3 Steps for Setting New Year’s Goals that Actually Work

New Year’s resolutions don’t stick.

Everyone knows it, and it’s now become almost cliched to push for a “no-resolutions New Year’s.” But let’s make a big distinction here.

On the one hand, you have the ill-fated type of resolution we’re all familiar with:

  • “I won’t smoke in 2012.”
  • “I’ll start my exercise plan on January 1st.”
  • “This year I won’t drink soda / eat carbs / eat dessert / drink alcohol once.”

These are the ones where we believe that the change of the year gives us a clean slate, and that having this fresh start will make it amazingly simple to change even our deepest-rooted bad habits. This is, of course, horseshit: really, you’re going to smoke up until the clock strikes midnight, but then after that you’ll be able to stop? Because there’s a 2 instead of a 1 at the end of the year?

But there’s a big difference between a resolution like that and a real goal. You can set goals any time — there’s nothing special about New Year’s, because there’s no “clean slate” aspect to them. But with the holidays being past us, and the recognition brought on by the change of year that time is marching by just as fast as ever, I’ve always found this to be the most inspiring time of all to purposefully design the next 365 days of your life.

The single key to goals that work

I’ve kept written goals for most of the past five years. Personal, physical, financial, and material. I set them each New Year’s, and usually revise them after about six months, since what inspires me often changes in that amount of time.

And that, ultimately, is the crucial mark of a goal that works: the power to inspire. Forget about setting goals that are measurable, achievable, time-sensitive, or whatever else they taught us in the fifth grade goal workshop. I’m sure those things all help, but they’re not what matters most.

What matters is simply that your goal inspires you to take action. To stay up late, get up early, and build your life around your quest for its realization. If it does that, it serves you. If not, it’s a waste, and something that you’ll soon forget and probably feel guilty about when you do remember it.

So how high should you set your goals?

It’s said that we overestimate how much we can accomplish in a year, and we dramatically underestimate how much we can achieve in a decade. This would seem to imply that we should set our sights low for year-long goals, but I don’t buy that.

In my experience, the goals that work are the ones that give you butterflies in your stomach to even imagine achieving them. If a goal’s purpose is to inspire you to act, then the goal that absolutely lights you up is the best one.

This isn’t to say you should have your head in the clouds — you’ll know a goal is too ambitious if you can’t even get excited about it because it’s so unlikely. For instance, when I had my heart set on qualifying for Boston for so many years, that was the perfect goal for me because it was crazy but I believed I could do it. Had I instead set winning a gold medal in the Olympic marathon as my goal, it wouldn’t have been inspiring, because no part of me would have ever believed that it was really possible. Boston, and the 3:10 marathon I had to run to get in, was just reasonable enough that I could convince myself it was possible, even if I was the only one who believed it.

Which brings up another point: it’s fine to set a goal and then fail at it. Every year, qualifying for Boston was a goal I wanted to achieve that year. So in some sense, I failed every year until I finally did qualify. Did that make it a bad goal?

Not at all. When it came time to set goals again, I wasn’t disappointed that I had “failed.” Instead, I was thrilled to be starting from a much better spot than I was a year ago, 10 or 15 or 20 minutes closer to qualifying than last time.

Three steps to setting goals that work

The process I use for setting goals is one I learned from Tony Robbins and Jim Rohn. It’s a simple exercise that takes 45 minutes or so, and what’s unique about it is that you don’t just focus on what you want to create in your life, but also on why you want it so badly. Here’s my version of it.

Step 1: Write down everything that you want in your life.

In three or four categories that you choose (physical, financial, personal, spiritual, etc.), take five minutes or so to write down everything you can imagine wanting. Don’t worry right now about how achievable it all is, how long it will take to achieve, or even how you’ll achieve it. Just get down on paper everything you could want.

Remember, think big here. No limits whatsoever! If all you write down is a bunch of boring stuff that you “should” try to do or that other people think you’re capable of doing, then the level of action your goals inspire is going to be pretty boring as well. You have to really want this, more than anything in the world.

Step 2: Of the goals you’ve listed in each area, write a “1” next to any of them that you’re committed to accomplishing next year.

Basically, this prioritizes your goals. Don’t worry so much about what’s achievable in one year; instead think about which ones that would inspire you the most to have as your goals. (This is where you need to find the balance between realistic and crazy that will make you work the hardest, and it’ll probably take a few tries to get it just right.)

Step 3: In each area, circle the two to four most important one-year goals you came up with, and write a paragraph about why you want to (have to!) achieve each one next year.

