Sometimes life just gets plain overwhelming. Believe me, I’ve been there. It seems like you get caught in the noise of life and can’t make any meaningful progress.
Better yet you look back on the last year of your life and maybe you haven’t really made progress in the areas that mean the most to you. Maybe you have the same relationship with your spouse, haven’t saved more towards that down payment, or are still out of shape.
Guess what? Its ok.
We’ve all been there. After reading a ton of books and just plain putting in the work I wanted to put together everything I knew on setting and achieving goals in a single resource. There are lots of great resources out there on setting financial goals. While what I’ve put together is great look for advice and guidance from all sorts of individuals.
I’ve found if you don’t go into this ever important process with a step-by-step process it won’t stick. Here I propose a step by step process.
How to Set your Vision
For a number of years I would set goals or objectives for some point in the future. I still do. Setting goals usually looked few months or a year down the road. Like almost everyone it seems like I would start out strong and then just fade over time.
I’d fade to the point that by the time the end of the few months or a year would be up I’d have stopped tracking my progress and wouldn’t have made any meaningful progress in any direction.
It was super disappointing. But I stuck with it.
I realized what I was missing was my north star. That big thing way off in the distance that was my reason for doing everything. I really didn’t want to just keep floating in whichever direction life took me. I wanted to make meaningful strides towards something.
This quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland describes it perfectly.
“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”
Thats exactly how I felt and something I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to just end up wherever I ended up in life. I wanted to choose where I ended up in life and work towards it.
What is a vision?
This is where my vision comes in. A vision is a north star for your life and is the reason behind everything that you do.It’s what all your goals are based off of and what keeps you moving. Even when you stumble, like I have in the past, chasing your vision forces you to get up and try again.
A key distinction is that it’s just not a long term goal. A goal is finite. It is something that can be reached.
Which means a goal is not a vision.
A vision is the why of your life. Its what you are chasing. Its what your most ideal world would look like at some point in the future. As you make get closer to that vision your vision will likely change because you have become a better, stronger, more resilient person. You’ve realized you can achieve more than you previously thought.
Because I like to drill things down to the most basic steps I have established three steps to setting a vision for your life. That was a big sentence. I didn’t mean for that to sound so profound. The thing about a vision is that it changes.
It grows with you. As you work your way down a path to your vision it may become more or less clear in certain areas.
This actually happened to me. When I went to school I thought I would work all hours of the day and night to achieve success. I’d outwork anyone and everything to get to the top.
And then life happened. It turns out I love my family way too much to spend my nights and weekends huddled over a computer trying to earn a few more dollars.
If I had set a vision for my life (I’d like to say I did but I didn’t) in college it would have looked a lot like me at the top of my career with lots of wealth.
With no one to share it with.
Things have changed and now my vision looks more like having a firm financial footing that allows me to sleep well at night while my true wealth comes from the love of my family.
You see as I grew and matured I gained clarity on what I wanted in life and adjusted accordingly.
A vision is all about gaining clarity on what you want in life so you can take meaningful steps in that direction. If you don’t at least know what direction you need to walk in then you’ll end up like Alice in Wonderland and just end up in whatever direction you decided to walk.
I realize I’ve only got one shot at this thing called life and I plan on taking advantage of it.
I diverted course a bit there but can now share with you my 3 steps. Revisiting these steps regularly to ensure that the clarity I have for way off in the future is aligned with my current self.
I can’t chase something my past self wanted because then there wouldn’t be that fire or hunger to get back up when I get knocked down.
Step 1: Select a time point in the future.
Setting a vision is hard. It’s a daunting task that most will think about but never do because they don’t know where to start. To me the easiest thing you can do is select a time point in the future.
Want something even easier? Choose a specific age.
I don’t know about you but my parents are somewhat recently new grandparents right around the age of 50-55. Because I have lots of examples right around that age between my parents, in-laws, aunts, uncles, etc I can easily gather a lot of data.
This data would help answer questions like what do they spend their time doing? Where do they seem to be financially? What does their marriage look like?
I can then compare all of those answers to how I want to spend my life. I’m able to use that data to extrapolate my own answers. For my vision I have chosen the age of 55.
Step 2: Identify the areas of your life that are important
This is an important step. You need to break your entire life down into different areas or categories so its more straight forward to focus. Rather than just set broad goals for your life, breaking your life down into areas or segments will allow you to think through that specific area of your life.
