I’ve always been a bit goal oriented. There’s a lot I want to do, and now I have more time than ever to make progress. While many of my goals require travel, I’ve found more than enough that can be done today, right now to keep my busy. If anything I’m still prioritizing what I want to spend my time on and continuously focusing on what I want to bring into my life.
Ironically, when I set new years resolutions for this year, here’s what they looked like:
- Ease into each day
- Favor habits over goals
- Provide value only I can give
- Consistently track whatever I want to improve
#2 on there explicitly mentions look for habits! So why I am talking about goals 3 months later?
Well, it turns out that habits and goals are both needed – for me at least. If I have a habit, I want to know how it plays into my overall vision.
For example, I’ve been learning Japanese using Duolingo. For that, I’ve chosen a habit of spending time using the app. My target is 2 lessons per day, every single day.
For some people the habit alone might sustain you, but I doubt it’ll be enough to provide motivation to continue on your worst days. For that you need goals.
My goal for learning Japanese is be able to confidently travel around the country on a future trip. It’s been a dream of mine for a while, and our two visits over there have left me wanting more time there.
On any day when I’m struggling to accomplish my habit (which has become easier as I’ve continued to do it), I’ll think back to this goal and it’ll help give me the nudge I need.
Goals Don’t Need a Timeframe
I’ve always set timelines on goals in the past. I’m going to lose X pounds by next year. I’ll publish 3 posts a week. I’ll launch a new app this summer.
For some goals, that timeframe can help with motivation or the need for urgency. Those kinds of goals are different. I see those as personal challenges. Those can be fun when used in moderation. I challenged myself to ski some black diamond slopes this winter and (technically) accomplished that one – although it wasn’t pretty.
In the past, this led me to add timeframes to ALL goals. It’s a business-y way of looking at things, but it’s not what’s best for every personal goal.
In my last job, we did something called quarterly planning. Most companies have something similar. We gathered together to create a plan for what our teams would each work on for the next quarter – all while attempting to align our with plans with the larger group, other teams dependencies and company strategies.
This type of planning is based on the systems discussed in the book Radical Focus, which has become required reading by management at just about every tech company now a days.
The premise is simple: break the year up (usually into quarters). From there, create objectives (problems that need to be accomplished) and key results (things that will tell you the objective is accomplished). Each team does this, with some key results being delivered by teams under them.
Sorry, I shivered a little reading the last paragraph. I’ll do on.
This type of thinking is actually very practical for a large company. It gets teams working together and aligned. One of the reasons it works is because of the communication needed between teams as a company grows.
So you adopt something similar for your own goals? Well, no. You don’t have a communications problem with yourself. You also don’t have artificial timelines that hold you to accomplish something.
My approach today is to take my time, and create a schedule that lets me enjoy getting to a goal instead of focusing on the destination.
Goals, Themes and Habits
The route I’m taking is to split things into three groups – goals, themes and habits. None of these have a timeframe – either they’re done or they’re not.
Here’s a breakdown of what each of these are:
Goals excite you. These are things that you look and you say “fuck yeah”. They’re what you think about when your mind wanders and what causes you want to get out of bed in the morning.
These don’t need to be realistic. I love the idea of having some goals that could be accomplished in months, some in years and some (maybe) in decades.
Themes are a specific step you can take towards that goal. For every goal, there are many different themes. Understanding and deciding on a theme to work towards a goal is key. I prefer to pick something that I know I can accomplish in a few months.
For example, for my learning Japanese example – my theme might be “Build up vocabulary to read books for children under 5”. It’s a step on the road to my goal.
You could call these sub-goals, target objectives or whatever you want, but I like the idea of themes. No one says “I’m going to accomplish this theme by <date>”. Themes keep the next step unbound from time. You can work on a theme, but without a set date to complete it.
If you need a set date for something – make that a goal instead. If it’s small enough maybe you don’t need a theme in that case. The tricky part (to me at least) is knowing that a theme is possible in a few months.
