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12 Goals: Define and Track Your Habits & Tasks (Step 3)

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Before starting with Step 3, you might first want to read the introduction, Step 1 & Step 2.

Twelve Goals (or 12 Goals) is a goal-setting program for beginners.  If you’ve never set goals before – or if you’ve tried and failed – Twelve Goals can help get you unstuck and on path to achievement.  There’s nothing magical or mystical about this process at all.  In fact, it’s downright boring and overly practical; you aren’t going to find any talk about magnetism, psychic powers, or the law of attraction.  What you’ll find is a systematic way to look at your personal goals over the course of a year, along with some step-by-step advice and accompanying tools to help you achieve them.

Twelve Goals is still very much a work in progress.  My hope is that the program will adapt and evolve over the course of 2010 based on feedback from you!  If you ever forget how to find these posts, they will be available at (or

Breaking Down Each Goal

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I find it fascinating that most people plan their vacations with better care than they plan their lives. Perhaps that is because escape is easier than change. – Jim Rohn

Twelve Goals is an annual plan you create for yourself.  A plan of inspiration, a plan of action, and a plan you can be accountable to.

By this point, you should have all twelve of your goals locked and loaded for the year.  It’ll probably be frustrating then to hear that even though they’re 99.9% committed, they can still change throughout the year.  How so?  By identifying what it will take to actually achieve them given your circumstances. 

In Step 2 you probably did a “squint test” or “t-shirt sized cost (i.e. Small, Medium, Large, X-Large) ” of feasibility.  Meaning: if you squinted hard enough you could probably see how a particular goal could be achieved in the month you assigned it to.  But guessing really isn’t good enough.  Sometimes you don’t know just how much work needs to happen in order to get something accomplished, and it’s easy to get sidetracked or delayed by unforeseen events.

This step is all about figuring out what it’s going to take.  It’s about getting real.  But it’s also about being agile and adapting your plan throughout the year as conditions change.

In project management, the approach of breaking down a project into smaller work items is called a work breakdown structure (or a work backlog).  As defined by Wikipedia, a work breakdown structure consists of "the end objective, successively subdividing it into manageable components in terms of size, duration, and responsibility which include all steps necessary to achieve the objective.”

In Twelve Goals parlance, this is identifying every task that needs to be checked off in order to accomplish your goal.

Sounds like a lot of work… and it can be.  But spending the time now to squabble with yourself about what it takes to make something happen is better than fighting yourself when you’ve hit a wall halfway through your second month.  There’s nothing more frustrating than assuming you know how to do something, just to find out you weren’t ready to begin with.  In other words, this step above everything else is about being honest with yourself about where you are, what you need to do, and what needs to happen around your goal to make it achievable.

Preparation is key.

Defining a work breakdown structure for a complex project can be harder than coming up with a task list for a single goal, but the intent is the same.  Your primary objective throughout this process is to learn.  Learn everything you can about the thing you’re going to accomplish so you have all the ammunition you’ll need when you need it.

Remember: your future self is lazier than you are right now.  Right now you have energy, you have positive intent, and you have that elusive feeling that you can conquer anything.  Use this vigor for the next few hours to lay out your plan for the year.  Because if you do it now, you’ll have something to refer to for the next twelve months.  No excuses.

Ultimately, each goal should have a series of tasks associated with it up-front.  Here are some recommendations for creating your task list for each goal:

  • Identify 100% of the work required for each goal as you see it today.  Go goal-by-goal and break it down into a series of tasks.  You need to identify 100% of the work as you see it right now.  Don’t assume someone else will do it for you (including your future self – remember: that person is lazy!)  Figure out exactly what needs to happen, in the right order, to accomplish what you’d like to accomplish.
  • Give each task a “day-I-will-complete-this” deadline within the month.  I hate to call this a “due date” because that implies you should wait until that day to do anything with it.  In reality, there are two dates for each task that are interesting: the day you think you’ll start, and the day you’ll think you’ll finish.  Managing that can get tedious however, so for now, identify your completion date and balance it against all your other tasks such that the date is actually achievable.
  • Make your task outcome focused and action oriented.  A task with a subject of “Chapter 1” isn’t outcome focused, and it’s not a task you can look to at a future date without prejudice.  “Write 2000 words in 3 hours towards Chapter 1 of my novel” is something you can work towards.  Assume that your future self is going to second guess your work, and is going to look for loopholes to get out of doing the work to begin with.  Don’t give him or her any outs.
  • Estimate how long each task will take and scope each task appropriately.  Think about this like planning any project – each task should be four hours or less – or even fewer if you don’t have four hour blocks to spend.  Generally speaking, if something takes more than 4 hours, you need to find a way to make it smaller or it’ll be vague to know where to start, or too overwhelming to get started at all.
  • Make sure the total time doesn’t exceed the time you have to spend.  If your monthly goal is to learn to play piano at an advanced level, you might find that the total time you have to spend towards your goal in a single month isn’t enough.  This is where the idea of compounding goals is useful.  Instead of trying to squeeze everything into a thirty day window, break up your goals across multiple months and each month, build on the month before.  You’ll find that being realistic during the planning phase will keep you from setting yourself up to fail throughout the year.
  • Call out any dependent tasks.  Some tasks will have dependencies on others being complete – or on something you’re expecting from someone else.  It’s important that you track this just as you would any other "waiting for" item so you are actively managing the things you need to get started prior to the start of the month.

