How To Set Goals You Love (and that could actually help you change your life)

If something is not working in your life, you probably already know it on some level. You might feel agitated, tired, frustrated, or lost. You also might not feel like there's much you can do about it.

Sometimes, there really isn't much to do but survive your feelings. If you're grieving a breakup, death, loss, or other transition, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to ride the wave and let it pass. But, if you have any ounce of energy to envision the life you want for yourself, I'd like to offer you a space to try it. You might surprise yourself with what you discover.

Here's a goal-setting recipe to try:

Time: 3-5 hours
Ingredients: Paper, pen/pencil, music, creative inspiration (yes, sometimes Facebook counts as a helpful distraction/creative tool.)
Task: Set both qualitative (sense of self and values) and quantitative (actionable and measurable) goals for 10 years, 5 years, and 1 year from now.

On the top of a blank piece of paper, write: In 10 years from now, in the year XXXX, I will be X years old. I:

(Then, answer the following questions:)

  1. How will I feel in my work? (This isn't "what work will I do?"- that comes later. We're trying to get a felt sense here.)
  2. How will I feel in my relationships?
  3. What kind of relationships will I pursue?
  4. How will I feel about what I'm doing with my life?
  5. How will I feel when I fall asleep at night, and when I wake up in the morning?
  6. What values do I hold in my life? How will I know I'm making decisions that are in line with these values?

Next, what does this look like practically? Maybe you want to feel more abundant, stable, loved, and confident. What does this look like? What do you need to do to encourage more of what you want? Make a list as long and as detailed as you want here. This is where you can list some actual jobs you might have, like teaching, publishing a book, working as a pediatrician at XYZ hospital, etc. You can also describe your relationships, friendships, home, pets, children, whatever comes to mind.

This section is your chance to really write out the specifics of what you want- how much money you want to be making, what your career and family and relationships with yourself and your partner(s) look like. Does it mean being in therapy more? Going to more concerts? Fewer parties? Buying more expensive clothes? Putting your clothes budget into your savings? What job do you have and what does it pay you? Are you married, and do you have a stable home? Or maybe those things aren't as important to you as traveling, producing films, volunteering at shelters. Whatever it is, what could that look like for you? Write it down.

Then, do this exercise again, envisioning yourself 5 years from now and then next year. You might have the same qualitative goals about what kind of person you want to become, but the closer you get in your timeline to present-day, the more you can identify specific steps to get there. Once you get to six months and one year out from today, you can calendar your massages, your therapy sessions, deadlines for art projects or grants, concerts you want to attend, classes you will take.

When you get to this stage, you might notice that you can't do everything. Whittle it down to just a few things in 2017 that can help you achieve the life you want in 5-10 years. Do you want to be more artistic in 2022? Take that sketching class this year so you can take the advanced painting class next year. Do you want to retire in 2027? Start planning for that now.

A few tips:

This is a dreaming exercise first and foremost. Encourage your inner child to come out and play!

Then, try your best to balance your dreaming with specific, quantifiable, and achievable goals. You know yourself better than anyone else, and so you will know whether a goal is a set-up for failure, or whether it's actually attainable for you. Like, don't set a goal of saving money if money is scarce for you right now. Maybe instead you could focus on finding opportunities to make more money in the next six to 12 months, with saving money being among your 5-10 year goals.

Leave the shame at the door. This is for YOU and no one else. These goals are to help you feel more fulfilled in your life. Try not to let this become another opportunity to punish yourself or predict what will or won't happen. All you can do is make the best decisions with what you know at the moment, what's important to you, and what you wish for your future.

Break bigger goals down into smaller chunks. For example, let's say one major goal you have for 10 years from now is to own a home. Working backwards, you can set serious and specific goals. Let's say a down payment for a house is $50,000. (I know, I know- cheap for the Bay Area. Your number might be different!) That would mean you'd need to save $5,000 each year for ten years. If you break that down even further, that's about $415 per month. Steep, but much more do-able than staring down a huge chunk of $50,000 cash. (Also, how rad is that that suddenly 10 years from now you could wake up one morning with a cool $50K in your bank account with just a little planning?)

Calendar things! Don't be afraid to put things on your calendar. Setting deadlines can help you accomplish tasks that might feel tedious, but will help you accomplish your overall goals.

Remember, you can revisit and revise this whenever you have a major life change like an illness, accident, inheritance, layoff, marriage, or anything else you can't predict. 

And most of all, this exercise will help you become more aware of your values and vision for your life. Taking the long view of your life will help you weather the setbacks and disappointments along the way, and will help you make decisions about things that may pop up for you that you wouldn't have expected.

This is for you, to help you know what you find meaningful, and what you want to work for. Have fun with it, and let it open you into the possibility of living a life that loves you back.

Below is an image from Don Miguel Ruiz that describes The Four Agreements. There is much wisdom here, but it also appears to ignore a fundamental reality: sometimes, the projections from others onto you can severely limit and impact your capacity to do what you want to do in life. For example, people who are marginalized and overlooked by society have a higher ladder to climb when achieving goals. Have compassion for yourself - it's essential in any growth process.