When we think of our lives, the years stretch out before us. It seems there will always be time.
But considering everything we want to do in areas such as career, family, friends, health and fitness, travel and our recreational pursuits, those years suddenly shrivel down to minutes, especially when we are in the few decades of our working lives.
If you consider that you’ll be in your prime working period from 25 to 65 (or an adult in control of your own life from about 20 to 80 or 90), suddenly each year seems much more important, one of just 40 or 60 with which we can accomplish our goals in life, whether they are career-, family- or otherwise-oriented.
That’s why living each year intentionally is so important.
Like many people, over the holidays, I set new goals for 2016. As a freelancer, I’m essentially running my own business, so, just as any company reviews last year’s metrics and sets new objectives, I did the same, only I did this for my entire life, as even full-time workers should.
While 2015 was great for me overall, I was exhausted by the end of it. In one five-month period, I took so many trips I was gone for over eight weeks — some of the travel was for leisure, but the rest for stories, fellowships, conferences, courses, and teaching, all while writing roughly 50 articles. Since I spent so much time away, my home was starting to look like a hoarder’s nest, with unread magazines and printed drafts of stories piling up amidst some dead plants.
Having covered career, productivity and personal finance for several years, I’ve improved in a number of areas — five years ago, I was working a non-journalism job I hated and had credit card and student loan debt, and now I live my dream life as a freelance journalist with no debt and plenty of savings. But my work is more variable now, so I can easily be knocked off balance. In 2015, I took on some new initiatives but backslid in other areas. Also, like anyone else, I plain procrastinated on some goals and flat out ignored important areas of my life.
Using what I’ve learned over the years covering personal finance and career, I’ve come up with a new plan for myself and 10 tips for you to get what you want out of 2016.
- Review your 2015.
Acknowledge the good and bad in career, family, money, health, friends, fun, and any other area important to you. What accomplishments are you proudest of, what habits did you master, and what techniques worked for you? On the flip side, what would you like to improve upon, where did you fall short, and what priorities languished? Why were you able to accomplish what you did, and why did you fail in other areas?
While I was proud of several work accomplishments, including this magazine feature, I spent too much of the year running from one thing to the next, leaving me less time and energy for activities like exercise that keep me feeling balanced. Not being home for long stretches, I also wasn’t cultivating relationships in the way I wanted. But most importantly, because I was focusing on the next deadline, I kept putting off important long-term goals. And considering that one of these will take up several of my 40 working years, I couldn’t wait to tackle it any longer.
- Set specific, measurable and time-bound goals.
Based on what you learned from last year, come up with new goals for 2016. What would be the next great step for each of last year’s accomplishments? For instance, if you ran a half-marathon in 2015, maybe try a full marathon now. And when you look at your failures, what can you try this year to hit your targets?
If you’re uncertain of where to go next, talk things over with a friend or loved one. A former coworker asked me to be her accountability buddy for 2016. At the start of our first meeting, I had not yet set my goals, but talking with her about some of the questions I was facing helped me formulate my priorities and a plan for reaching them within the hour.
When crafting your goals, make them specific and measurable and set a deadline or time frame on them. Instead of saying “I’m going to exercise more,” decide what type of exercise you will pursue, and how often you will do it per unit of time or what measurable goal you want to hit by a certain deadline — “I will run five miles three times a week,” or “I will run a marathon by year’s end.”
- Prioritize the goals without deadlines.
Now, highlight the objectives that don’t come with deadlines. Anything marked urgent will always get done, but you may have other goals — such as spending more time with your aging parents or working on that novel that no editor is currently demanding — that won’t get checked off unless you prioritize them yourself.
For me, I decided to make several non-urgent goals my top five priorities, including that one I had been putting off for years.
If you’re looking for strategies to use to accomplish your goals, pick up these tips for performing at your peak every day and check out these surefire ways to boost your productivity. If you feel that a huge chunk of your day is being frittered away on email, learn how to limit the time it takes up. And if you’re looking for tips on time management, read this expert’s strategies.