Since there are so many different themes you could pick for any goal, I like to create a list of everything I can think of. From there, I’ll pick one theme to target that excites me and work towards it. I opt to make this something that is small enough to be significant once accomplished, but far enough that it’ll last at least a month (ideally a few months).
The smallest units of work are habits. These are the “how” of your goal. Habits also change over time. The habit you use to start down the road towards a goal could be completely different than the habits from later.
To me, a habit is something I can put on a todo list and check off in a single day. Depending on the habit they might take a few minutes (hold a plank as long as possible) to hours (run 20k).
In either case, the habits change depending on where you’re going. James Clear offers a lot of wisdom on the topic in his recent book, Atomic Habits.
Habits are an investment in your future-self. Alone they may not be impressive. Just like with financial investments though, they’ll compound over time. I like James Clear’s take on the topic:
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.
For my case of the goal: “Learn enough Japanese to confident travel around the country” and theme of “Learn to read books for children under 5”, the habit might be as simple as “Take 2 Duolingo lessons every day”.
Once I’m to there, the next step may require having actual conversations with people (*gulp*), or spending a lot more time researching kanji characters.
I’m trying not to choose the next habit until there’s a pain point that my existing habit can’t solve. What’s nice about this is if your habit is around your goal, slightly shifting it is LOADS easier than creating an entirely new habit.
Ok, that was a lot. Let’s look at a few examples. One of my 101 Things I want to do is to Run a Marathon. At the start of this year, the longest I’d ever run was a 5k in 27 minutes. I have a long ways to go!
I was never much of an athlete growing up. I had (have) asthma that required me to use an inhaler three times a day, take two pills, three times a day and get a monthly allergy shot to help prevent asthma attacks. There were more than a dozen times I ended up in an emergency room or an urgent care clinic barely able to breathe.
As I entered college I mostly grew out my asthma. Nowadays it only comes back around fur, dust or illness.
It wasn’t until after a few years of doing CrossFit a few times a week that I considered myself fit.
The goal of running a marathon to me is a symbol of extreme growth from that kid struggling to run a mile without a hospital visit. Somehow in working towards it I’ve actually started enjoying running too (I credit audiobooks with that).
For me, I’m breaking this goal up like this:
- Goal: Run a marathon
- Theme: Build up to a half marathon
- Habit: Follow the Runkeeper Training program 4x a week.
For this one, the goal is a long-term plan. It’s not going to change very often. The theme, however, is one of many things I could have chosen. There are a bunch of themes you could pick from:
- Theme: Build up to a 5k run.
- Theme: Run a mile in 6 minutes.
- Theme: Run 15k on a 6 min/km pace.
There’s a never-ending series of themes you could choose from. As soon as you accomplish one, you’re ready to move onto to a new theme. You can also reevaluate your habits to verify they’re still going to help with that theme.
My Goals, Themes and Habits
Ok, so what goals, themes, and habits am I working on now? I always mentioned two them already (running & learning Japanese), so I won’t elaborate on them much.
The idea here is that while you can have tons of goals, unless you have actual habits that are able to work towards them then you’re not going to make any progress. While I have tons of things I want to do, the limiting factor is which habits I’m working on. Anything not on here is something I’m actively avoiding doing.
1. Running & Fitness
Continue working towards my “Run a marathon” goal. It turns out that just general fitness helps with a number of my goals:
- Goal: Run a marathon
- Goal: Run a mile in under 6 minutes
- Goal: Be able to do every CrossFit workout RX
- Goal: Complete the CrossFit workout “Murph” with a weighted vest.
All of these are things I want to be able to do that running will help with. The main one I’m workings towards is the marathon one, and letting the others improve over time.
This also fits in well with my yearly theme of “Consistently track whatever I want to improve”.
I have a few targets and habits for this.
Target: Build up to running a half marathon.
- Habit: Run 4x a week, rain or shine, following RunKeepers half-marathon training program.
Target: Get down to 150 lbs.
- Habit: Track food I’ve eaten every day and aim to stay under FitBits calorie goal.
