My Process for Setting Habit-Based Goals That Are Guaranteed to Help You Live a Phenomenal Year

Each year in December I revise and republish this post. Originally written in 2015, the core principles haven’t changed, but finer points have been clarified. Truth be told, I’ve relaxed how I personally go about setting goals for the year (I’ll be writing about that in 2019), but I think there is value in reviewing the comprehensive approach.  Be well, and Happy Holidays! 

Why I Set Goals Each Year 

Because it results in a better life. Because nothing I want, need, or desire just drops into my lap. Because if I want to live an awesome life, I need to follow a plan.

Awesome lives don’t just happen; they are carefully planned and executed.”

What gets written down, gets done. I used to haphazardly dream up resolutions for the new year but seldom designed a plan to reach them. By January 31 they were a distant memory…just like the ones from the previous year. Then I wondered why my life sucked so much.  😯 

Like anything in life, you’ll get out of this exactly what you put in. Just setting loosely defined goals that aren’t relevant to your daily life or that are unsupported by a plan to accomplish them is a total waste of time. If this is where you are, you’re better off waiting for the Tooth Fairy to give you what you want from life. Good luck with that.

I Take Goal Setting Seriously

The reason I take it seriously is that it works.  My life is exactly how I designed it. I’m not indiscriminately tossed about by the tides of circumstance nor do I wait for life to unfold. I plan, execute, evaluate, and adapt. It’s how I roll, kids.

But it’s not effortless. It requires work…like anything worthwhile in life. I took three full days to plan out what I want to accomplish in 2016. Can you dedicate three days to do the same?

If you can’t spend a weekend or a few days thinking and planning one year of your life, then you’re already behind the eight ball. It’s not going to plan itself.”

Every one of my life accomplishments is the result of setting goals:

  • It’s how, at the age of 18, I flew by myself to the United Kingdom and lived there for a time
  • It’s how I attended three colleges simultaneously in my senior year and got into medical school
  • It’s how I later became a college professor and Dean, and later a college President
  • It’s how I survived a sad time in my life and raised my youngest of four children as a single-parent
  • It’s how I write and publish books as well as run a consulting business

But it’s not just about material gain or checking off items from your bucket list. Setting goals and working to achieve them is how you create a life that you enjoy every single day.

I’ve just concluded my goal setting for 2016. It’s a process I’ll share with you in this post. The process is straightforward, effective, and time-consuming: it took me three full days to complete. Life design requires us to spend time where it will benefit us most. Each year, I dedicate a few days in December to doing this and each year I accomplish more than I did the year before. 

It took effort, clear thinking, and some planning. I used my Zen-Journal to do it and the photos below depict stages of that process. As a result, I have 17 specific and measurable goals to work on in 2016 and each one is exciting to think about.

My Goal Setting Process

Working pages from my Bullet Journal used in planning my goals for the year.
Working pages from my Zen-Journal used in planning my goals for the year.

Here’s my process from A to Z for setting goals that have continually served to enrich my life. If you choose to follow it, I urge you to dedicate time to think about what you decide. You can’t plan an entire year in an afternoon. OK, you can, but your year will be shitty. Trust me on that one.  🙄 

1. Habits Rule Everything

I have six habits that provide the foundation for each of my goals.  My habits include:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Being Kind
  • Healthy Choices
  • Embracing Play
  • Minimalism

Habits are the result of what we emphasize in our daily lives. Habits can be positive, like the ones above or they can be negative, like being a couch potato or eating convenience foods. They rule us and not the other way around. That’s why it’s important to emphasize habits that are positive and lead to positive outcomes.

2. Areas of Focus (AOF) 

I have six areas in life that I’m focusing on in 2016. Yours may differ and I would expect they would. We are, after all, two different people. 🙂  The AOFs are the main areas of your life. They can be the habits you want to incorporate into your life as I’ve done in this example. If your life was a three-ringed binder, AOFs would be the dividers or tabs. You can also think about them as categories or facets of your current life.

Areas of Focus may evolve from year to year. That’s OK, because so do you.”

In the past, I’ve used terms like Materials, Recreation, Education, Creativity, Professional, and Health to describe my AOFs. But in recent years I chose to make some of the AOFs more interesting, hence “Embracing Play’ combines Recreation and Professional; ‘Being Kind’ is a mix of Spiritual and Education. Since my kids are grown and raising their own families, ‘Family’ is no longer an AOF in the same way it used to be ~ evolution in action. 

Choosing your Areas of Focus is an important undertaking. Just think about what’s most important to you. Limit your AOFs to no more than six; four is best for the first time you follow this process.

3. Setting Goals for Each AOF

Brainstorming your goals is critical. The three goals you see listed under each AOF on my goal sheet are the result of brainstorming a much longer list of possibilities. After I did a brain dump of all possible goals for each AOF, I then chose no more than three. In my case, six AOFs would result in a maximum of 18 goals. That’s a lot, but I’ve been doing this a long time and even taught an entire class on goal setting during my years on academia. Try to limit your goals to two for each AOF. 

