About Those New Year’s Goals…

With 2019 fast approaching, I imagine I’m not the only one reviewing the last year and setting some new goals. I’ve been thinking a lot about goal-setting and reading different sources on the psychology of it. I want to share some insights that have changed the way I do things. These thoughts have helped me reach more goals, and more importantly, find more satisfaction in the pursuit of the goals as well as the fulfillment of them.

1. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.

I don’t know about you, but I get weary of the rhetoric out there, always screaming at us to choose “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” and to “Shoot for the moon because if you miss, at least you’ll land among the stars.” Yeah, I get it. We need goals worthy of us. We need big goals to inspire us to work hard toward them.

But I’ve come to believe that most of us are already great at setting big goals. We just don’t know how to be realistic about them. We are all familiar with setting big goals and the disappointment of not reaching them, or giving up after a short time. The best way to ensure you’ll give up quickly is to set an overwhelming goal.

So I want to suggest that you look at whatever goals you’re planning, and ask yourself whether you can scale them back. I guarantee it won’t make you work less hard. In fact, if you can realistically see yourself reaching a goal, you’ll work all the harder toward it. And if you beat your goal, or reach it much sooner than expected… you can just set another goal!

2. Everything is an experiment.

I went into 2018 with this as my mantra. The idea of everything being an experiment helped me adopt a mindset that I can try anything and it doesn’t matter if it works or not because after all, it’s an experiment. I’m looking to see what works, and the only way I can do that is to try different things.

One of my (laughable) goals this year was to have a “zero inbox” at the end of every work day. Ha! After one week, I knew it was an impossible goal. But I didn’t have to slap a big “F” on my forehead for failure—because it was an experiment! The experiment was a huge success: it allowed me to identify that this was a silly goal, and helped me to formulate a better one.

3. Incremental is magical.

Related to the idea of avoiding goals that are too big and overwhelming, this one is about understanding that our goals can be reached a tiny step at a time. It’s hard—we want to overhaul everything! But it can be effective.

I might look at my daily productivity and say, “I’m spending too much time on Facebook! That’s it—no more Facebook until after 8pm!” Well, if I’m currently checking in to Facebook every hour (don’t worry—I’m not), then I’m probably going to fail at that goal very quickly. But if I were to say, “I’m going to set a timer and limit myself to a ten-minute Facebook check-in every two hours,” that might be a place to start. Once that becomes comfortable, I could cut it back even more. Setting incremental goals can be a key to actually reaching the “big goals” we have.

4. Data is key.

I’m probably not the only person who sets the same goals every year in the area of health, diet, and weight. While I’ve made progress at various times in my life, and on different aspects of this goal, I never quite got there. I never reached that nirvana—a “permanent healthy lifestyle” in which I could effortlessly stay healthy and fit for the rest of my life.

But guess what? This year, I did. Well, I’m on my way anyway. I’m much closer than I’ve ever been in my life. The difference was in the things I wrote above—smaller goals, experimenting, and setting incremental goals. But the thing that has made the biggest difference has been collecting data.

What does this mean? It means trying new things, and keeping track of what happens when you try those things. Using the Facebook example above, I could write down the results of my new plan to check it only ten minutes every two hours. If I can’t seem to stick to it, I’d write down what happened. “Got sucked into a conversation about politics, spent 15 minutes responding.” If a couple weeks’ of data shows that happening multiple times, I’d know I need to address this stumbling block. Maybe I’d make a new plan: “No engaging on political posts until after the work day.”

You get the picture. I used data collecting to help me with my health goals, tracking everything I ate (on about 75% of the days in 2018), my exercise, my quality of sleep, my grams of sugar and protein, how much water I drank (and more). I’ve been able to identify what makes it harder for me to follow my good habits and what makes it easier; what makes me feel healthier and what doesn’t; what makes me feel more full and satisfied and what leaves me hungry. The data has changed everything for me.

5. If it doesn’t bring you joy, it won’t happen.

This might surprise you: my new approach to diet & health actually became fun. I’ve enjoyed it so much, I’m excited to continue the journey. The experimental mindset and the amazing insights that came from collecting data have made the whole process exciting. Yes, it brings me joy to eat healthy now!

And finally I realized: I wouldn’t be excited to continue if it wasn’t bringing me joy.

So whatever your goal is, I think you have to find some aspect of pursuing it that will make you happy. And it can’t be the result that you assume will make you happy. If I set a sales goal for the year as an agent, I know the happiness in hitting that number will be momentary at best. The joy needs to come in the process—the daily habits that are leading toward accomplishing the goal. For me, there is joy in doing the work with my clients that will lead to selling their book to a publisher. Focusing on the joy in the journey is what eventually (incrementally) gets me to my goal.

I recently started reading the book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done by Jon Acuff. While I’ve been following these five principles all throughout 2018, I realized that Jon’s book talks about all of it. I highly recommend this book if you’re setting goals for the new year!

What principles have you found helpful in setting and reaching goals?

Photo credit: Unsplash

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Michelle Aleckson on December 27, 2018 at 9:21 AM

    Love that idea of finding joy in the process! I’m also trying to use time blocks this year instead of a rigid schedule. I thrive when I have flexibility within set boundaries. We’ll see how this experiment goes! 😉

  2. Donna O'Shaughnessy on December 26, 2018 at 9:37 PM

    Principle number one: age fixes most things. What I thought was important at age 20 is now pretty silly. What vexed me at 35 is long forgotten. What challenged me at 50 is a real snap to conquer now at almost 60. And the joy thing? Right on.