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Personal Goal Setting That Can Survive Anything

In January 2020, I was spending my last days in Bangkok. As much as I was anxious to hit the road six months earlier, I was eager to go back. For the next chapter of my life, where I wanted to build better habits and relationships, I needed stability and structure. So my last days in Thailand were mostly spent in my room, making all kinds of plans and goals, and laughing at my parents’ concern about some new virus that’s supposedly a big deal.

Well, about a month later, that virus turned out to be a pretty big fucking deal.

It came like a wrecking ball and took a shit on all my plans for the year ahead. Oh, you want to get in better shape? Fuck you Phil, I’m going to close the gyms. What’s that? You want to improve your social skills and make new friends? Here, have some social distancing. Wow, you want to find a new job? Good luck with that once I destroy the economy. Now, let’s see how far your “mind of steel” gets you.

All in all, for all my plans, the year started as a total shitshow and it kept going downhill from there.

I’m guessing you were in the same boat as me. You’ve probably made plans yourself, only to realize you couldn’t achieve them due to the many gifts of the pandemic, like the lockdown and self-isolation measures. While 2021 did improve things quite a bit, we’re all still dealing with the corona-induced limitations.

Now that a new year is here, you’re probably worried: will the same thing happen again? Is it worth it to make plans, only to have the world spit in your face? The obvious answer is, nobody knows. While all of us hope that the worst is behind us, nobody knows. In fact, something even worse may be in store for you.

No matter what the outcome, you should still set your goals. I’m here to give you some pointers on how to do it the right way.

1. Analyze who you currently are

Mark Manson recently published an informative article on goal-setting and why most of us are doing it wrong. In the same fashion, I’d like to expand on this approach and explain why goals like “I want to make a million dollars” or “I want to become a ladykiller” won’t get you far.

The first step in determining your goals is to understand yourself. I know this sounds like a completely boring, if not outright terrifying first step, but it can actually be pretty eye-opening. I do this myself every year. It works wonders for your self-awareness.

So let’s make it fun.

If I asked you to list the positive and negative sides of your character, I’m sure you would come up with items for both sides of the list. But no matter how hard we try, we’re a terrible judge of our character. It’s impossible for us to see things objectively as we are inherently biased towards ourselves.

Other people, however, are not. And you can use this to your advantage.

Choose several people you believe know you the best, usually close family members, your friends, or someone you’re dating. Send them a message asking them to evaluate your personality from their perspective. Here’s an example of the message:

Hey, can I ask you for a favor? When you have time, write down how you perceive me as a person, all the positives/negatives, what you like about me, what annoys you, what you think my values are. Be completely honest, I won’t get mad at anything you say. I’m looking at ways I can improve myself. Thanks!

Simple, right? It took basically no effort and you already have a lot of data to work with. Once you receive replies from all people you messaged, the next step is to sort that information. Make a table that looks like this:

Trait type
Positive or Negative
People’s response
E.g. Loyal, hardworking, tardy, stubborn
More info
Example: “I can always rely on you to come through when I need you.”
Who said this?
Example: Marko, Angela, Elliott

This will allow you to get a bird’s-eye view of how you are currently perceived by people whose opinion matters to you. You will not only see which descriptions get repeated, but you will also find some things you wouldn’t have found if you did this exercise yourself.

The key to this method is you’re not being judged by a bunch of strangers, but a carefully selected group of people who know you best. Batman may publicly be known as a drunk womanizer, but those close to him — Alfred, Robin, Batgirl — know the real Bruce Wayne, what he stands for and what he truly cares about. So posting this message to your 200+ “friends” on Facebook or thousands of strangers on Twitter won’t work. Direct contact only.

The last step is to clean the table up and add your own opinions. People will likely express the same personality traits in different ways, so group them together and write which of them you agree with. If you feel something is missing, add it to the table yourself. When you’ve sorted the entire table, you should ask people who didn’t mention something on the list if they agree with this description of your personality. Here’s the example of that message:

Hey, a quick follow-up on my last request. Other people said I am ______, _________, and ________ . Do you agree with it?

When you get new replies, reflect on how realistic those results are. If most people believe you’re stubborn, whether you agree with it or not, it’s something you need to address. If one person says you’re kind, but others say you can be harsh and cruel, stick with what most people agree on.

