Set better goals this New Year with these four tips

How I set and achieved big goals in the year of the pandemic

Being born on 1 January, I feel like I have a special affinity with New Years. Not only does the calendar turn over and we all write the wrong year in dates for about four months, but my birthday causes me to reflect on what I’ve achieved in the past 365 days of being alive.

Does this give me some kind of special goal-setting secret sauce? No, probably not. But I am coming to the end of a year where I achieved quite a few personal goals, despite the Pandemic and everything else 2020 has brought.

Here are a few:

And this follows the past few years where I achieved several other goals:

I also did some cool things that weren’t even goals:

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There are a few other goals that I haven’t achieved:

But looking at that above list, I’m actually ok with those things being unfinished — so far.

So how did I achieve all this? And how did I manage not to beat myself up over the things I didn’t achieve?

Four goal-setting keys

In 2017, I was seeing a therapist over some stress I was experiencing at work. One of the exercises she had me do was to get a sheet of paper and write my current age on the left-hand side and ‘30’ on the right-hand side. In between lay 4 years. She then had me write out key details about my current life, particularly reflecting on those areas that I wanted to change. On the right-hand side, she had me write where I would like those areas to be by the time I’m 30, or in 4 years.

My goals and achievements over the four years

Being the visual, icon-lover that I am, I decided to decorate my list with hand-drawn pictures that represented each goal or change that I wanted to make. The exercise proved very therapeutic at the time. I was able to give myself some space and realise I had time to move my life closer to the picture I wanted. I then slotted the paper into my bookshelf and didn’t look at it for about a year.

The next time I pulled it out, I realised I had moved a few steps closer on some of the goals, almost without even thinking about it. And now, with essentially one year to go before the end of the year in which I turn 30, I have reached almost all of the goals.

Reflecting on how that happened, four key elements stand out to me, which I hope to take into my next set of goals.

1. Set goals over a longer period of time

I have long shirked New Year’s resolutions. Like everyone else, I struggled to keep them for more than maybe a week or two. Instead, I would set myself yearly themes. These would serve as reminders throughout the year when I needed a push to choose something good that didn’t feel comfortable. Some of these themes have included ‘year of adventure’, ‘year of goodness and clarity’ and ‘nothing the same’.

However, I think the true magic of goal-setting outside of the New Year’s resolution routine comes from using a longer timeframe. Setting goals over a 4 year period with my therapist helped with a few things. It gave me permission to pick bigger goals that were more than one step away. For example, buying a home required lots of saving, finding a block and building a home. Getting married required meeting and dating someone (I was very single at the time I set that goal).

It also took the pressure off the year. The longer time span gives some time for things to not go to plan and some space to find times where you can accelerate toward a goal. It’s a good reminder not everything worth doing can be done within the space of 12 months. This helps us slow down and remind ourselves that there isn’t a set plan to life or specific ages when we need to achieve certain things for it to count.

2. Set your goals for internal validation, not external validation

I originally had point 2 as “set goals for yourself” but this seemed like very trite advice that every New Year’s resolution article will be spouting. Instead, I wanted to get to the real heart of that phrase. And for me, it’s about where you get the validation (and therefore motivation) for your goals.

Who is telling you these are good goals to set for yourself? Is your list of goals things that other people will pat you on the back for, but will leave you with no intrinsic satisfaction once the accolades fade away? A good test of this is whether you’re phrasing the motivation for your goals with a “should” or not.

This doesn’t mean you can’t set goals that people will externally validate. But it does matter why you set them.

One of the big ones for me was people telling me I didn’t need a relationship to be happy. Well, that absolutely is true and so I used to avoid putting a relationship as one of my goals. But when I reflected on it for myself, I realised I wasn’t looking for a relationship to make me happy. I was looking for one because it was a crucial building block of the life I wanted to build. So I put it on there for the intrinsic value it represented to me rather than the external validation of “being married by the time you’re 30”.

3. Be really clear about where you actually want to go, otherwise, make it your goal to find out

Some of the goals I didn’t achieve this year (not those listed above; some more personal ones a bit closer to my heart), I added to the list very last minute. They related to values I hold around faith and family and my initial list didn’t include anything on those topics. So I hurriedly added some vague goals. Despite the fact that these things are important to me and rooted in my values, I can see very few milestones over the last year that clearly move toward these goals. So I asked myself ‘why?’.

I think the main issue with these goals is that I couldn’t clearly articulate what I was aiming for. I attached a vague adjective to the nouns ‘family’ and ‘faith’ and left it at that. The problem with this is that a vague goal gives you no signals about which choices will lead you there. And, even if you do get there, how do you even know you’ve arrived?

If I compared the ‘current state’ description to my list of what I wanted for my ‘future state’, none of the ‘current state’ descriptions I wrote were vague. We can usually describe where we are very concretely, at least if we’re being honest. So our goals need to have a similar level of concreteness otherwise, how do we get from A to B?

Don’t be afraid to put down some really concrete goals, even if you’re uncertain whether they’re attainable. If you can’t describe the desired future concretely, don’t put down something vague. Instead, make it your goal to understand what you want more clearly. A goal to “be able to articulate my goals in X area of life” is a great goal.

4. Accept you may not hit all your goals

This follows nicely from the last point about concrete goals. I used to shy away from setting concrete goals because I was scared of the disappointment if I didn’t achieve it. However, setting multiple goals as part of an overall ‘future state’ helped me be a bit more balanced. Life certainly wasn’t perfect when I set the goals, and it isn’t now. But I can clearly see all the ways in which it is better than it was. This means the things that haven’t happened yet don’t hit so hard.

The goals I haven’t achieved fall into about three categories:

Each one of these things can be addressed by one of the first three tips:

And I’m sure there may be a fourth category of goals which I never hit and become something I must simply accept is not part of my life. And that’s ok because as I reach the other goals I set myself over time, life becomes richer and I develop the strength to accept that not everything goes to plan. And if anything, that’s the main thing 2020 has taught us.

Originally published at on December 29, 2020.



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Lauren Dixon

Org behaviour and strategy nerd sharing insights on building high-performance teams. Download the ultimate collaboration guide: