We made it through 2020! Grab some bubbly, one of those leftover turkey legs, and pat yourself on the back. 2021 will be better… Right?
Well, that depends entirely on you. The New Year’s resolutions train is leaving the station, but if I were a gambling man, I’d wager that most will go off the tracks. No, I’m not a cynic, but studies show that the deck is stacked against us. Most resolutions fail by January 17th.
We set vague, insurmountable resolutions anyway, trying to bluff our way to success. Then, we spend the year chasing 999 other shiny baubles that distract us from the jackpot.
Effective goal setting calls for a specific recipe that isn’t taught in school. I wrote an insanely comprehensive guide to setting and achieving yearly goals, but if you struggle with resolutions, you will need a simpler road map for the coming year.
So, how do you choose just ONE goal for the year, and actually achieve it? Get your apron on, ‘cause I’m about to drop the recipe on you.
Start With Why
Think back to when you were 7, and how desperately you wanted that new Gameboy or Rainbow Brite. Were you on your best behavior for the year to make it onto Santa’s nice list? You bet. You even took the time to scribble out a shameless essay to the old man, extolling your virtues.
The anticipation of that shiny bauble took up 90% of the space in your mind. Your “why” was all consuming. Today, your wants may have enlarged, but the same principle is at work whether you’re 7 or 77: When you can’t stop thinking about it, you won’t stop working for it.
It’s a principle that has been worming its way deeper into my own brain for several years, because I hear this same message repeatedly from successful leaders.
- Tony Robbins teaches that, with a powerful why, the “hows” take care of themselves.
- Mark Manson’s life advice is to ask, “Why am I suffering—for what purpose?”
- Elon Musk says, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”
George Bernard Shaw, Viktor Frankl, Nietzsche… John F. Kennedy, Churchill, Lincoln… Buddha, Rumi, Lao Tzu… Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz, Helen Keller, Ayn Rand, Stephen Hawking, Dostoyevsky, Dolly Parton, Ricky Gervais… They all argue that purpose is primary. And when the philosophers, politicians, prophets, titans of industry, writers, scientists, musicians and even comedians agree on something, you can’t help but pay attention.
Enough name dropping—what’s actually going on behind this principle? Simon Sinek gives the best explanation I’ve heard for this phenomenon in his book Start with Why (you can also watch his TED talk on the subject). In short, the rational/logical part of our brain is powerful, but it developed millions of years after our emotional/feeling part (the limbic system), which still runs most of our programming, including our why/purpose/desires/choices.
Program a powerful why into your brain, and you’ll never lack for creative ways to hack your way through any obstacle.
You’ve discovered your purpose… Great! Is that enough to carry you to your goal? Not by itself. Author Steven Pressfield has a test for you. Ask, “How bad do you want it?” If the answer is anything less than with the desire of a thousand burning suns, then you have some soul searching to do.
When I first heard this advice, the air went out of me like a cheap bike tire. Sure, I wanted to be a writer, to build a business, to be a coach… but was I willing to give up my paycheck, to buy NO clothes for a year, to face the cruel and unusual punishment that’s tied to chasing anything worth doing? Back in 2011 I recall thinking, I’m not sure, as I walked to my weekly overpriced brunch place.
Thankfully, there’s a formula for creating the kind of emotional juice required to get to level 10 motivation. I found mine through the trial and error of starting and folding businesses, triumphantly quitting one day job after another, only to run back when the money ran out. But you don’t have to. The shortcut? Create a compelling vision.
Nope, vision isn’t a one-time exercise you pay a corporate consultant for, just to impress your shareholders. Creating a vision simply means sitting your behind in a chair, closing your eyes, and literally seeing in your mind’s eye the goal that you’re chasing. I can picture in detail the family house my wife and I plan to buy: four bedrooms, a wall of windows overlooking the river, surrounded by forest, and an office bookshelf worthy of a book nut (that’s me).
How clearly you see your compelling future is correlated to your motivation level. Clarity will put you in a great mental and emotional state, and this is the only place from which to do great work. Feeling good? Now, it’s time to choose your one goal for the year.
Set ONE Goal
You’ve fixed your sights on your why, and you’ve steeped it in emotional juice by crafting a powerful vision. Good work. Unfortunately, we can’t just sit around in a blissful state, picturing our new life—not if we want to turn it into reality. It’s time to focus on action.
But action without a plan is like horse without a harness. It’s powerful, but you can’t ride it far without getting trampled. Unfocused action will deliver mixed results. Let’s slap a saddle on our power by setting one goal for the year. Wait—just ONE goal? Yes. If you’re already crushing multiple projects, then check out a more advanced system.
However, for most people—those new to goal setting or who struggle with New Year’s resolutions (you know who you are!)—a hyperfocus on one goal is the best way to ensure your triumphant victory. Complexity is the death of many a well-meaning New Year’s resolution.
And when you cross that one goal off your list sometime this year? Your confidence will spike, and then you can go after bigger fish. For now, don’t try to have it all. Don’t chase the white whale. Do less, but better.
“But how can I choose just one goal?” you ask. It’s easier than you think.
- First, recall how many priorities you were chasing this past year. Include goals related to your finances, career, relationship, friendships, family, home, health, travel, and on and on. And don’t just choose your lofty, stated goals; be honest with yourself about where you actually spent your time. In front of the TV? At the bar? Lost in your phone? These were priorities, intentional or not. Write this out in a list, and rank your success in each area, 1 to 10. When you see this birds-eye view of your year, you’ll realize how spread thin you were.