Here are five tips for choosing appropriate goals:

TIP: Only choose goals that you can incorporate into your current life. For example, if you’re a university student, a goal to start a million-dollar business isn’t going to be something you can most likely incorporate into your current life. 

TIP: Choose goals that support one or more of your habits. Let’s say you listed ‘Being Kind’ as a habit you want to work on in 2016 because you see too much anger in the world and your immediate environment. Potential goals might include smiling at five strangers on the subway or helping seniors by volunteering weekly at Senior Center for an hour or two. Working on the goal reinforces the habit and the habit provides the foundation for the goal.

TIP: You don’t have to work on every goal every day.  That’s a recipe for burnout if you’re not used to setting goals. If you are used to this or a similar process, you can work on some goals every day. For example, my goals of reading 24 books, meditating and doing yoga daily are perfect for incorporating on a daily basis. But traveling internationally isn’t. It’s good to have a mix of daily and weekly touch points with your goals.

TIP: Choose goals are really fun to achieve and that will really benefit you. When you love something, you want to spend time on it. So choose a goal that really lights you up and you’ll naturally want to work toward achieving it. 

TIP: Choose an accountability partner or a Goal Buddy. Achieving goals in life aren’t for wimps. We all need support. Goal buddies can provide that support. They can mean the difference between getting support in tough times and abandoning your goal altogether. You might not need a goal buddy for every goal, just the ones that are most likely to be challenging…like quitting smoking or doing ab crunches every day. 😉

More pages from my Bullet Journal used to explore my goals for 2016.
More pages from my Zen-Journal used to explore my goals for 2016.
I used successive pages to line up my goals with outcomes and emotional leverage guides.
I used successive pages in my Zen-Journal (I use one notebook for everything) to line up my goals with outcomes and emotional leverage guides.

4. Creating Outcomes and Emotional Leverage

How to use measurability and emotion to achieve your goals. Key to making goals measurable and relevant is the use of anticipated outcomes and emotional leverage points.  Anticipated outcomes are expressed in short statements (or longer ones if you prefer) that will set a metric for successfully achieving the goal.  Emotional Leverage points are critical as they provide the Why that supports the What

If your ‘why’ is emotionally important, the ‘what’ will take care of itself.”

Make your outcomes and leverage points personally meaningful. If you spend the required time to make these very personal, you’ll be internally motivated to work towards achieving each of your goals. That’s my totally secret sauce, by the way. Shh…don’t tell anyone!

5. Pulling It All Together with New Routines

I don’t see anything wrong with a routine as long as you enjoy it and it doesn’t exert a negative effect on you or others. In fact, achieving your goals for the year demands that you look at and alter your routines to incorporate the steps you’ll be taking to achieve each goal.  

For example, a goal of reading 24 books this year needs daily attention and so I’ll read for approximately two hours each day. I love reading so it will seem effortless. On the other hand, traveling internationally isn’t something that demands daily attention…perhaps weekly attention is all it will need.

6. Assessing Your Progress and Adapting to New Realities

When you’re driving a car, you check in with your speedometer every so often to make certain you’re not speeding. You also check your fuel gauge to make certain you don’t run out on some desolate stretch of highway. Similarly, it’s a good idea to check on the progress you’re making toward meeting your goals. You can accomplish this using your Bullet Journal or notebook.

Assessing progress on your goals is no different. Rarely, but it happens, you’ll start work toward one goal and then halfway through the process, the goal becomes irrelevant. For example, if your goal was to buy a house by the end of the year and then your job transfers you to a new state or country, then your goal might become irrelevant. That’s fine. Just move on and adapt to the changing reality.

Sharing Your Goals

Sharing my goals? Are you nuts? These things are private!”

Sharing my goals in this manner are an important part of my entire process. It sets it all in motion, so to speak. It creates the ultimate accountability. You don’t have to have a website that displays them to the world like I do, however sharing your goals with a trusted friend or significant other is a good idea. It allows you to get feedback and encouragement…depending on whom you choose. 

Choose the right accountability partner and chose your own rules. When you ask someone to be your accountability partner, you get the set the rules for accountability. Invite someone you trust to partner with you and give you feedback. Feedback isn’t about being critical, but supportive. Ideally, choose someone that also chooses you to be theirs.

Good luck! Set some goals and make it yours! 😎 

By Baz

writer | coach | practical buddhist


  1. Barry,

    The idea of setting goals is not new, but I appreciate the framework you’ve applied to it. I’m wondering if you’d consider going more deeply into how you’ve chosen or arrived at these habits. I tried to search the blog archives to see if I just missed something but don’t see the word habit listed anywhere else in a title and I did a Google site search and don’t see the topic covered anywhere. The reason I ask is because your habits are phrased in much broader terms than I typically personally associate with habits and I’d like to know if these are new habits you’re cultivating or existing habits you’re trying to grow better at maintaining; are the words here keywords that tie back to sets of habits; or am I over thinking? Those are just a few of my questions but I’m really struggling with the role of habits in the overall post yet it seems critical and the link just isn’t clear to me.

