A guide to setting annual goals

Make them measurable, flexible, and routine

Setting failure-prone New Year’s Resolutions is something of a national pastime in the US. On or around December 31 of each year, people commit to ambitious goals for the upcoming year — exercise regularly, eat healthier, lose weight, save money, read more, etc. In most cases, the resolutions end up being short lived.

A study by Strava found that the largest number of failures in exercise related resolutions happens on January 12; a study by Dr. Joseph Luciani found that 80% of resolutions fail by the first week in February; and a University of Scranton study found that only 8 percent of people achieve their resolutions (source).

Putting aside the fad of ambitious New Year’s Resolutions, setting year-long goals can be a powerful catalyst for progress, whatever form that progress may take.

However, there is an art to setting productive annual goals. In short, the goals must be measurable, flexible, and routine.

Prep work

Before you get to the process of establishing your goals, you first need to know what areas you want to focus on. That process requires a bit of self-reflection and self-awareness. What things do you care about? Where do you want to see progress?

The most common areas people tend to focus on are their health, their finances, their education, and their career, but you may choose to focus elsewhere. Perhaps you have a personal passion — photography or scuba diving or music — that you want to pursue with more vigor. Whatever you choose, try to limit yourself to no more than three focus areas. That will maximize your chance of making progress on the areas that matter most to you.

Make them measurable

With your focus areas in mind, it’s time to figure out how you will measure progress. That boils down to answering a surprisingly difficult question: what metric best captures the behavior you want to incentivize?

If your intention is to read more, maybe the goal should be related to the number of books you read. Even better, the goal could be related to the number of pages you read since that more closely measures the behavior you want to encourage. Reading a long novel would contribute proportionally more to your goal despite being just one book, whereas counting books read incentivizes you to read shorter books (or more realistically, disincentivizes you from reading especially long books).

If your intention is to improve your health, maybe the goal should be related to how frequently you exercise. Even better, the goal could be related to the time spent exercising. Or, if you want to incentivize yourself to both eat healthier and exercise more, perhaps your goal could be related to your weight.

Other examples include time spent meditating for a mindfulness goal, money saved for a financial goal, number of steps taken for an activity goal, or number of words written for a creativity goal.

Make them flexible

Now that you have metrics in mind that will incentivize the right behavior, it’s time to translate those into actual goals.

This might be the single most common thing people mess up when setting goals for the simple reason that people don’t make their goals flexible enough.

Consider the example of wanting to exercise more. Most people translate this to a goal along the lines of, “Go to the gym two times a week.” That might seem like a reasonable goal, but what happens when you travel or you get sick and you don’t make it twice in a week? Do you fail your goal?

If you went two or three times every other week of the year it seems silly to fail your goal. But even if you give yourself a pass since you were sick, there’s something to be said about the psychology of streaks. As soon as you go that first week without making it to the gym twice, it’ll be that much easier to come up with reasons for not going to the gym twice in other weeks. Motivation tends to drop in large steps rather than linearly.

Instead, you should make your goals flexible. Write them in such a way that you can still achieve each one even if you fall behind at some points.

In the case of wanting to exercise more, you could make the goal, “Go to the gym an average of two times a week.” or equivalently, “Go to the gym 104 times in the next year.” It works out to the same number of gym visits and amounts to only a tiny difference in wording, but it makes all the difference in your ability to stay committed to the goal. If you happen to get off track due to a busy time at work, you have the rest of the year to get back on track.

Writing goals like this has an added benefit: you get extra credit if you overachieve on your goal. For example, if you work your way up to going to the gym three times per week, those extra visits will help you achieve your goal earlier or build up buffer in case you get off track later in the year.

In practice, writing flexible goals typically means wording them in terms of aggregates or averages — total hours, number of occurrences, average weight, total savings — over the duration of the year.

Given that it can be hard to figure out the appropriate magnitude for your goal at the start of the year (I once got a little too ambitious on a push up goal and regretted it dearly), you might want to consider setting a “realistic” target and a “stretch” target. You can be more conservative with the realistic target while still giving yourself something to aim for if you happen to blow past it.

Make them routine

Finally, it’s important to make your goals a part of your routine. Presumably the areas you choose to focus on for an entire year through these goals are important to you, so you should take steps to keep them top of mind.

The easiest way to incorporate your goals into your routine is to log your progress regularly. Try to update your progress at least once a week, and ideally more than that until you build momentum towards each goal.

If you have a goal to read more, log your progress each time you spend a chunk of time reading. That provides a positive feedback loop wherein your action (spending time reading) translated into visible progress on your goal (logging your new completion percentage or page number) which motivates you to take more action towards that goal.

Likewise, if you have a goal related to exercising more, log your progress after each workout; if you have a goal of getting healthier, weigh yourself on a regular basis.

In short, err on the side of tracking your progress too frequently, especially in the early phases while you’re building a habit or momentum related to it.

When it comes to actually tracking your progress, use whatever method fits best into your routine. A spreadsheet like Google Sheets or Excel is a great option, but you could just as easily use a simple note taking app. Whatever you choose, try to make sure the system is easy to access even when on the go. That will allow you to track your progress frequently, per the note above.

Here’s a simple example of what your tracking might look like in practice, in this case for a reading goal:

Book Pages Progress
Why We Sleep 369 100%
Never Split the Difference 260 27%
Total 439  

Spreadsheets have the added benefit of giving you powerful ways to evaluate or otherwise visualize your progress, but that’s a rabbit hole best avoided for now.

Putting it into practice

Like any skill, setting good long-term goals takes practice. You’ll need to experiment with the types of goals you respond best to, and the types that drive the most progress.

You’ll also need to answer logistical questions along the way. Should audiobooks count towards your reading goal? (Yes!) What happens if you miss a weigh-in while you’re traveling? (Use linear interpolation!) Does brushing your teeth count as exercise? (Probably not!)

The most important thing you can do throughout the goal-setting and goal-pursuing process is to stay true to the intention of your goal. That integrity will keep you motivated and headed in a positive direction.