As the end of the calendar year approaches, many people — myself included — are thinking about goals for the coming year and perhaps thinking a little about what they achieved in the past year. It’s certainly been a topic on my mind lately, as I’m not only thinking about the year past and the year ahead but the decade past and the decade ahead.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
First of all, the things I’m most proud of over the last decade — my relationship with my wife and my kids, my writing on The Simple Dollar, our financial state and a few other personal matters — were things that were mostly built on the back of consistent effort over a long period of time. Those things weren’t built in a day or a month. I didn’t build them with a sprint to the finish line. Rather, they were built up with consistent effort on almost a daily basis.
By my estimates, I wrote around 9 million words for The Simple Dollar and ancillary projects over the last decade, and at least some of it helped people. I’ve received feedback throughout the decade about how many, many different articles with different angles and approaches have reached people and helped improve their lives. That does not happen with a sprint. It happens with a daily effort to write stuff that helps people. I don’t always reach the highs that I’d like to reach, but I make the effort pretty much every single day, and without that effort, I wouldn’t have found so many ways to help people over those years.
I have a really good relationship with everyone in my immediate family. We have deep conversations all the time about all kinds of things. We all feel comfortable and safe with each other and love each other, and there is a strong sense that we all have each other’s backs at all times, even if there is some teasing amongst each other. You don’t build that in a day or a week. You build it with daily effort over a long period of time.
It’s true with our finances, too. Our financial state is far better now than it was 10 years ago, and it’s not because we have giant incomes, either. I’m a freelance writer and Sarah is a public school teacher — these aren’t high salary gigs. Yet we managed to improve our financial state quite a lot, even with three kids at home. How? Consistent daily effort over a long period of time.
There’s a theme here, and that theme is the value of daily effort above all else. If you adopt a viewpoint of looking at today as the most important day for your goals and your success is measured by whether you put forth real effort today and then you stick with that daily effort, you can change your life.
This doesn’t mean you need to kill yourself every day and put in an insane effort every day for the rest of your life. Not at all; that’s not sustainable. Rather, it means that you need to have a daily sustainable system in place that represents a natural step toward your big goal.
What does that look like?
Start with a meaningful, smart goal or two for this year (and beyond).
The first step in the process is figuring out what it is that you want to achieve. What direction do you want your life to go in? What do you want to change about yourself or your life this year? Furthermore, how does that fit into what you want for your life beyond that, in the coming decade and beyond?
I think most of us have a few things we want to achieve in life or improve about ourselves. For me, the biggest things I want to achieve are a healthy life for as long as possible, a calmer mind with a less persistent and anxious inner voice, a better understanding of the world, better communication and socializing skills and a few big side projects.
What would you like to change about yourself? What would you like to achieve in your life in the next year and/or the next decade? You don’t have to have specific answers. What’s more important, especially at first, are true answers. Hone in on the things that really mean something to you, and keep the number small.
Once you have two or three things, it’s important to translate those things into something specific and clear.
You want to get in better financial shape. What does that actually mean? Do you want to eliminate all of your debts? Do you want to build up a nice nest egg for retirement?
You want to be healthier. What does that actually mean? Does it mean eating a better diet? Does it mean becoming more fit?
Try to hone in on a picture of what you want things to look like a year from now or, even better, a decade from now. What does that look like? Are you debt-free? Are you at a normal weight? Are you actively playing with your kids or grandkids? Are you working at a better job?
What you’re attempting to do here is to transform a vague but deeply meaningful thing you want in life into a SMART goal. A SMART goal is one that’s specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-constrained, so let’s walk through what that means.
A “specific” goal is one where it’s very clear whether you’ve succeeded or not. Often, that means it’s measured by a number or a very clear “yes I did it” or “no I didn’t” observation.
A “measurable” goal is one where your progress is easy to see. Again, this often points toward a number of some kind.
An “actionable” goal means that the goal is centered around actions and choices you take, that success isn’t determined by others. “I will have the job of my dreams” isn’t an actionable goal, for example, because it requires someone else to offer that job to you. “I will build an extremely strong resume and network for the job of my dreams” is much more actionable.
A “realistic” goal means that it’s something you can actually pull off, even if it’s a stretch. I’m never going to play in the NBA, so playing in the NBA is not a realistic goal for me. However, if I was deeply passionate about basketball, having a job in the basketball world (coach, analyst, or something like that) would be realistic.
A “time-constrained” goal means that you have a deadline of some kind. Here, it’s either a year or a decade, so that’s easy.
You should aim to transform that vague but deeply meaningful dream into a SMART goal. For example, if your vague but deeply meaningful dream is that you want to lose weight, you might state that your goal is to achieve a normal BMI within 18 months and maintain that for the rest of the decade. Specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-constrained.
If your vague but deeply meaningful dream is to write a novel, make it your goal to have a good first draft done by the end of the year. Specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-constrained.
It is really important to note that the SMART goal is not the final step of where we’re going here, but it is a vital middle step. We’re just getting warmed up!
So, what’s next?
Focus on what you can do each and every day so that, if you did that, you’d get close to achieving that goal.