For instance, relationships may be a segment you break your life into. The three groups of relationships that may fall under that would be significant other, children, and friends. Yours may look a little different but you get the idea.
The hard part is how many areas is too much and how many is too little? Thats a tough one. An important thing to remember is that your vision will change, transform and be tweaked over time. Just start with something, anything, to get started.
One example I’d point you to is via a book by Michael Hyatt called Living Forward. In it he breaks down life into a variety of areas and then helps you develop each area. One of his free resources breaks life down into 6 or 7 categories. For a great example go to this link and download one of the templates.
My areas of life area: physical, spiritual, relationships, financial, job, and personal.
Step 3: Write out, in detail, your vision
Step 3 is where the rubber meets the road. In the first step you identified a time point in the future and collected some data. The second step you broke down your entire life into a few areas.
Now its time to put pen to paper.
Write out in as much detail as you can what you want your life to look like. Get specific. You aren’t getting specific so you can make SMART goals and work backwards and blah blah blah.
Don’t do that. Remember, it’s your WHY.
Do it so you can come back to this vision you want for your life and you can picture it so well you can take yourself there and feel yourself living this life in the future.
Don’t say you want a big house. Say that you want a 4 bedroom, 3 bath house with a fenced in backyard and a dog. What color is the house? What is is decorated like? Does it have a basement?
This may seem silly but you need to articulate exactly what you want to happen. Like I said earlier, you need to know exactly what you are working for. When you get up early to develop yourself or to put more hours in at work it has to be for a reason. Make your vision this reason.
Give yourself something to work for.
There you have it. Having a vision for your life is something that has helped me a ton. When life gets hard and I don’t want to keep working hard or getting better I read what I’m working so hard to be. Your actions have to match your ambitions.
How to take your vision and turn it into a plan
I’ve met a lot of people that can think way into the future. They think of the houses, cars, and vacations that they want to buy or experience. It just stops there though. They don’t take any steps professionally, in the entrepreneurial realm, or financially to get there. Its so important to take that next step.
I’m sure some may not want to but I’d have to imagine that some just don’t know where to start. Its overwhelming to have some huge wants way off in the distance and to have reality set in that you need to start taking action now if you want that to become reality.
The basis is to start taking that vision that exists 25-30 years out into the future and chunking it down into more near term chunks.
I think of it as a map. I know my destination (m vision) and now I just need to set up some sign posts closer to the present to kind of set my path.
Chunk One: 3-7 years into the future
All of this seems doable right? Think about a specific area of your vision, think a few years down the road and plant a flag in the ground on where you need to be to be headed in the right direction for your vision.
This is a big step into gaining clarity. Here’s an example.
If your vision is to have 10 rental properties 25 years from now, a good goal for a few years down the road will be to buy one. Or maybe to just save the down payment.
See where I’m going?
The idea isn’t to have some master plan from day one.
This is kind of life golfing (even though you don’t want to see me on the golf course). Imagine you are on a long par 5 and you take out a club that isn’t a driver (stick with me here). The idea of this first time point is not to get to the green so you can put in.
This first shot is more like getting a good chunk of the way there. Maybe 100 yards or so.
Its not about chipping onto the green. Its not about sinking the putt. Just get closer.
So with your goal of 10 rental properties. Just buy one or save the down payment or something. Anything.
How do I choose how long this time frame should be?
This is a personal choice. I recommend making this somewhere between 3 and 7 years into the future.
Maybe you are 32 and maybe setting a goal for 35 is what you want to do. Or maybe it will take you 6 years of diligent saving to save that first down payment. Choose a number that’s right for you.
Again, this will probably change. I think its better to plant a flag in the ground than never plant a flag at all and just hope you’ll achieve your life’s vision with no plan.
Hope is not a strategy.
Choose a time point. For each area of your life, plant a flag. Set a goal.
Chunk two: 6-12 months into the future
See how this is getting easier? We’ve already taken our big lofty vision from 30 years down to 4. Now we just need to take that 4 years and decide where we need to be in 6-12 months.
Same routine as before. Choose a time point, say 12 months. Decide where you need to be 12 months from now to be on the right path.
For our rental house example, maybe its to save 1,000 for the down payment. Maybe its to have a plan in place to save for the first 4 years.
The most important part of this short term game plan is that it needs to be measurable. You need to always know if you are on track or not. You can’t guess and say your progress is good enough.
