A new approach to goal setting

I must admit I love love love taking some time in December to assess how the year went, what were the highlights, what was it that I could have done better, what have I achieved from my list of priorities and so on. I also get excited about the year ahead and what can I do to improve, which areas of my life I need to focus on etc. If you’ve just read this and you’ve never done that exercise before, fear not! You can start from this year. Also if you’re someone who sets goals but doesn’t really stick to them, then read on – this might actually help 😉

You don’t need me to tell you that every year, towards the end of the year or in January, there’s a lot of chatter about “New Years Resolutions”. Full disclosure: I dislike that with passion! (part of the reason is that I believe you don’t have to wait for the a new year to tweak something or for Monday to start your diet). To add to my dislike, I also notice how the gym I frequent, becomes a pretty busy place. Everyone starts in January because the New Year is synonymous with new beginnings, right? 

But we all know how the story goes (I’ll keep using the exercise example) – You’re excited the first week, by the second week some of that motivation fades but you’re still pushing through, third week you’re skipping a few workouts cos you’ve earned it – after all you worked so hard the first 2 weeks, right? And then, the 4th week comes and you just don’t feel like sticking to it anymore. Sounds familiar? If you’re wondering where I am going with this, the answer is a pretty obvious one: committing to something is damn hard

Let me give you an example. I love reading (a bit of a bookworm) but I just didn’t get the chance to read as much as I wanted. For many years I kept saying I want to read more but the thing is I was a bit flaky – you know the usual excuse – time. A couple of years ago, I made a list with all the books I’ve read during that year and to be honest, I wasn’t really impressed with that number (13 to be precise for 2017). So for 2018 I decided to set intentional goals (emphasis on intentional) that had a specific outcome and came up with a system that would help me achieve that particular outcome. So I said to myself: “I want to read 2 books a week”. And every day no matter how busy I was, I’d read – it didn’t matter if it was just a page. To my surprise, I’ve read 46 books that year. I am not saying this to boast or to trigger you – though that might happen! – but just to make you understand this: When it comes to setting goals we fail not because we don’t want to change but because we don’t have the right system in place. We don’t set intentional goals that we can measure.

As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits

..a slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. Making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be. Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.

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James Clear – Atomic Habits

It took me a few good years to get to a point where I understood the gains of incremental change over time!

So how can you set goals that you actually stick to in 2020? 

Decide what’s important to you 

You want to do everything, right? Exercise, eat healthy, sleep better, learn more, find the love of your life, progress in your career, travel the world, make tonnes of money, go on more adventures…But realistically can you do all of that in a single year? 

Reminds me of this quote by Bill Gates: 

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

Something that I found helpful was to split things in different areas of life (personal, business, financial, social), reflect over them and ask questions that help me understand where I am and what I can add/remove to help me feel better. 

It’s always a good idea to go through an exercise that gives you a bit of structure so you can focus on what’s important. For the past few years I looked at different ways of doing this and I’ve created a PDF to help you do the same this year.

It’s worth mentioning that if you pick a few things and execute those well, chances are it will have a positive ripple effect in other areas of your life – i.e. If you choose to exercise, chances are you’ll eat healthier, sleep better and drink less. As a side effect, you’ll feel more energised and focused which in turn positively affects your mental health and of course the way you show up in your personal and professional life. 

Create a system that helps you achieve your goals 

Have you heard this saying before? How you do anything is how you do everything (I actually don’t know who said it first and the internet is filled with memes of the same quote but attributed to different people)

I must admit, until I read Atomic Habits, I didn’t realise that what enabled me to stick to my good habits was that I had a system in place that allowed me to be consistent. I was totally oblivious to that. I recall every time someone would ask: “How do you manage to exercise and eat healthy on a regular basis?” I’d say: “I just do it, it’s simple” – in retrospect, that must have been a pretty cocky answer!

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems – James Clear 

Goals focus on achieving specific results, whereas systems focus on outcomes — a way of being, thinking and feeling that you strive to cultivate in your life. A system is something you do on a regular basis that pays off in the long run, regardless of immediate results or not. 

Choose what’s meaningful to you. Why do you want to feel energised? How would that impact your life. What purpose do you want to serve? 

And remember…..falling off the wagon is totally normal, life happens, you won’t feel 100% every single day of the year and that’s okay. Being consistent in your approach is what will impact your results.

Change your identity

Another aspect that comes into play when we’re trying to change our habits is the fact that our old self will still get sucked into the old mentality. Changing your identity is an approach that is quite impactful. 

According to James Clear, there are 3 significant layers when it comes to changing your habits, as following: 

The first layer is changing your outcomes. This level is concerned with changing your results: losing weight, publishing a book, winning a championship. Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.

The second layer is changing your process. This level is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new routine at the gym, decluttering your desk for better workflow, developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.

The third and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level. 

Something that I found particularly interesting was this study conducted by Boston College and the University of Houston who found that volunteers who said “I don’t skip exercise” instead of “I can’t skip exercise” worked out more often.

The researchers write that “using the word ‘don’t’ serves as a self-affirmation of one’s personal willpower and control in the relevant self-regulatory goal pursuit, leading to a favourable influence on feelings of empowerment, as well as on actual behaviour. On the other hand, saying ‘I can’t do X’ connotes an external focus on impediments.

Remember…the words we use matter and they are very impactful, they can alter the chemistry in our brain.

So if your goal is to become a healthier version of yourself, be careful of the words you use. Do you say I “can’t” have the cake or I “don’t” want the cake. Like everything we do in life, it boils down to mindset and perspective.


If you want 2020 to be the year you stick to healthy habits the main takeaway points are: 

  1. Set intentional goals that have specific outcomes
  2. Focus on becoming 1% better at something – you’ll be 37x better at that particular thing by the end of the year
  3. Implement a system that allows you to stick to your new habits 
  4. Change your identity 

And remember:

New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do.

And a lifestyle is not an outcome, it is a process. For this reason, all of your energy should go into building better habits, not chasing better results – Atomic Habits

If you haven’t already, head at the top and grab your PDF. Start planning your best year yet!

Would love to hear from you! What’s one thing you’re really keen to focus on in the next year?

Author: Ionela Spinu

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

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