This should give you somewhere between 6 and 12 goals, and these are your goals for the year. Copy them on another sheet and review it every single day, and don’t forget to review the “why” every once in a while. More than anything, knowing your reasons for wanting these goals will compel you to act on them.

If this process sounds exciting, then don’t just read; do it! So often we just read passively and never do anything — but this could be the most valuable 45 minutes of your life!

Then what?

Setting goals is just the first step; achieving them is obviously an entirely different animal. But that’s okay; knowing what you want (and why you want it) automatically makes you more likely to make it happen — not by some magical power of “the Universe” to bring your goals to you (a la The Secret), but because it changes what you focus on and even the things you notice that might help you in turning your goals into reality.

It’s crucial that you make actual, physical plans to achieve these goals. And just as important, you’ve got to adopt the mindset of the type of person you’d have to be to achieve them — and this means convincing yourself that you can and will make them happen. And in fact, that’s the hidden benefit here, and indeed the entire purpose of goals: to grow into the type of person capable of doing all that you’ve written down.

Personally, I like to take about an hour to set my goals, and then the next day or two to make plans for their achievement. Tony Robbins is big on taking the first small action toward each one right away, and I think that’s an important step too, although taking the second action is just as important. 🙂

PS: If your goal is to run a marathon or half, here’s how I can help you

I mentioned the importance of making real, solid plans to achieve your goals — instead of just having this airy-fairy vision in your head that if you believe something strongly enough, it’ll happen on its own and without any effort on your part. (It’d be nice, but that’s not how it works.)

Well, in the case of a marathon or half marathon, especially if you want to do it as a vegetarian or vegan, I’ve already written those plans for you. They’re the Marathon Roadmap and Half Marathon Roadmap, my guides for first-timers that lay out all the steps to make it as easy as possible, and that together have now sold more than 1400 copies since their release earlier this year.

But I realize that even with a good guide, the task of actually planning your training for such a big goal can be overwhelming. So many people buy things with all good intentions of using them, but never actually follow through once they get caught up in all the other aspects of their lives. To make sure that doesn’t happen, and to really help you do this, I came up with a special New Year’s offer that’s good for a few days only. Here it is:

For anyone who buys the Marathon Roadmap or Half Marathon Roadmap between now and Tuesday, January 3rd, I’m going to throw in a free, one-on-one phone call, where you and I will get on the phone for half an hour to address anything you’ve got questions about — whether it’s finding the time to train, choosing the right race, or even how to go vegetarian and making it last. In-person coaching is something I only do in very special cases, so this is something you won’t get anywhere else.

Again, to get the bonus call, all you have to do is buy one of the guides between now and Tuesday, January 3rd. Then send send me an email once you’re ready and we’ll set up a time to talk. Click here to learn more about the roadmaps.

Have a very safe and happy New Year’s, and here’s to making 2012 your healthiest, happiest year yet!



What Do You Say to Yourself When it Hurts the Most?

Last week when I was in San Francisco, I had the great pleasure of having a couple beers with Leo Babauta. Leo writes the blog Zen Habits, and over the past six months his ideas have shaped my thinking more than any others. So it was an absolute treat to hang out with him in person, and the beer wasn’t bad either.

Leo is both a vegan and a runner, like many of us. And recently (probably unlike many of us), he’s been experimenting with living without goals.

That’s right, none.

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The Next Big Thing for No Meat Athlete

For the past few months, I’ve been trying to find the best way to bring No Meat Athlete into the real world.

It’s not that the internet doesn’t rock. It’s that running and eating vegetarian food — what the blog is about — happen in real life, not in 0’s and 1’s.

To a large extent, the shirts have already brought NMA to life outside of the digital realm. Something like 3,000 people now own one, and every weekend our Facebook page is filled with race photos that people post of themselves sporting theirs — in the sun, in the snow, in the mud.

But Susan and I have both had this feeling that there’s something more here than just shirts — something more personal, more community-oriented. We’ve been working hard to figure out just how to make real-world NMA go.

And finally, with the help of your suggestions and requests, by email and in person at festivals, we think we’ve got it figured out.

What’s coming

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A Thanksgiving Transformation: Katie’s Story

Meet Katie!

Last year, Katie Adzima’s Thanksgiving was filled with what so many of us love about the day: friends, family, football, and food.

Lots of food.

That day, before dinner, Katie noshed on chips, dips, and appetizers. When her aunt announced dinner was served, Katie giggled with glee as she ran through three full rooms of food – each room more delicious than the last. She loaded up with two full plates of dinner and then prepared to call it a day.