It needs to be clear (are you getting the pattern here) whether you are falling behind or right on track.
Identifying your Key Objectives and Goals
This is where the rubbers starts to meet the road. So far we’ve looked way off into the distance and thought about where we want to end up. Next we choose a point about 5 years into the future and set some goals there so we could be on the path to our larger goal.
From there we took the next step and made some even shorter term goals (6-12 months into the future) to act as another signpost along the way.
Now we need to take that next step and make an actionable plan that we can start tackling.
Now think, for each area, what are the few key objectives that need to be accomplished to get to that 6-12 month goal? For reach area of your life I usually think somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-4 is about right.
Next we need to take those 2-4 steps and break down each of those into small, actionable steps. My preferences is for 3-6 of these small, bite size pieces.
The idea is you are laying down a short term checklist of items that need to happen, in order, to get where you want to go.
An example on setting objectives – running a half marathon
Lets say you wanted to run a half marathon in 6 months. This would be our short term goal that may feed a longer term vision of staying in shape. If you were an experienced runner this may seem as easy as going out and running. However, most of us aren’t so we need to put some planning and strategy into it.
The first thing we’d need to do is to identify our objectives. Again 2-4 objectives is our rule of thumb. Those might look like:
- Establish running routine
- Research running best practices and gear
- Train for half marathon
These even seem slightly vague. Its important to take it from there and make things even more black and white and break each objective into 2-4 actionable steps. Here is what the next step may look like.
- Establish running routine – duration 6 weeks
- Research how much running is ok for beginner
- Set plan each week to run 4 times per week
- Gradually build up to 10 miles per week
- Research running bet practices and gear
- Sign up for half marathon at least 4 months out
- Research half marathon training programs
- Choose half marathon training programs
- Research what shoes may be needed
- Train for half marathon
- Review training plan each week
- Run per plan
A couple things to keep in mind
- this is a living document. Just like your vision it will change. Thats ok. It’d be best if your 6-12 month goals didn’t change. You need to get used to setting and hitting goals on a shorter term basis.
- like anything in life, you won’t get this perfect. Its better to be headed in the direction of your goals than to be standing still.
Tips on setting goals and objectives
1. Make Them Quantifiable
Anyone that has done even the smallest amount of research on goals has read about SMART goals. If you haven’t I’d check out this link or this link. The biggest takeaway for me is to make sure it is black and white if you hit your goal. For instance:
Run a half marathon is a great objective. Run more is not.
Save $10,000 is a great objective. Save more is not.
Go on a date with my spouse per month is a great objective. Have a better relationship is not.
While this makes success very clear, more importantly, it helps you set more incremental goals. For instance if you want to save $10,000 you know you need to save $834 per month on average to hit your goal.
2. Don’t Set Too Many
FYI this is the hardest part of setting objectives. If you are in self improvement mode you’ll think that you can just tackle everything under the sun. I’d highly recommend against it.
How do I know? Because I do this every year. The best advice I can give you is to think long term. You don’t have to tackle your 4 year goal in 1 year. Break it into steps and just make progress.
As one of my favorite movies says “Keep Moving Forward”. The less you take on the more likely you are to hit your mark.
3. Set a low bar
I know what you’re thinking, isn’t the idea to shoot for the moon and achieve everything I want in life?
Of course it is.
But if you set perfect goals for the perfect year and then you get off track for a month, you know what happens? You decide the rest of the year is out the window and you give up.
Think about it, if you have 6 areas you’ve broken your life into its going to be quite a few goals to be moving towards. Lower the bar. Give yourself some wins.
Gain some momentum on your goals. In an ideal world you’d have $5,000 saved for your first down payment, make it $3,500.
There is certainly a tricky balance between making it too difficult and too easy. Trust me though. Its better to set some easier goals (I mean you’d still have $3,500 in the bank) than to set something that will take perfect consistency to obtain.
Things to keep in mind
A few things to keep in mind regarding these lists for each area:
- Certainly not every area of your life needs a list. Plus having 5 or 7 lists of things that need to be accomplished seems like a lot.
- Use these lists as sacred. If you don’t attack these lists then you are already falling behind where you want to be.
- Look at these lists every day. Focus on one thing at a time.
How to narrow your focus
We’ve made so much progress thus far. One thing I run into every time I set some objectives for the next 6-12 months is that at some point in time it will seem like I should be working on about 4 objectives.
