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!



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  1. I love goal setting and planning and this suggestion for how to do that sounds fun! I’m definitely trying this… can’t wait to write down everything I want!

  2. John Foval says:

    Hey matt!

    Great article. Love getting a constant feed of motivating advice! I like the idea you mentioned that we need to all remember: new years doesn’t mean anything. Goals are for the whole year! Start now! (Btw, if I didn’t already own a copy of Marathon Roadmap I’d buy one. I’ll be running my first marathon Jan. 15th in Baton Rouge!)

  3. What struck me as I read this is that when you set the goal to qualify for Boston, you kept working on it, year after year. You equipped yourself with knowledge, you learned some hard lessons, you tweaked and adapted. There is a great lesson in that. Who says we have to achieve our goals in the space of one year or that we’re only allowed one stab at them?

    This is a great post and I’m definitely sharing it!

  4. Thanks for inspiring readers to stick to their new years resolutions. I am already working on a list!

  5. Matt,
    Thanks for the article. I am inspired. I have been a vegetarian for almost ten years, however not a very healthy one. I started running a couple years ago. I first set out to run five miles in relay and have done a few half marathons. I decided I wanted to run a full, but haven’t been able to get there. I bought my copy of the NMA roadmap a few months ago, set my goals this morning (running a marathon being the first), and ordered my NMA shirt that I plan to wear while running my frist marathon. I have a new hope that I can accomplish this goal, even if I need to evaluate and make adjustments along the way.


  6. What a great exercise! I’m continually struck by the truth of the statement that exploring and stating what you want works “because it changes what you focus on and even the things you notice that might help you in turning your goals into reality.” I am even more struck, though, by how the converse of this is true. Setting avoidance goals (no sugar/carbs/fat, quit smoking, etc.) doesn’t work because instead of focusing on what we want more of, we’re focusing on the very thing we do not want. Plus, it doesn’t necessarily give us a concrete alternative: what does it look like to “avoid sugar”? What will I choose instead? Making the choosing of the preferred thing (i.e. eating fruit or veggies for a snack) the goal instead of avoiding the “bad” thing means the focus remains on what one wants more of in his or her life.

    A great reminder of how much control we have over our own outcomes. Looking forward to trying the goal-setting exercise!

  7. Great post! I really like setting goals at the beginning of the year but there is always adjustments that need to be made throughtout the year. My resolutions keep me focused.

  8. great post! i like the idea of goal setting instead of resolutions….. i bought the 1/2 marathon roadmap (and marathon bonus)in 2011 and have run two 1/2s (third coming up in february!) and now my goal for 2012 is to tackle the full!!!! i am very excited and wish i could qualify for the one on one phone call… well anyway, i will still keep reading your blog and the guide. thanks!

  9. Oh no!! I missed the offer! If you’d be willing to still offer me the call, I would definitely buy the 1/2 marathon roadmap now (I was planning on buying it this winter as I will be running my first half this spring!). My excuse for not buying the roadmap during the giveaway is not seeing the post in time. I just moved and still don’t have internet in my house! Lemme know if I can still buy it today and get the call otherwise, I will wait until I’m ready to start training for my half. Thanks Matt!

  10. You’re so right about setting goals that make you take action, there’s magic and inspiration in having a great goal that you want to achieve.

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