Doing more of these things during your next trip should make your travels, well, happier.

Do things that align with your sense of self

In my mind’s eye, or perhaps over-inflated ego, I like to think of myself as a mild-mannered version of Indiana Jones when I travel. And so, when choosing between alternative travel experiences, it helps to think: What would Indy do?

Have a drink at a glitzy hotel bar flooded with foreigners, or mingle with locals at a tucked away Shisha café? Watch a well-orchestrated cultural show staged for tourists, or go to a small village temple for a traditional water blessing? Take an air-conditioned tour bus to see all the “must-see” attractions listed in my guidebook, or hire a local to take me on an impromptu trek through the jungle? Tapping into my inner Indiana Jones makes these decisions easy.

Okay, I’m no Harrison Ford and I’m not on a life-threatening quest for a lost artifact, but thinking like Indy helps to align my travel decisions with my (idealized) sense of self – a globetrotting explorer on the hunt for authentic and unique experiences. From a happiness perspective, it turns out to be a good way to think.

According to Happy Money, experiences provide more happiness when they are tightly linked to your sense of who you are, or want to be. So whether you fashion yourself after Marco Polo or Carrie Bradshaw, you’ll get more happiness out of your holiday if you do things that align with your sense of self, even if it’s a highly romanticized version of you.

Foster connections with others

All other things being equal, experiences tend to be more satisfying when they make us feel connected to other people. If you’re travelling with others, this social connection is built-in: Almost all your experiences are shared with your travel partners. Not only does the feeling of being connected give a blissful boost in the moment, but the relationships with your travel mates will likely grow and deepen which can provide a happiness windfall for years to come.

Fostering social connections is not so easy when you travel solo. It can be lonely out on the road, and long stretches of isolation can dampen the pleasure of travel. There is a silver lining, however: It is often easier to connect with other travellers or with locals when travelling alone. Since you don’t have the comfy social safety net of travel mates, you are forced to get out there and meet new people.

Whether you go it alone or with others, your travel choices can help make it easier to cultivate more connections along the way. For example, consider staying at a hostel or pension where you can easily meet other travellers, or at a home stay where you can interact with a host family; seek out restaurants and cafes with communal seating areas; or take part in group activities, like cycling tours or cooking classes, where part of the fun is sharing the experience with others.

One of the best things about travel is the constant opportunity to meet people from around the world. Be deliberate about fostering these connections: You’ll be happier for it.

Make memorable stories

“Apparently, the stuff sells for $50 a cup in places like New York and London and, get this, it’s made with cat poop!” I say to my friend, who’s sitting across the table at our favourite coffee shop back home. At least that’s how I envision the story beginning.

Kopi Luwak – as it’s called in Indonesia – is coffee made using coffee beans that are harvested from the fecal matter of the Asian Palm Civet, a nocturnal animal native to Southeast Asia. The civet kind of looks like a cat, but technically isn’t one.

Civets like to eat the flesh of ripe coffee cherries, but their stomachs cannot digest the beans inside. Before the coffee bean is passed, the enzymes in the civet’s digestive track penetrate the surface of the bean and significantly alter its chemical composition. It turns out that coffee made from the pooped beans is delicious, prized by gourmet java aficionados for its aroma and flavour.

One of the most expensive coffees in the world, civet coffee can sell for upwards of $50 a cup in chic cafes around the world. Thankfully, I only had to shell out 50,000 rupiah (a little less than $5) to sample a cup at a small coffee plantation in rural Bali. Taken straight black, Kopi Luwak is smooth and sweet, with a hint of chocolaty flavour. It’s noticeably less bitter than a typical cup of coffee and, according to our server, has more protein and less caffeine than regular coffee. As with “low alcohol” beer, however, I’m not convinced that “less caffeine” is a selling point.

I’m not even home yet, and I can already imagine telling the story about drinking “cat poop” coffee to several of my java-loving friends. Though I might gross out a few of them, this modest five-dollar experience is sure to deliver a big happiness payday because of the added pleasure that comes from sharing the story with others. As Dunn and Norton explain, experiences can deliver long-lasting happiness when they make for memorable stories that you’ll enjoy retelling time and again.

Look for unique opportunities

“Do you want to attend a public cremation ceremony on Friday?” It’s the first and probably the last time I will ever be asked this question. How could I say no?

In Balinese Hindu culture, cremation is an important rite of passage in the cycle of life as it’s believed to release the soul from the body so it can reincarnate. In the ceremony, bones from the deceased are placed in sarcophagi shaped like mythical animals, and then burned after a long and high-spirited procession. Considered a joyous occasion for families who are helping their loved ones in the journey to the next life, the ritual involves lots of music and special offerings given on behalf of the deceased.

Witnessing the elaborate ceremony was priceless, and incomparable to anything else I’ve done on this trip or any other. It’s fair to say the experience will be a defining moment of my time in Bali, and will shape my memory of this holiday years from now.

As it’s put in Happy Money, unique experiences are so satisfying because they’re not easily comparable with other available options for your time and money. Not to say the more traditional things listed in your guidebook should be ignored. These are popular for a reason. However, the most satisfying experiences – the ones that stand out in your memory – tend to be the unique ones.

Whether you’re planning a three-day getaway to Las Vegas or a three-month backpacking trip to South America, plan to do something out-of-the-ordinary and be open to new opportunities that take you off the beaten track. These experiences provide some of the most fertile ground for happiness to bloom.