This is another tripping point and one that I wanted to touch on specifically. When it seems like everyone of your objectives is important I’d recommend choosing one.
When everything is important
This is probably whats going on in your head:
“Well I need to start setting a budget to get on track financially.”
“I should also start working out a bit more.”
“My wife and I sure could use some more date nights.”
Believe me. I’ve been there.
A single domino can knock over another
A great book I recommend reading, The 1 Thing, preaches the importance of focus. While I’ve always heard the saying, if everything is a priority then nothing is, it really only hit me recently. In 2017 I was struggling to work extra hours, stay in shape, get an MBA, remodel a house and start a blog (not this one) and I got burnt out in a big way.
One of the ways the book gets this point across is talking about a lead domino. They talk about how a single domino can knock over another domino double its height (working from memory here). Their thesis, which I agree with wholeheartedly, is that if you focus on your effort on a single area it has the potential to help knock over other things in your life.
What did I do in my situation?
I started dropping responsibilities. The MBA had to stay. The blog got thrown out. The house remodel got prioritized a little differently. I put a pause on staying in shape. Guess what happened?
Life got a lot better.
I was able to knock out my MBA work much faster and the house remodel drug out a little more than originally planned. Both got done. I then was able to make my fitness a priority again.
Find your one thing
I can’t recommend enough putting some thought into this. It really is great to have the high ambitions. To shoot for the stars!
It all means nothing if you don’t have the right foundation.
I say that because its true. If you truly want to get where you want to go you can’t rely on will power. You can’t force yourself to do something day in and day out without slipping up. It has to become ingrained in you. Make it a part of who you are.
How to set up systems to achieve your goals
One of the biggest keys that I’ve implemented in my to make the most efficient and effective use of my time while giving myself peace of mind is setting up systems in my life. Systems give me the peace of mind knowing that the important things will get taken care of in the right place and in the right time. Once you’ve set a vision for your life and set a direction you don’t want to spend 100% of your time working on it. You’ve got to enjoy life along the way. Systems are how I’ve done that.
Note: A few products are mentioned below including links to their pages. These are NOT affiliate links.
The simplest of systems make all the difference
Periodically I worry about my health. I know its strange. I’m in my early 30s so still very young and I’ve never had any major health complications. I just realize how important my health is and I want to be doing everything that I can to take care of it.
I always counted on myself to evaluate to see if I’m healthy or not. Anytime something little would change (i.e I get a shot and then I’d have a swollen gland) the alarm bells would start going off. When those alarm bells went off I’d start freaking out. I didn’t know what to do.
Then something remarkable happened that gave me peace of mind and lifted the burden off of me.
I went to the doctor.
I know, groundbreaking right? Its absolutely crazy to write. I now will schedule a check-up with that person every year to get evaluated and get some blood work done to make sure things are looking good. Such a SIMPLE step but something that made a world of difference.
I’ve always been a big believer in systems. I’ve worked in other areas of my life to incorporate them. I think a well-functioning system is extremely valuable because they make efficient use of your time and energy. Most importantly, if you’ve got systems in place there isn’t anything to worry about.
Do you ever think, did I pay that bill or did I order that piece for the sink?
If so, it may be time to think about implementing a few quick systems in your life.
There are two key areas of my life that I’ve implemented systems that have ensure the right things get done at the right time.
Systems to get things done
The first area is, very generically, things that I want to get done. This would include both work and personal. In general I use systems that are meant to identify priorities and then ensure those priorities are actually my priorities.
I see it all time time. People that have important things that need to get done and then they get caught up in fire drill after fire drill. At the end of the day then look back and realize those priorities didn’t actually get any attention.
The system I’ve put in place require me to sit down on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis to evaluate if my time is being spent on things that are moving the needle. It works like this.
At the beginning of every year I put together some priorities for the year. Every month I then set priorities to make sure I’m making strides to hit those goals. Within that month I look each week to see what steps I need to take to hit my monthly goals. I then sit down every morning to identify the priorities I need to work on.
Its groundbreaking stuff.
If you have the discipline to sit down every day, week, month and year to identify priorities and then attack them there isn’t any reason you can’t succeed in any area of life.
Some of the tools I’ve used to help organize all of this are google drive, workflowy, todoist, evernote, asana and trello. I dont use all of those currently but have had success with all of them in the past.
