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.