You have your SMART goal, which is great, but it doesn’t really tell you what you need to do every day to get there.
As I mentioned at the start of this, every big worthwhile thing I achieved over the last decade was due to taking little steps each and every day. I didn’t take on a huge effort every single day, but I did something meaningful every single day that was a step toward that goal.
Furthermore, I adopted the perspective that today is the only day that matters when it comes to achieving a big goal. What I do today toward my goals and dreams for the future is all that matters. Did I meaningfully move toward what I want for myself in the future?
You have your goal. The next step is to take that goal and identify something you can do each and every day that will move you to successfully achieving that goal. Ideally, it’s a very straightforward and clear thing you can do each and every day.
For example, let’s say your big goal is to get the first draft of a novel done this coming year. What do you need to do to get there? You need to think, clearly, but you also need to get a lot of words down on paper. Well, how long is your draft going to be? 150,000 words? Divide that by 365 days and you have 410 words. Since you’ll also be taking notes, move that up a little bit. Your goal, each and every day, is to write 600 words for that novel, whether it’s notes or actual writing in that first draft. Today, you write 600 words. Tomorrow, you write 600 words. If you do that every single day this year, you’ll likely be finishing up your draft in December.
Let’s say your big goal is to pay off your student loans this year. You still owe $18,000 on your student loans. To pay that off, you’re probably going to have to come up with about $19,000 in total payments this year with interest, right? Divide that by 365 days and you get $52 per day. Make that a nice round number. Your goal, each and every day, is to come up with $50 for your student loans without going into any other debt. How will you come up with $50 today? Tomorrow? The day after? Put yourself on a clock and set up a $350 automatic weekly transfer from checking to savings, so you know that money is going away each week. What are you doing today to keep that pace sustainable?
Let’s say your big goal is to lose 75 pounds this year. That means you’re aiming to lose about 1.5 pounds per week. You want to do this in a way that’s sustainable. Can you define a daily practice that you can stick with, day in and day out, that will get you there? Maybe you can adopt a simple rule like every single day, I’ll stick to a simple intermittent fasting rule like 18/6. (I’m not offering any dietary advice here, just an example of a simple rule to follow.) Or, maybe, every single day, I won’t drink any soda.
What if you want to become more fit? You need to do something every day to elevate your fitness. Every single day, I’m going to walk around the block, and I’ll keep going if I feel like it. Then, each month, I’ll re-evaluate that daily rule and see if I can improve it a little. That’s it. Maybe after a month you’ll feel like you can walk around the park, and by May you’ll feel like your daily walk can be down to the grocery store and back.
Do not — I repeat, do not — make that daily practice prohibitively difficult. If your daily practice is something that you’re already dreading or something that seems like it will be very difficult to pull off every day, it will probably fail. You are far better off going for a less aggressive goal with a daily step that you are confident you can actually pull off every day if you put your mind to it.
This leads right into another principle.
Achieving the daily step is what matters above all else, but that daily step may need revision.
Sometimes, when you start executing a daily rule like this, you’ll notice that it doesn’t quite turn out like you expect. Maybe you find that it’s way too hard and unsustainable for reasons you didn’t quite expect. Maybe, on the other hand, it turns out that the rule is quite easy and you can handle more. Maybe you realize that your daily step is making progress, but it’s not quite fast enough.
That’s why it is incredibly valuable to look at your rule again at least once a month. Is the daily thing you’re doing actually something you can sustain for a long while, ideally forever? Is the daily thing you’re doing beginning to produce results like you want to see and progress toward your goal?
It’s OK to revise that daily system after you’ve given it a few weeks and seen whether it works, what’s good about it, and what’s bad about it. I often figure that I’m going to revise my daily system once a month for the first few months and then probably every three months after that. That’s fine. That’s good.
What matters is that you’re taking meaningful action, each and every day, toward what you want in life.
What if I don’t have time or energy for this? That’s completely fine, but it means that the goal you’re aiming for isn’t a priority in your life — other things are a priority. What things are you doing right now in your life on a daily or near-daily basis do you consider to be lower priority than this? Do you browse social media every day? Do you watch television every day? Almost assuredly, those things are lower in priority than a goal that’s deeply meaningful for you. Cut back on those things and you’ll have time for your goal.
Your real “new year resolution” isn’t the big goal, but the daily system.
This is where it gets interesting. Remember that big SMART goal that you set up earlier? That’s… not actually your goal.
Your goal is to do that simple daily step each and every day this year. That’s it. That’s your system for success.
If you do that daily step each and every day this year, at the end of the year, you will be in a better place. You will either be where you want to be or much closer to it at the end of the year. You might not 100% achieve the original goal, but you’ll likely be very close and there’s a good chance you blow it out of the water.
What matters more than anything else about a big goal is that daily system. You execute on that one action or small set of actions or behavior each and every day and you’ll get to where you want to go.
In fact, I strongly recommend setting up a tracker for this. Just print out a single page for each of your goals, like one of these. On the top of that page, note what goal this page applies too. Don’t write your exact daily system on there — as I noted earlier, it’ll probably change.