- Next, give each priority a label: urgent, important or not important. It goes without saying that the quality of your life is tightly linked to the amount of time you spend working on the important things. Don’t major in minor things. If you want to stop fighting so many fires, take your attention upstream, and prioritize Great Work. Do this, and you’ll minimize crises downstream.
- Finally, ask: Which ONE goal, if you achieved it this year, would have the greatest positive impact on your life? Is it finally finishing your novel? Quitting your day job? Beating the original Super Mario Bros? If you’re having trouble choosing just one, write out all your goals and compare one to the next, one pair at a time, rock-paper-scissors style, until you have a winner. “But my future is too important to leave to some trivial game!” Actually, your future is too important to get stuck on this step. Don’t overthink it; your heart has the answer.
For better or worse, do you have your one goal for the year? Excellent. We’re just getting started.
Call me weird, but I have always loved eating vegetables. Growing up, a side of steamed broccoli with nothing on it was not an unusual dinner. This healthy habit never felt like another dose of “adulting” to get through. Just don’t ask me to iron a shirt or cut the lawn. Guhh.
I also have a weird affinity for the “riveting” world of metrics. I can get lost for hours in Google Analytics, seeing in the data vivid pictures of visitors moving through my websites, like that guy in The Matrix could see a 3D world in nothing more than bright green code.
Hold up—what’s a metric?! It’s simply a standard of measurement. Think of them as “measuring sticks.” Is your goal to lose 30 pounds this year? Your metrics might be the number of steps you walk in a day, the number of minutes you spent at the gym or the calories you take in. They’re not the goal itself, but they are handy in the same way that a speedometer is. Get it? Good. And analytics? That’s simply the process of analyzing this data.
To state the obvious, a goal is not enough to ensure your success. You need a good system, and habits of course, but you also need to choose the right metric(s) so that you can see, at any given point in time, whether you’re moving toward your goal, or not, then adjust course.
Good metrics show you two things: first, what you get. Is the money coming in? Are you lifting more weight at the gym? If yes, then your goal is undoubtedly approaching. The second way to measure progress toward your goal is by observing who you’re becoming. Are you happier? More motivated? In the flow state more often? Only metrics can answer these questions.
We restrained ourselves to ONE goal because simplicity is the best way to ensure our success. Now, choose only ONE metric you’ll use to measure the distance to your ONE goal. Are you building a business? Your one metric might be profit. Preparing for a marathon? Pairs of running shoes worn out during practice might be your yardstick. Set your metric now, and let’s move onto the last step in our recipe.
Take That First Step
All great enterprises start with one innocuous step: your first day of school, the first brick in the house, a seed planted. You literally cannot achieve anything worthwhile without tackling the smallest piece of the project, one that seems so damnably simplistic that it’s not worth mentioning. “OF COURSE I have to write the first line of code,” Zuckerberg said.
It’s easy to forget this because we compare ourselves to celebrity achievers who are already enjoying their accolades in the Halls of Greatness. They tend not to broadcast, expect in brief, broad summations, their trials by fire & Ramen noodles. And the media loves to omit that these “overnight successes” were for a decade non-successes.
Take a minute to internalize this, because it will determine whether you win through to your goal or not: It’s the small steps that add up to the great results; there is no one big step that does it all.
But the journey often seems impossible, doesn’t it?! That’s the voice of a little enemy called overwhelm. Overwhelm raises its shrill, whiny voice only when we try to see the project as a whole. I’m willing to bet that if Elon Musk, Mark Cuban or Sara Blakely consulted a crystal ball when starting their companies, and could see the mountain of grief that they would need to scale, they each might have said, “Forget it.”
Stop trying to hold the multitude of steps in your head at one time. To begin your journey of 1,000 miles, start with the first step. To know what that first step should be, work backwards.
Is your one goal for this year to become your own boss? Ask, what steps come immediately before that? You’ll need some way to cover at least your basic expenses. For that, you’ll need your own business (even if that’s consulting). And the steps involved in creating your own business? Selecting a product or service, a business plan, a loan, hiring out your weaknesses.
There will be hundreds of steps; don’t try to enumerate them all, at first, just capture the big beats—the milestones. Work those backwards until you come to this moment. Your first step should be so easy that it seems juvenile. Do you have it? Do it now, even before you finish this article.
When it’s done, the snowball will be rolling, and you can choose a second, more challenging step. Goodbye, overwhelm.
Reap the Rewards
Creating an incredible life hinges on knowing the difference between life’s trinkets and treasures, as Jim Rohn says. It requires a conscious decision about which treasures to seek, and relentless, focused pursuit.
If you’ve ever struggled with New Year’s resolutions, then this system is for you. It’s an easy recipe for maximizing your chances of reaching the ONE most important goal for your 2021.
And if you want to chase your goal in the company of like-minded achievers, check out the 1-Step Ahead Challenge, which starts in January 2021. Thousands of SUCCESS readers will sign up to walk the path beside you, so you’ll have plenty of support & accountability along the way.
Whether you sign up for the Challenge or do this work on your own, know that the pursuit is worth it. More productivity, better relationships, and a happier life will be your rewards.
Let’s get to it. I wish you all the best for a happy and prosperous 2021.
Photo by @NataliaSolo/Twenty20.com