Systems in your finances
The second big area that I’ve implemented systems is in my finances.
The key systems I have in place are paying my bills (twice a month), setting a budget (once a month) and updating my budget vs spending (several times per week).
I’ve developed these systems for quite some time and I like the current place that I’m at.
Imagine a life where you had complete visibility over your monthly payments, your monthly spending and how that spending compared to your budget.
Thats what I strive to do each month. I’ve been working at if for over 7 years now and I really think I’ve got a set of documents, systems and habits that allow me to have a ton of visibility for about 30 minutes of work a month.
Applying Systems to Your Objectives
I’d highly recommend utilizing systems to make steps towards your vision. At some point in time some of your objectives will become something that needs to happen over a long period of time.
A system is perfect for that.
Maybe its developing a habit or reading so many books. Whatever it is it may be possible to put a system in place to help you remember what to do and when to do it. This could completely change your mindset to just focusing on knocking out really small action items.
How to make progress toward your goals
We’ve made plans for the long term, the medium term, the short term and boiled it down to a checklist of items that need to be crossed off in the next 6-12 months.
Its time to put in the work. A lot of people, myself included, love making plans. Plans make the future seem so worked out. Above all they make it seem like it will just happen if we plan everything to death.
I’m a firm believer in plans but realize that about 5-10% of your time needs to be spent planning and the rest of it needs to be on the hardest thing any of us will do.
Putting in the work.
Its not easy and you’ll definitely slip and fall but you’ve got to pick yourself up and dust yourself off.
One thing I’d caution you to avoid, lifting your head up.
Its not time to lift your head up. We’ve done that as we thought about our vision and the other time horizons and goals we’ve established. Now is not the time to look off in the distance and think about what could be.
Above all, its time to work.
I’ve found the difference between those that succeed and those that don’t are that the people that do succeed invest their most valuable asset into accomplishing their goals and putting in the work. That asset is time.
Winning in the long term isn’t fun
Certainly, it isn’t sexy to sit at a desk and type or think or do. Its not fun to sit in a cubicle or in an office when the rest of the world seems to be sitting in the sun or by the pool.
I’m not even 30 at this point but it seems like those that put in the work are the ones that win in the long run. Certainly they don’t win in the short term but they definitely win in the long run.
Today is your day. Go out and put in the work.
Resources to help you set and achieve your goals
I wanted to leave you some recommendations on books and tools to help you get where you want to do.
Its such a long journey and the more you can surround yourself with books or other resources to plan, help you take action or motivate you the better off you will be.
The 1 Thing
This is a great book that I’ve read and/or listened to probably half a dozen times. I’ve learned that readying this book every so often is good for my mindset and helps me reset back to the basics.
It does a great job of showing you the basic as well as other items that are surprisingly helpful. More specifically, things that could hinder you on your way to your goals.
Measure What Matters
This may be my favorite book on this subject. Warning: there is a lot of fluff in this book. The first part of the book gives examples of companies using the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) system that the great Andy Grove made popular.
Its worth the read and actually converted me to using the OKR Method. FYI the methods from Measure What Matters and The 1 Thing are essentially the same but utilize different terms.
The 12 Week Year
This is a great book that pairs nicely with either of the other two. The first two are for setting longer term/bigger picture goals. This one touches on that. However, the premise of the book is that you can get an entire year’s worth of stuff done in 12 weeks if you simply put together a plan and put an extreme amount of focus into it.
Journals to Consider
Full disclosure: I have not tried any of these journals out (other than the Black n’ Red). However, there are so many out there I wanted to point out a few that have caught my attention. While I haven’t tried them I do think the idea makes sense and I do plan to try these at some point in time.
Black n’ Red Journals
These are great. If you are looking for a cheap, reliable, and high quality journal I’d recommend anything by Black N Red. I use these every day and have purchased probably 10 in the last year for a variety of uses and purposes.
This one has been around for quite some time and have had a few recommendations on this journal from friends. This is just one of two journals I’m looking to try. I believe they offer versions for different time points. For instance one for an entire year and one for 12 weeks/a quarter. This version would pair nicely with The 12 Week Year book I mentioned above.
The 1 Thing Planner
This planner just came out but are from the authors of the book I mentioned above with the same name. I can’t speak to the quality of the planner but I do know they spent considerable time talking to their audience to make this the best planner/journal they can.