Target: Build up to being able to do 100 air squats, 50 pushups, and 30 pull-ups.
- Habit: Every Monday and Friday, use the Just 6 Weeks app to go through a workout for these three movements.
These targets don’t have a date associated with them which is by design. I’m not trying to do these by the end of Q2 or by the end of the year. I know that if I continue following these habits, the target will be accomplished.
I am tracking each of these to see how I’m doing. I originally started tracking these habits on a Google Sheet at the beginning of the year. I switched over to using everyday.app, which is a super-simple, no-frills habit tracker. They have an iPhone app and a Google Chrome splash page which is now what I see whenever I open a new tab.
A shaded in box means I completed the habit, a triangle box means I skipped it (but maintain a streak) and an unfilled in box means that I didn’t do that habit.
I constantly try new things that help me stay interested and focused in habits, and this (coupled with Todoist) one is working for me right now.
2. Continue Working on Minafi
I’ve been having sooo much fun working on Minafi lately. I’ve been chipping away at V2, and can’t wait to launch it. It’ll enable a whole new level of communication through visualizations and interactivity that I’m looking forward to. I shared a few screenshots of the new Minafi in a previous post too.
Working on building products fills a space in me that’s hard to explain. I took a little break from product work after I left my job. It took 54 days for me to feel that draw to build something come back and for me to start a new semi-major project.
There’s no shortage of goals on my list that correspond with this.
- Goal: Teach a million people how to make their first informed investment.
- Goal: See something I’ve created mentioned on national news.
- Goal: Inspire others to share their knowledge.
- Goal: Create interactive teaching experiences that people remember.
- Goal: Teach and inspire kids to be financially educated and independent.
- Goal: Create a website that gets over 100,000 sustained visitors a month with minimal upkeep.
- Goal: Create and self-publish a product that lots of people enjoy.
I picked the one on here that inspires me the most and went with that one.
There are a few targets for this already:
Target: Finish Minafi v2 and release it.
- Habit: Do an hour of focused time every day.
- Maintenance: Continue posting 1 new article weekly and sending out a weekly email.
It’d be easy to set 100 goals for myself for Minafi. As anyone who’s ever started a blog or any website knows, there’s an endless list of things to work on. While what I’ve been working on may not be what’ll bring the most traffic, it has been what I enjoy the most at this point in my life – which makes each session a win.
Even long-form journaling (like this post) is helpful and enjoyable.
This hour on Minafi is so much fun. It’s an hour that I look forward to! I usually reward myself with this time after completing whatever else I need to do during the day that’s more difficult.
I only started tracking this at the beginning of the year. You can tell exactly when I got serious about working on Minafi v2. You can also see when went to Las Vegas (those half filled squares mean I “skipped” that day).
Rather than trying to list them out here, the habit is just doing the work. I have faith in myself to find specific tasks to do towards this target. By keeping it vague, I can find whatever is the most fun in a given day and work on that.
For example, today I worked on a social widget for Minafi v2 that floats along the left side of the page but fades in or out when it collides with other elements. This allows for it to be present, but without overlapping images, graphs or other things I might insert into a post. I love the idea that I can grab a fun task like this and just enjoy solving it.
The idea is completely ripped with Medium, which does something similar. Still playing with the idea, but I like the direction it’s going.
3. Focus My Time on What Brings Joy and Value
You might notice a theme lately around the idea of figuring out what makes up my days. This isn’t because I’m looking for things to do, but because even without work there are MORE things I want to do than there is time to do it!
Because of this, I was excited to read (well, listen for free from my local library using Libby) Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – his latest book about choosing a focused life in a noisy world. Newport hits on one idea hard – social media and news apps are invading our attention spans and causing us harm in a variety of ways.
Immediately after reading this one, I uninstalled Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit from my phone and started making a plan on what to do next.
I’ve decided to try Newports recommendation: a 30-day digital declutter. This involves spending a month without apps that steal my focus (outside of professional responsibilities) altogether. After that, I’ll mindfully decide which services to bring back into my life.
