How to set better goals for 2021

Merging lessons from habit building and team culture

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If you're like me, there are things you want to work on in 2021. According to popular wisdom, the best way to do this is to set a New Year's Resolution. Those could be:

  1. Lose 10lbs

  2. Get a promotion

  3. Eat more vegetables

On Jan 1st, I thought of my resolution: "Meditate daily." 🧘🏽‍♂️

I've been feeling restless and distracted recently, and I know meditation can help my mental state. On Jan 2nd, I started to reread one of my all-time favourite books, Atomic Habits by James Clear, to get me into the right headspace to take on this resolution.

But in reading, I realized something: goals don't create long-term change.

James advocates for micro-changes ("atomic habits") in your daily routines that help bring you closer to the lifestyle you want. He advocates for building a system that powers progress towards your goals. On the difference between the two:

"Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.

  • If you're a coach, your goal might be to win a championship. Your system is the way you recruit players, manage your assistant coaches and conduct practice."

This idea reminds me of a team’s culture. Teams often have goals they want to hit (ex. make $1M). A team's culture is the values, actions and beliefs that guide daily activities towards that goal. Culture is how people share feedback, make decisions and hire new employees. There is a whole body of knowledge on how leaders can improve their culture to achieve better results.

The question becomes: how can we make our New Year's resolutions more effective in creating long-term change? 

I believe the answer lies in combining knowledge of habit formation and building team culture.

Here's what I'm trying this year:

  1. 🔭 Zoom out from goals to values

  2. 🤔 Analyze the culture around a value

  3. ⏩ Build a culture of progress

Let’s give it a shot together! ☺️

🔭 Zoom out from goals to values

Goals are the outcomes we desire. They are often short term (<1 year) and involves taking a series of actions to achieve (a strategy). Here's what this may look like in practice:

These goals seem reasonable. But there are two big problems:

Firstly, success here is binary; you either lose 10lbs, or you fail. If you fail, you'll go back to your old habits. If you succeed, you're still likely to slip back into old habits right after you've hit the goal. Anchoring around outcome-based goals doesn’t set you up for success!

The second is that these types of goals are proxies for values. Values are the qualities that you deem important. Think of them as a compass to determine your direction in life. Examples of values are honesty, open-mindedness and commitment.

Living in alignment with your values can help you move towards a long-term Northstar - this is called a vision. A vision is the end destination that your values are pointing towards. 

It can be challenging to move directly towards your vision. This is why it's helpful to use values to steer you in the right direction (like a compass)!

How do we go from a resolution we have to a value we hold? Try the 3 Whys. From your goal, ask yourself, "Why does this matter?" 3x in a row. Give it a shot! Here's mine below.

  • Goal: Meditate once a week

  • WDTM: I want to feel calmer

  • WDTM: I want better focus

  • WDTM: I want to be present in everything I'm doing

From this, you may notice a value arise. For me, my desire for meditation is a proxy for presence in everything I'm doing. We can reframe the resolutions we had above to be more in line with the value we truly desire:

  • Lose 10lbs ➡ Become more confident.

  • Get a promotion ➡ Have more financial security.

  • Meditate daily ➡ Become more present.

Why is a value better than a goal?

  • Non-binary - A value is larger than a goal - you can always strive for more confidence, security or presence. This helps values avoid the downfalls of achieving (or failing to achieve) an outcome.

  • Long-term - Values can be nurtured over a lifetime. It encourages long-term thinking and building a sustainable culture.

  • Unique to you - Goals often reflect things we should do (ex. lose weight). Values are more unique to what you want to do. 

This year, let's anchor around a value instead of a goal.

🤔 Analyze your culture around your value

If your values are a direction, then we are taking actions to move towards or away from that direction every day.

These actions make up your culture towards that value. Culture is a collection of actions that relate to living out your values. Sometimes these actions may be in line with these values (going in the right direction), and other times, they may be at odds with our values (going in the wrong direction).

Just like a team’s culture, these actions are often unwritten rules of operating.

This is why the first step in building a better culture is to be aware of the current culture. An excellent place to start is to look at your selected value and identify all of the habits and actions that affect it. James Clear has a worksheet that I would recommend checking out! 

Here's the list of actions and habits that surround my value of presence:

We now have a better picture of the culture around our chosen value. You may choose to curb some of the negative actions on this list or invest in the positives. Either way, you have a better map of the options for living a life following your values.

⏩ Build a culture of progress

Rather than setting a single goal, I now have a list of cultural tweaks to move towards my values' direction.

Values are all about making steady progress. Progress is any change that moves you in a direction aligned with your values.

Which one of the tweaks should you focus on first? I recommend starting with the easiest ones. These are the "low-hanging fruit" that you can change that may have a big impact. Tweaking some of these will also help you build momentum.

In my list, I'm going to start with an easy fix that will have a big impact: spending less time on my phone.

When tweaking, it's tempting to go all or nothing. For example, I can say I want to spend 0 minutes on my phone every day. Drastic changes like this set you up for failure. The power of a value is that you can spread progress out over a longer time. This makes change more palatable.

For me, I'm going to reduce my screen time by 10% in January and then reevaluate on Feb 1st. If all goes well, I'll reduce screen time by another 10% in Feb.

Once you feel comfortable with one tweak, focus on improving another. This is a systematic approach that should spread well beyond 2021.

🎯 In summary:

In 2021, build a positive culture around your chosen value. You can do this in a few steps:

  1. Zoom out from your goals to identify your values 

  2. Become aware of the culture surrounding your value

  3. Choose elements of your culture to tweak. Please don't rush to fix all of them; this is a whole life's work!

I'm going to work on being more present, starting by cutting down my screen time. What are you working on this year?

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