And then came the pies.

With a weakness for desserts, Katie dug in to eight pieces of pie. That one’s worth repeating: eight pieces of pie. In spite of her stomach ache, when her family rolled out a full Italian meal at 11 p.m., Katie loaded up again.

“I think I blacked out,” says Katie, “or that’s what I tell myself, because the next thing I know, I’m eating pasta.”

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3 Hot Tips for Surviving Cold-Weather Runs

From an email I recently received (subject, “O’dark thirty”) :

Hi Matt,

It’s a tragic time when days are dark by the time I leave work and am ready for a run (living in Northern Ontario, this is the case for at least 5 months of the year).  And living downtown it’s not just the weather and lack of sunlight that’s demotivating, it’s also safety reasons.  I’m getting a group of ladies together who live in the area, but any recommendations on how to keep running during -40*C or or when it’s pitch black at 5:30pm would be fabulous.  I know that this isn’t a vegetarian-specific topic, but 80% of the ladies I’ll be running with are vegetarian so does that count???

The way to run in cold weather is simple. Develop a “mental thermostat” to trick your mind into believing you are warm so that you can withstand ice baths. Outside. In sub-zero temperatures. Naked. Like this guy.

Once you’ve got that down, hitting the trail for a quick five miles in a pair of sweatpants when it’s -40 degrees out is no sweat. (Wow, there haven’t been nearly enough terrible puns around here recently!)

Honestly, there’s really not all that much to running in the cold; no secret is going to make it just as comfortable as running in the spring or fall. But there are a few basic things you can do to make it bearable — more so, certainly, than having to do your entire 15-miler on the dreadmill.

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The Lazy Runner’s Guide to Preventing Injuries

Note: This is a guest post from my friend Jason Fitzgerald from StrengthRunning.com.

As a runner, you are 20 percent more likely to be injured next year than an NFL football player.

That’s right. Some estimates put the injury rate for distance runners at 75% per year. That’s 3 out of every 4 runners who get hurt every single year!

It’s amazing that runners continue to lace up and head out the door when their chances of getting hurt are so high. But they do. Visit any running message board and you’ll see the cries from injured runners:

  • Arch pain like a rock in my shoe!
  • From knee pain to shin splints?
  • Frustrated!
  • A year with this!

Sports like football or lacrosse typically cause more acute injuries from getting hit by other players. As runners, we’re lucky that we don’t have to deal with that. The occasional cut from a cross country spike is the worst impact injury I’ve encountered.

Our main problem is more insidious: self-inflicted overuse injuries. There’s nobody else to blame except ourselves because we so often run too far, too fast, too soon. Then we’re struck down by plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, achilles tendonitis, or something worse like a stress fracture.

There are entire books devoted to preventing running injuries. For you lazy runners who want the maximum bang for the least amount of work, here’s your 3-step plan.

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The Crucial Keys to a Successful First Half Marathon

They say you never get a second chance to run your first half marathon.

Alright, maybe they don’t, but they should.

Your first big race — whether it’s a half, a full, or something else — can be a downright unforgettable experience, one in which you learn on a deep level when you cross that finish line that you’re capable of something that you may very well have thought impossible before.

Or it can be unforgettable for other reasons — like endless Porta-Pot stops due to nerves, a bad bonk when your adrenaline gets the best of you in the excitement of the start, or worst of all, the humiliation of failing to finish the race you trained so hard for.

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From Chicken-Fried Steak to 26.2 Miles on Plants: Wendy’s Story

It’s hard to believe that at the beginning of this year, Wendy Fry was a gluttonous, lazy slob. (Her words, not mine.)

From just the email interactions we had as she trained for her first marathon, I knew there was much more to the enthusiastic, motivated woman I was talking to than those words conveyed.

And there was: Wendy, back in 2006, had made some drastic changes to her diet and fitness level to get ready for a 48-hour dance marathon to benefit pediatric cancer research (The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, aka THON).

To get in shape, she ate a pescetarian diet (that’s vegetarian + fish) and exercised regularly by walking 4-5 miles every day and doing some cardio and light weightlifting. She even cut caffeine out of her diet.

It worked — Wendy successfully completed what she had trained so hard for. “It’s the healthiest I had ever felt in my adult life up to that point,” she says, “and raising so much money for pediatric cancer research was the best part of it all… I felt really accomplished and maybe even a little invincible.”

Back down to Earth

If you’ve experienced the feeling of accomplishing something like this before, you probably know that this sort of thing has the power to — no exaggeration — change the course of your life.

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