I still plan to check Minafi’s twitter account twice a week (Sunday and Wednesday) with a 15-minute time limit on activity. Other than that, I’ll be completely off these services for this month.
The hardest one for me to leave will likely be Reddit. I tend to open up Reddit for my news, entertainment and even a love/hate relationship with a few subreddits.
“Focusing time on what brings joy” is a lot tougher to trace back to a goal, but there are a few that stand out.
- Goal: Start my mornings relaxed and refreshed.
- Goal: Get out into nature all the time.
- Goal: Reduce possessions down to the point we can travel anywhere in the world for any length of time.
- Goal: Learn to speak Japanese fluently.
- Goal: Go on a month-long camping trip.
- Goal: Hike the Appalachian Trail.
- Goal: Have a joyful marriage.
- Goal: Play board games with friends all the time.
- Goal: Have dinner parties with friends.
The first one looks like a good target for this point in my life as the focus in this category. Luckily, I’m already working on a few of these already!
Theme: Learn enough Japanese to read at a 5-year-old level.
- Habit: Go through 2 Duolingo lessons every day.
Theme: Explore Utah outside of the city.
- Habit: Go for a hike every other week.
Theme: Hang out with friends
- Habit: Schedule a board game & family dinner night with friends every other week.
Theme: Perform a digital declutter
- Habit: Don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or news apps for a month. After that, decide on usage.
Theme: Settle more into our apartment.
- Habit: Pick one item in the House or Uncluttering category on my todo list to do every day until they are all accomplished.
Ok, this is a lot. When you look at the actual habits though it’s not much. 2 Duolingo lessons, a hike every other week, a little time with friends, a single task around the house and no time on social media? The lack of social media time alone is more than enough to cover everything else.
When it comes to social media I’m not going to quit everything 100% for the month. I started this 4 days ago now, and it’s already helped me realize just how often I reach for my phone or use these apps to fill time.
There’s a good balance for these where they can help you feel connected, develop relationships and stay informed. Many of the people I met at FinCon I first communicated with on Twitter! I don’t intend to leave these long-term, but I do want to give the digital declutter an honest effort.
The last step of the digital declutter is to bring back apps or sites that bring you value, but creating a more intentional relationship with them.
I’ve been doing well at practicing Japanese so far and plan to continue that.
Learning Kanji (Japanese writing system using Chinese characters) has been surprisingly fun. The characters have a pattern to them that starts to make sense. This allows for developing building blocks of the language, then adding new words using those same characters in new orders becomes easier. I was a little excited when I realized that:
My absolute best addition to learning Japanese has been picking up the Kanji Pict-o-Graphix book. This book has memorable graphics that help drive in hiragana, katakana and Kanji.
While going through Duolingo, I’ll pause and look up a character in this book. That relatively quick action has helped me remember far better than with Duolingo alone.
Play More Games with Friends
One area that I’m excited to do better at is reaching out to friends to hang out with in person. For a long time, I’ve let social media replace those real-world friendships. They’re not real replacements though, any more than watching TV is a replacement for socialization. I’ve missed those long Settlers of Catan game nights since moving to SLC.
In the last few months, we spent a week in Orlando with Family, had a friend spend a week with us here in SLC, volunteered for a week at Sundance and had a bunch of game nights, movie nights, and food nights with friends. I haven’t felt disconnected from people since leaving my job, but I have missed some of my coworkers that I used to see every day. I imagine that with social media also blacked out, I’ll see people even less – giving me more incentive to hang out.
Settle In to Our Apartment
The settle in theme is about constantly iterating on what makes an inspiring and happy home. Living in a rented apartment, we don’t have many large projects to work on. There isn’t a thing on my todo list I couldn’t complete in an afternoon – which is a wonderful place to be.
After our last move, I also want to do what I can now to only own things we need. This involves decluttering a bunch of things that have entered our lives that we just never use and plan to sell/giveaway.
What About a Timeframe?