  2. Hi Kara – Thanks for asking and for commenting. You’re correct in stating that I haven’t written about the role habits play in my journey. But I’ll see if I can answer your questions in this response.

    For me, habits are as ever present as my reflection in the morning mirror. And like that reflection -with my hair sticking up in all directions- I can either sheepishly own it or just laugh and look away. I do both often. Habits, in my experience, are things we repeatedly do or processes we repeatedly engage in. Nothing new here, either…except that this year I wanted my existing habits to simultaneously form the basis of each of my goals and, in turn, be reinforced as I work toward achieving each one. I see it as a win-win.

    For example, I see making Healthy Choices as very beneficial overall and foundational for my goals under the Health & Vitality area. The habit simultaneously provided a foundation for each goal and is reinforced by work directed toward achieving them. As far as the terms I used for the habits, Fitness seemed a little boring whereas Healthy Choices sounded more interesting; Likewise Embracing Play sounded more open and accepting than simply Fun. Goal setting can be a somewhat dry topic and experience, so I took some liberty to spice it up. 🙂

    There is some historical experience with habits that may have played a role in how I approach habits and their integration into my plan for the year. I’ve spent time with Leo Babauta of, both in person and reading his wonderful books, and he’s a huge advocate of making small changes to affect big gains, especially where habits are concerned. I’ve learned a great deal from mentors like Leo and others over the years and I’m certain I’ve soaked up a lot of their wisdom in the process; Perhaps now I’ll be putting more of it into practice.

    I hope this sheds a bit more light on the topic. 🙂

  3. Could you discuss the difference between your Habits and your Areas of Focus? It seems that they’re one and the same. I would expect habits to be “ingrained” (fully or not) actions that *serve* AOFs, sort of automatized skills that work to accomplish goals within AOFs.

    I’m working on a comprehensive collection of what I call Values (akin to your AOFs), Virtues (somewhat like your Habits, though more abstract), and Skills (abilities which may or not be habits). I won’t go into detail here because it would be too long and the process is still in flux, but I’m trying to draw out from this post what could contribute to what I’m doing.


  4. Certainly, Michael. I’ll do my best to further explain my thinking.

    AOFs: The metaphor that might helpful is that of a gemstone. I view my life in terms of a multifaceted gemstone. In years past I’ve not varied these and focused on abstract areas such as professional/education/health, recreation, materials, and spiritual. They terms grew stale and so this year the AOFs are more creative and , to some degree, overlapping. Getting back to the gemstone metaphor, the AOFs I listed on my goal sheet are the six reimagined facets of my life that will receive focused attention this year. Next year, they could change depending on how I feel and how they worked in 2016.

    Habits: I want to in the habit of being kind, thinking critically, making healthy choices, embracing opportunities to play, and practicing minimalism. I see habits as the formative stuff of character. That’s why I feel that my habits set the tone for the entire goal setting process. They form the foundation of everything I hope to achieve by the end of the year. At year’s end, hopefully I have reinforced these habits in the process and they’ve sculpted a bit more of my character.

    In December 2016 I want to scan my goals sheet’s first column from top to bottom and hopefully see that I’ve accomplished each of these goals or have at least made major progress towards meeting them. If the goals morph along the way, so be it…I guess that’s part of the evolving nature of life. I’ll reevaluate each goals accordingly at the time.

    Caveat: Of course, none of this is set in stone. I’m interested in how your system is structured as well. Perhaps you’ll share when the time is right. You could have a guest post spot if you wish.


  5. Thanks! I get what you’re doing and, in broad, it aligns with what I’m doing. I wondered, though, why you listed the six Habits but not an explicit list of AOFs. Then you stated that, for example, “Embracing Play” is an AOF while it’s also listed as a Habit. That’s where my confusion arises.

    I’d be happy to write a guest post – thanks for offering! I’ll let you know when I’ve finished working on my “system.”

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your goal making process. I’m looking forward to working on my own goals for 2016 using your method. Step 4 ‘s outcomes and emotional leverage is key and something I haven’t done before when making goals.

    I’m a Bullet Journal newbie and your posts have been a great help in thinking about how I’d like to use my own notebook. Flexibility is definitely the biggest plus for me. And the bullet journal structure for tracking all the info in the notebook is genius. I’m going to be taking your advice and using just one notebook for EVERYTHING. Using different notebooks in the past made me feel as if I was fragmenting myself and too many notebooks is exhausting, simply put. 🙂

    Thank you again and best wishes for the festive season to you. 🙂

  7. Hi Lisa – I’m so glad the information has been beneficial to you and your progress with Bullet Journal. No one’s Bullet Journal experience is the same and I encourage you to make it your own. Identify what works and run with it. 🙂

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