This exercise is important because it will highlight your strengths as well as your weaknesses. You will see whether you’re moving in the direction you want to go or do you need to adjust course. And hey, hearing positive things about your characters is always nice, isn’t it?

2. Define who you want to be

Okay, maybe that first part wasn’t as fun as I promised, but this part will be. Here is where you can let your imagination go wild.

The first step showed you how you are currently perceived by others, what values you project through your actions, and which direction your life is headed at. In this step, you are going to determine how you want your life to go from here on out.

Rules? There are no rules. Where we’re going, we don’t need rules.

Let’s try another exercise: imagine your perfect day. Some time in the future, be it five or ten years ahead, you have accomplished all of your goals. Seriously, every single thing you ever wanted to achieve is now a reality. You’ve done it.

How does that vision of your future look like? What do you do when you wake up? How do you spend your morning? What kind of work do you do? Where do you eat lunch? Which people are in your life?

Write everything down. Let yourself be unrealistic. Remember, there are no rules. Whether it’s being a billionaire tech inventor and CEO of your own company, a travel blogger making their way around the world, or working a 9-5 at the company you love, everything is allowed. Go nuts.

When you’re finished, reflect on what you wrote and ask yourself: What does this future version of myself care about? What does he/she value? How does Future You spend their time?

Compare this future version with the current version of yourself (the table from the first step). Does Future You still have the same positive aspects of your personality? Are they still struggling with the same issues? How have their values changed?

Identify the difference between the two versions of yourself and write them in a separate list. See what is requires to make the jump from who you are today to the person you want to become.

When you’ve got that list, you’re ready to finally start cooking with fire.

3. Define your goals

I’m sure you’ve gone through plenty of goal setting in your life. But have you ever asked yourself what “goals” actually are? It’s a good question.

Most of your life, you probably feel like you’re stuck in the middle of the sea. It’s dark, it’s wet, and it sucks. You don’t know how you got there or, even worse, how you’re going to get yourself out. You can’t see the shore. You can’t see anything ahead of you. So you start swimming in one direction. Which direction? It doesn’t matter. Where will you end up? You don’t know that either. You just keep swimming, hoping for the best.

In this horror-inducing metaphor, goals are your personal lighthouse. They act as a guide for the direction you need to follow. However, they don’t do much else. They don’t tell you how to reach the lighthouse. They don’t give you any tools or knowledge about how to swim better. All they do is shout: “HEY! LOOK! OVER HERE!” So when you’re lost at sea and can’t see ahead of you, they give you a sense of direction.

And believe it or not, this is the best way to think of your goals.

The biggest stress when it comes to setting goals for the next year, or multiple years, is the fear of failure. What if you never achieve your goals? What if you miss the deadline you set for yourself? What if your goal is not realistic? I’m starting to sweat just writing about it.

This overly serious and concrete approach to goals is the primary cause of a lot of anxiety related to it. You know the old saying “success is about the journey, not the destination”? This is the perfect place to apply it. Don’t live for some perfect vision of the future. There are too many variables you can’t influence and something like COVID-19 can destroy all of your deadlines in an instant.

Instead, use goals as your lighthouse. How do you want your journey to look like? What will make it worthwhile? How can you enjoy the process of achieving success, not just success itself? Once you do that, no coronavirus can halter your progress.

Despite the unexpected pandemic being a major obstacle in obtaining a lot of my initial goals, I still count this year as a success. When I realized the harsh reality, I adapted my goals to the new environment and kept going. Or even better, I quit some goals and set better ones along the way.

While I couldn’t go to the gyms as often as I’d hoped, I focused on working out at home, running in the fresh air, and working on my flexibility. While I couldn’t socialize much or make new friends, I spent more time strengthening the relationships with people I already knew. While it was harder to find a job, I spent the time in-between on developing my skills and building my portfolio.

The right goals push you in the right direction. You can’t know what kinds of problems the world will drop on you. All you can do is keep swimming and following the lighthouse.

Set goals that will give you no excuses. You may need to adapt their execution but the only thing that matters is that you’re moving in the right direction. Eventually, you will end up right where you wanted to be all along — even if you didn’t know it.

P.S. If you’re looking for a way to jump-start the new year, I highly recommend getting the book Atomic Habits. It’s going to make building habits and breaking bad ones a breeze.

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