As I said before, these have absolutely no timeframe. They’ll stop when I feel I’ve satisfied the theme is accomplished or decide to stop performing the habit.
The OCD business person in me wants to make goals like “Ship Minafi V2 before June” or “run a half marathon before July”, but I’m resisting the urge to set timelines for myself.
All of these themes will be timeline-less. If they happen this month, this quarter or this year – that’s great! If they take longer than that then I’ve probably set the wrong theme or I’m not keeping up with my habit.
In the meantime I’ll continue to focus on habits. Here are the habits I’m currently tracking since the beginning of this year.
I’m excited to continue working on these habits, incorporating a few new ones and see where things go!
For once I don’t feel an impeding sense of doom in setting these goals. The goals themselves are things I want to do – regardless of my progress. The habits are clear units of work that are fun and interesting. And the themes are realistic.
What happens next is best compared to compound interest. Those 1% improvements to my fitness, our home, my Japanese language skills, Minafi – all compound into something far greater given time. Shifting my mindset from wanting to be done to wanting to make progress has been incredibly effective for my mental health and more productive too.
Relaxation vs Growth
You might be asking:
What about having fun? You’re retired, so why are you doing this?
For a lot of my first month off I didn’t do too much. I spent a lot of time laying in bed, on social media, sipping coffee and relaxing. That’s nice some of the time, but I’ve come to realize there can be too much of a good thing.
The same can be said for skiing. I bought an Ikonpass to use this winter season and have tried out all the ski resorts here in the Salt Lake area. Even though I love skiing, I’ve come to realize I only really want to ski a handful of times each season. I had to force myself to wake up early and hit the slopes more than once.
Here in SLC, I can usually make it to any of the 5 slopes the Ikonpass works on within an hour if I go on a weekday. One time I was caught in traffic (due to a few overturned vehicles on the roads) and this turned into a 2.5-hour trek, but usually it’s been fine.
This doesn’t mean skiing was a failure. I loved every ski trip I went on. It just means I better know what I want for next time. It might mean getting a multi-day pass and just skiing a few days a year rather than making it a major hobby.
My day today, Friday March 22, was a good indicator of a day that hits these habits but was not at all stressful with a bunch of relaxation time. Here’s what it looked like:
- 10:00 AM – Woke up
- 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM – Coffee in bed, did 2 Duolingo lessons, continued reading The Book of Learning and Forgetting.
- 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM – Drove to Liberty Park and Ran 7k (3 laps).
- 12:30 PM – 1:00 PM – Body weight exercises for pull-ups, pushups, and air squats back at my apartment.
- 1:00 PM – 1:30 PM – Made a banana, kale protein smoothy while watching Long Way Round (fun travel documentary), followed by a shower.
- 1:30 PM – 3:30 PM – Programming projects on Minafi. Created a really neat social widget that behaves like the social sidebar for Medium.com. For this programming, I was laying in bed in a bathrobe with our projector watching more shows on our fall wall.
- 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM – Walked our dog Lily, fed her dinner, did some dishes & housework.
- 4:30 PM – 5:30 PM – More Minafi dev. According to the git log (which is a version control system where you save code with a comment), I updated Rails to the latest version and cleaned up the comment form.
- 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM – Made and ate a tasty Salmon dinner with Mrs. Minafi accompanied with some cocktails.
- 7:00 PM – 10:00 PM – Some relaxing and catching up on Broad City, The Daily Show making chocolate soufflés in a coffee mug on a whim, making more cocktails and eventually relaxing in bed.
- 10:00 PM – Midnight – Writing this post!
Usually, I’d have breakfast too, but I had a large meal the night before. It was a pretty amazing day. To think I exercised, worked on Minafi for 5 hours, had a relaxing morning and had a fun night in with my wife. Being able to do that and not have it feel like work is what I’m loving.
What About Your Goals?
This approach is what I’m trying now. I’ll know in a few months if it’s working! What about you? Do you set goals for yourself? How do you balance growth with fun?