It’s almost the High Holidays of Goal Setting: New Year’s Eve.
While I am not what anyone would call a master partier, and struggle greatly with staying up until midnight—seriously, we are the couple that ghosts at 12:05AM feeling very proud that we made it through the countdown and the kiss—I have always, always, always loved New Year’s.
What’s not to love about a fresh start and hope, right?!
Last year, I took the holiday season as time to reflect on my focus and priorities over the past year, and this year is no different. In 2017, I was hyper-focused on money—partially because of our goal to buy our house, and partially because I was making more of it through freelancing on the side of my full-time job. Last year, in 2018, I decided to intentionally shift my focus to health and fitness, because it was something that really got thrown out the window in the whirlwind that was 2017.
This post was going to be a detailed look at what I spent in service of that goal (jump to the bottom of the post for a short look at that overview) but instead, a sentence I wrote stopped me mid-thought as I realized that it’d be a much more useful thing to share.
I had written that my goal for 2018 was “health and fitness.” But as someone who is no stranger to goal-setting, and has set probably a zillion SMART goals in my time, I knew as soon as I wrote it that “health and fitness” wasn’t a goal—but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a key guide for my year or my spending.
Instead, I think it’s important to look at focus areas, goals, and tactics when you’re planning, because each of the three is an important part of the process.
This is what “health and fitness” was for me: a focus area for the year. Some people like to choose a word for the year, or a phrase, but for me, picking a key area of my life to focus on seems like the best way to make sure I pay attention to it, set goals around it, and measurably improve.
And the thing is, your focus area can radically shift from year to year, depending on where you are in your life. If you’re coming up on a big financial goal, or just starting to tackle your personal finance journey, money might be a focus area for your year! On the other hand, in some seasons—even if you’re a personal finance blogger!—it’ll take a back seat.
When you’re thinking about the year ahead, try to come up with one to three focus areas that you want to spend your year working on. That might be:
…or pretty much anything else you can think of. I say “one to three” because personally, my life runs best when I have one key area I’m focused on levelling up, and I keep the rest of my life on autopilot as much as possible. You might be able to tackle more than I can, but truly focusing on more than three things in a year? That’s likely too much to make meaningful change in all three.
And a small note in defence of autopilot: Autopilot can be a great and wonderful thing! My finances are largely on autopilot, because I have set up systems (and tools) that handle the details for me, so I can focus on other things.
Once you’ve chosen a focus area, then it’s time to set some goals for that area. Since this is a money blog, I’m going to assume you might have at least some money goals, so let’s say one of your focus areas is money.
Within that focus area, your goals might include…
- I will pay off $2,000 of debt by June 1st, 2019.
- I will have $1,000 in my emergency fund by September 1st, 2019.
- I will earn $100 a month from my side hustles by October 1st, 2019.
You can immediately tell that each goal is different than your focus area, because they’re specific, measurable, possibly attainable based on your financial situation, realistic and time-bound (aka you have a date in mind).
But while setting a goal and writing it down will drastically improve your chances of following through on it, goals on their own aren’t the end.
Once you’ve got your goals, it’s time to look at the tactics that can help you reach each one.
Here’s the thing about goals: if all you do is write them down once, yes you’re ahead of the game compared to people who don’t write them down, but you still don’t have a plan to help you get there.
That’s where tactics come in. For each goal you wrote down, one of the best things you can do while you’re still amped up about tackling the goal is brainstorm a list of all the things you could do to help you achieve it.
For example, let’s take the “I will pay off $2,000 of debt by June 1st, 2019” goal. To get there, you could look at tactics like:
- Track your spending to find places you could reduce spending to help pay off your debt
- Set an updated fun budget and stick to it
- Test out 3 new savings tools (roundup features, etc.) to see if they help find more money to pay off debt
- Research the debt snowball and avalanche to see which one makes the most sense
- Buy (or request at the library) a book about debt repayment
The key here is that you’re brainstorming a list of everything you could do—not necessarily everything you’re going to start doing tomorrow. This list will give you a place to start, or come back to, when you’re trying to figure out exactly how you’re going to get there.
Sidebar: Leading vs. Lagging Indicators
One thing that can be discouraging, depending on your goal, is that you might not always see a one-to-one correlation between your efforts and your results. Take investing, for instance. You might contribute $300 a month like clockwork, but depending on the market, you might end up with way more (or way less) than an additional $300 in your account at the end of the month.
That’s because tracking your total account balance is a lagging indicator of success. It happens after you’ve done the hard part, aka contributing money every month, and it’s not always going to behave in direct relation to the actions that are in your control.
So when you’re trying to stay motivated, whether it’s with investing or any other goal, make sure to track the stuff that’s within your control just as much as the stuff that isn’t. If you’re saving an emergency fund, and an emergency happens? You might not hit your “total amount saved” goal on your ideal timeline, but if you’re still contributing to it every two weeks like clockwork, you’re doing great.
And for the curious, my health-and-fitness spending
Altogether, I spent $3156.03 on health and fitness this year, not including food. This represents what I spent on the gym, gym clothes and shoes, fitness technology, a nutrition course, and working with a trainer, all of which were tactics I brainstormed to help me reach a defined goal. Did I reach that goal? Nope, not by a long shot. Am I still happy I spent the year focused on getting better in this area, and do I feel much healthier? Heck yes.
And the great part about tracking my spending is that I can easily look back on the year, know where that money went, and decide whether I’d spend it the same way knowing what I know now. (The other great part is that some of the things I bought, like my shoes and fitness tracker, will last me for at least another year.)
A worksheet, and a sign off for the year
If you’re starting to think about your focus for next year, and your goals (I totally am) I put together a quick printable worksheet you can use to work through your goals and tactics for your priorities next year. I say printable, because while I am all about that digital life, nothing forces you to actually think through and define things like writing on paper.
Plus, in my survey about how you work through your goals and tracking them, an overwhelming majority of you said that you still use pen and paper when it comes to goal setting. Same, my friends, same. (PS. If you have 60 seconds, the survey is still open and I’d love to hear from you!)
Download the Focus Area Worksheet
Grab a simple printable to help you outline your focus areas, goals, and tactics to start 2019 strong!
And with that, I am signing off for the year as I usually do around this time! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be spending time with family and friends, but I’ll also be scheming behind the scenes and following up directly with some people who took the survey to find out more about how I can help you set and hit your financial (and other!) goals next year.
Plus, if money is one of your focus areas for 2019 and you want a point in the right direction, I’m always around on Instagram, and the archives don’t sleep. (I do though, I love sleep.)
have you read Essentialism by Greg McKeown? This post sort of reminded me of that re: choosing one area of focus. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the idea that if you have too many priorities, you don’t really have any priorities at all. I have totally been guilty of tackling goal setting in this respect in the past. I think the template you laid out here makes a lot of sense – and will be super effective.
Enjoy the holiday season!
Great write-up! I like your comments about turning goals into actionable plans. My wife and I did a similar goal setting exercise over the holidays based on a very similar list of priority areas, being financial, intellectual, career/income, physical/health, family, social and other.
I’m hopeful that the 2019 goals can be turned into actual plans though, and not merely wishes that don’t go anywhere other than the page.
Hope you have a happy new year!