- Identify your excuses — and come up with mantras to overcome them.
My 2015 review revealed that often what held me back was my own mental framing. For instance, I felt I had no time to work on that big project, but I know I waste plenty of time on Facebook or, as Aziz Ansari might say, the millionth page of the worst book (the Internet). I decided to tackle that one project in 10-minute chunks every day. By the end of each week, I would have spent more than an hour on that project. I came up with a new mantra — “No work is more urgent than Project X” — to remind myself that in the grand scheme of my life, Project X is more important than any everyday article I might be writing.
When you look at dreams that you haven’t yet accomplished, determine what excuses led to those failures. How can you change your mindset so you feel inspired to tackle them?
- Get an accountability buddy or other system for logging your progress.
Knowing that I have to report back to somebody on my goals has already prompted me to check off small tasks for big projects that I’ve been putting off for years. I also installed a mobile app (Productive on iOS) on which I log small achievements, such as meditating, doing yoga, or spending 10 minutes on that big project. The satisfaction I get from checking these off gives me motivation to keep going.
- Make sure your financial habits support your goals.
How we spend our time takes us closer to or further away from our dreams, and the way we spend our money does the same. How did you manage your finances in 2015? Were your spending and saving in line with your goals and priorities? Or did they not support the life you want to lead?
If you’re looking for a quick, 10-step process for getting on the right track with spending, saving, debt and earning more, check out these tips. Also, make sure you’re not making these 13 money mistakes. If you want to make sure you’re on the right path for your stage in life, read this financial checklist.
If earning is a big priority for you, get inspiration from this list of 44 ways to make more money, and learn the 10 mistakes not to make when asking for a raise. If you have a lot of debt, use this plan to get out of it once and for all. If you need to pay down debt and contribute to retirement, read this guide on prioritizing between the two. If you’re considering grad school, figure out whether it makes financial sense for you. If you’re miserable in your job but feel trapped by the money, come up with a plan for getting out.
To further this feeling of a new start, I’ve been decluttering, which is another way to earn extra money. Since I got back from my last trip in November, I’ve given away six garbage bags full of stuff, and recycled many bags of old magazines and papers. Having more breathing space at home leaves me energy I would rather use for my work and personal life.
- Come up with a health or fitness plan that supports the lifestyle you want.
You’ll be better able to accomplish your goals with your body and mind in top working order. Figure out what health and fitness routine will keep you in optimal shape. I’ve started meditating using the popular Headspace app. The fact that it’s on my phone is already making it easier for me to stick to a practice I’ve been trying to cultivate for years.
My review of 2015 also made me acutely aware that by neglecting my body, I ended up having to spend more time and money to fix all the ailments that cropped up from working too much. I’ve already gotten back into my yoga routine and have more energy to get through my day.
- Make room for fun in your life.
Ultimately, the point of setting goals, making ourselves more productive and monitoring our finances is so that we can enjoy our lives. (Plus, a diversity of experiences gives the brain the nutrients it needs to function at its best.) I thought that my 2015 was too focused on work, and so I have more consciously prioritized relationships and hobbies. I’ve taken up ukulele and rock climbing and I’m already enjoying the feeling of stretching my mental and physical muscles.
- Acknowledge your victories.
Finally, celebrate it all. As I’ve said before, “what you focus your mind on grows bigger.” So bring more happiness into your life by thinking about positive events and not dwelling on negative ones that will soon be in the past. Creativity author Elizabeth Gilbert suggests writing down your happiest moment of the day. Writing a gratitude list also helps you appreciate big and small wonderful things in your life. Focusing on what goes right will give you the energy you need to breeze past your goals in 2016.
Laura Shin is the author of the Forbes eBook, The Millennial Game Plan: Career And Money Secrets For Today’s World and co-author of Money Hacks: Forbes Stories Of Superstar Savers.