The end of the year is my favourite time of year because this is the time when I get to set new goals. I love reflecting on the past and planning for the future.

As the year comes to an end, I always kick off a similar process that I’ve adapted and refined to reflect on the past year and set goals for the upcoming year.

All you need to do the reflections and goals setting is a notebook and pen. If you’re not a fan of paper, I’ve used my phone and Evernote in the past. However, if you do opt for the digital path, I want to first mention that I find writing goals down and carrying them around with me tends to be powerful, and research supports this

So let’s get started, here’s exactly how I go through this process, starting with reflecting and moving on to goal setting right after.

Reflecting

I think it’s important to have a look back before you start planning. This way, you can get a feel for what went well, what could have gone better, and what didn’t happen at all that you’d like more of next year. The review is a part of my process that I’m still refining, and probably always will be.

The thing I find with reflecting on the year is that it always adds a layer of perspective that is very valuable to me. I may have thought that a year was particularly difficult, but when I reflect back I realize I also had some major accomplishments to celebrate as well. 

I start the review with a fresh page in my notebook by going through each of these questions.

  • How did the year go overall? 
  • What were my accomplishments and causes to celebrate this year?
  • What could have been improved?

My favourite of those questions is probably the list of accomplishments. I’ve been doing this for several years and it’s so nice to look back at all of the things I’ve achieved and can celebrate. It’s a really positive way to end the year. 

There are of course, almost endless questions that you can use as prompts to reflect on the past year. Here are a few additional questions I sometimes throw in: 

  • Was there a theme for this year that you can see in retrospect?
  • What was the highlight of the year?
  • What was a lowlight of the year?
  • What did you want to happen this year but didn’t?
  • What was the most positive unexpected thing to happen this year?
  • What would you do differently if you could do this year over?

I’ve also experimented with going through each of the first three questions related to separate themes. For example: How was my work this year? How was my personal life this year? How was my health this year? Etc.

Setting Goals

Now onto my favourite part. My systems for goals is one that I’ve refined over several years and I’m very happy with. 

I’ve long admired this framework for setting goals from Warren Buffet, where you write down 25 things you want to accomplish in your career, and from that pick the top five as the focus and put the other 20 on an “avoid at all costs” list.

Over the years, I’ve adopted this framework for my personal goals, with a few slight modifications, plus a focus on shorter-term goals.

Here are the four steps I go through to set goals every year:

1. Set 10 goals

To start, write down 10 goals you’d like to accomplish in the next year. If you could achieve everything you wanted, what would you put down here?

This section should take a few minutes but don’t force it. Presumably, the things that you’re most interested in accomplishing will pop into your head first.

Be very careful to distinguish between a goal and a task. A good way to remember this is that tasks describe how you spend your time, whereas goals are your results. For example, “get to inbox zero” is a task, whereas “follow a new email system for January” would be a goal. Here’s a whole blog post on the distinction between a task, a habit, and a goal

2. Categorize goals

On the list you’ve just created, go through and add a category next to the goal.

The categories I’ve been using recently are work, personal, self-improvement, and personal brand. Although, other categories I’ve used and that others I know have used include: finances, health, relationships, creativity, wellbeing, and fitness. I recommend no more than four categories to keep it simple. 

3. Choose top goals

This is the hard part. Just like in the Warren Buffet framework where he has the top five that he focuses on and the remaining goals go on an “avoid at all costs” list, you have to create the same.

My ratio is 10:3. So I have a list of 10 goals and I focus only on three of them.

I do this by choosing one goal per category that I have. If my tags are personal, professional, and fitness, I have one goal for each category. These will be my main priority for each category. I end up with my top goal for personal, my top goal for professional, and my top goal for finance.

I only focus on the top goals from here until I accomplish one and then I can switch to the next goal I’d like to tackle in that category.

4. Adjust goals

There’s a strong chance that some of your goals might change. Perhaps you’ve adjusted your priorities, or your circumstances might change and as a result, things needs to be adjusted to account for the fact that your life is constantly in motion.

I personally set and reset goals at the end of the year for the following year, and on my birthday because it lands in June. I also try to check in on my goals once a month. That’s not a huge ask, it means I look at the list once a month to see how I’m getting on. That’s only 12 checks all year, something I think we can all manage. During those checks, if something has changed in my life it’s a good time to make some adjustments. Maybe I’ve completed a goal and I can start on the next one, or maybe something has a changed and a goal isn’t relevant anymore.

It’s really up to you how you want to adjust each time to keep your goals fresh and top of mind.


And, that’s it! That’s exactly how I end my year and start a new one with fresh goals. I hope this system can be as useful to you as it has been to me! Please send me a tweet or comment if you have any thoughts or questions about this.

I wrote about this exact goal-setting system but applied to the Marketing team at Buffer over on the Open blog if you want to check it out.

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3 thoughts on “Setting Goals: The Four-Step Process I Use To Plan Every Year 

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