Rather, you’re going to use that calendar to track that you executed your daily system each and every day. If you did it on January 1, cross off January 1. If you did it on January 2, cross off January 2. That’s it. (I personally like to black out the day entirely, so it looks like a black box.)
Eventually, you’ll have a streak going, and as you look at that streak, you won’t want it to end. That streak of days will start to gain power. When you see a full month blacked out, you are going to be really proud of yourself, and you’re also not going to want to break the chain.
What if it does break? That’s OK. Start a new one. Understand why it broke — it’s often an act of god — and remember that all that matters is nailing the execution today. Yesterday is yesterday. Today is what matters.
If you really want an annual goal, it should look like this: “Every day this year, I’m going to do this.” This should be a specific action that’s entirely up to you to control. Do that, every single day, and your life will get better in that area.
Here are what my current daily systems look like.
Right now, I have a handful of big things that I want to achieve over the next twelve to eighteen months. This has led me to a handful of daily systems that I’m doing my absolute best to follow. Here are six of them.
Each day, I will put aside for sale one item, with the proceeds going to early retirement. When I started really thinking about how many possessions I had, spread throughout our home and elsewhere, the number staggered me. I have also felt a strong urge to declutter for a while. I also really want to retire early. This kind of hits all three of those things at once, with one simple daily system. This doesn’t mean I won’t acquire new things, but I’m trying separately to be mindful of that.
Each day, I will practice all of my stretches, forms, one-steps, basic movements and basic calisthenics. This is my daily system for getting ready for my taekwondo black belt test. It’s also, honestly, a daily system for fitness. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to run through all of these, and I have a script on my phone that calls all of them out so that I can run through them with ease. I have two versions of that script — one with a lot of guidance and one with very little — and I alternate between the two. If I just go through that script each day, then that’s success.
Each day, I will read a challenging book for 45 to 60 minutes, then write down notes on the key things I learned. The book can be whatever I choose, as long as I feel like it challenges me in some way. I feel like I read a lot, but it often ends up being “comfort reading,” which for me means high fantasy novels. I want to intentionally push myself with stuff that’s challenging, not comforting, to improve my understanding of the world. The time range is because I actually view about 40 minutes to be the minimum, but I want some overage so I can finish a section or chapter and take some notes while still being done reliably in an hour.
Each day, I will meditate for twenty minutes. Meditation has been an incredibly powerful discovery for me over the past several years. I highly encourage people to read Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch (on how meditation helps with creativity) and 10% Happier by Dan Harris (on how meditation helps with anxiety) if you’re interested in this.
Each day, I will follow my intermittent fasting regimen. I spent a lot of time this year exploring intermittent fasting (basically only eating during a portion of the day, and fasting during the rest of it) and I found it quite successful, so I’m adopting what worked for me specifically as a daily system going forward with the goal of achieving and sticking to a normal weight for my height.
Each day, I will write 500 words on my next book. Enough said.
I have a couple of others, too, that touch on personal matters well outside the lines of this blog.
The point is this: daily systems can be a game-changer in almost every area of your life.
Here’s how you can get started.
What are your big goals in life? What do you really want to achieve in the coming year and the coming decade? Let that percolate in your mind for a while and see what rises to the top and really resonates with feeling for you. Don’t worry about honing it, just try to understand what really matters to you.
Once you’ve figured out one or two things that really, really matter to you that you want to change, turn those things into very clear goals that you can pull off in the next year or two. Make sure that, whatever it is, it’s specific and clear and actually achievable and has a deadline. This isn’t your real goal, but it’s a way to turn your dream from something vague into something you can really work with.
Next, think about a step you could take every day, starting right now, that would lead you toward getting close or achieving or even blowing away that big goal. Try to focus on a step that is almost entirely about your own action and your own personal choice and under your control. What is something you can do each day that is a clear step toward what you want to achieve?
Right there, you’ve got your daily system. Your goal, in truth, is to execute that system every day without fail. Give it a month, then re-evaluate and revise the system a little, and then review and revise every month after that. Don’t be afraid to dial back a little if it’s really hard to sustain, but also don’t be afraid to dial it up if you find it overly easy.
All you have to do is nail that one thing, day in and day out. Keep track of your progress in terms of your success in completing that daily step. Don’t even worry at all about the big overall goal except when you’re reviewing once a month. What matters is the daily step. Are you taking action today toward what you want in life? That’s what matters. Do that every day and you will get there.
Two books really inspired these ideas.
Before I go, I really need to give a nod to two books that have helped me work through this system-oriented approach in the last few years: Atomic Habits by James Clear and Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith. They were both life-changing books, among the most powerful ones I’ve read in the last decade.
Atomic Habits by James Clear focuses on the value of tiny repeatable habits and how they bring about large changes in your life. I strongly encourage you to read my summary of Atomic Habits.
Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith also covers small changes in your life, but focuses more on personal behavior rather than discrete action. It handles things that aren’t so easy to check off of a checklist, like how you act and how you handle emotions. I also strongly encourage you to read my summary of Triggers.
If you find the idea of achieving your financial and other life goals via a daily system to be interesting, those books are both incredibly powerful and well worth reading.
Good luck on whatever daily systems you set for yourself in the coming year!