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.