And finally, the most important thing to keep in mind throughout the year:

  • Revisit your tasks for the next month prior to the 1st of that month.  This is where that agility comes into play.  If you were identifying everything you needed to do all year in December of the previous year and you didn’t have any flexibility in the process, you’d probably find that you aren’t as omniscient as you had hoped.  By using the planning phase to get everything out of your brain for each monthly goal, you’re doing yourself a service that will help you when that month comes around.  But the task list you’ll have at the start of that month will likely vary depending on prior successes and/or failures, by your current life circumstances, or by something as trivial as the weather or the amount of time you can spend on it.  This is why allowing yourself some flexibility to adjust your tasks throughout the year is key.

For example, in order to lose 5 pounds in February, you might have a task list that looks something like this:

  1. Sign-up for online fitness tracking at (by 2/1)
  2. Download grocery list from Men’s Health (by 2/1)
  3. Enroll in 24 Hour Fitness – setup automated billing (by 2/2)
  4. Add morning workouts to my calendar (by 2/3)
  5. Buy a digital scale that can track bodyfat (by 2/7)

And a few days before the end of January, you’d take a look at the task list again and determine if anything about it needs to change before you start.

Identifying One Habit to Change Each Month

Click for photo As I wrote in 15 Ways To Get a Habit To Stick Forever,”habits are the single most important ingredient to achieving real focus and real growth.”  This is proven in day-to-day life constantly, and habits have been shown in recent research to be vital to personal development.  Habits simply aren’t something you can ignore or put off if you want to make lasting change and significant progress toward your goals.

Here’s how we’ll approach identifying habits.  The first thing to do is to identify your “master habit” – the one thing you do that helps get you back on track with everything else (for me it’s daily exercise).  In Your Master Habit: Get One Thing Clicking, Watch Others Follow I’ve outlined four recommendations for finding and then implementing your master habit.  Remember that self-regulation builds on itself, and if you’re able to make progress with just one thing, you’ll find that you’ll end up making progress across the board.

Once you have your master habit identified, for each goal, you’ll need to identify the habits you’ll need to change or adopt in order to make achieving your goal possible.  As with anything else, it’s important not to go overboard with this and try to change too many things at once.  So for now just make a list of habits for each goal. 

For example, for our goal of losing 5 pounds in February, here are some habits you may write-down:

  • Wake-up daily at 6am
  • Get to the gym or run outside 4x weekly
  • Sleep at least seven hours each night
  • Always pack my gym bag the night before
  • Go grocery shopping every Saturday
  • Plan and cook my weekly meals on Sunday

And so on…

Each habit in the list may be important, but because of the propensity to try and do too much (we are human, after all) I’d recommend having no more than twelve total habit changes for the year, or one for each month.  If each of your goals requires habit changes that exceed your capacity for change then it’s likely that your goals are a little too ambitious and may need some tweaking.

This means boiling down your list of habits for each goal to a single “primary” habit, that when combined with your master habit makes the biggest positive difference to your month.  Remember: throughout the year, take it one step at a time and make sure you’re cementing the change, not just going through the motions.

So for our goal of losing 5 pounds in February, you might identify the following habit as the single most important one for you.

Primary Habit: Wake-up daily at 6am after at least seven hours of sleep each night

This doesn’t mean the other habits you’ve identified aren’t important, but this primary habit you’ve identified should have the highest chance of helping you achieve your goal.

Tip: Leo of Zen Habits has a great new site focused on picking six habits to change which complements Twelve Goals pretty well, check it out: 

Monthly Planning Rhythm

At the start of the year, you’ll have your vision, your twelve monthly goals, your per-goal task list, your master habit, and your twelve monthly primary habits identified and written down.  This is your plan.

Before the start of each month, you’ll do a check-in to validate your goal for that month and the corresponding task list and primary habit you identified at the start of the year.  If the plan needs tweaking, you’ll adjust your monthly plan.

Here’s what this rhythm looks like (below).  Again, remember, this is supposed to be fun!  You’re making choices that will define yourself for decades to come.  Just as compounding monthly goals helps you make more progress in a year, compounding your goals year over year means you’ll be an unstoppable machine.


12 Goals Monthly Rhythm

Checking It Off

The final step is simple.  It involves keeping yourself honest throughout the year 🙂

I’ve found that the best plans fall apart pretty quickly without accountability.  Accountability to yourself can be a tricky thing to simulate in order to benefit from this process, but there are trivial ways to keep yourself moving forward.

First off, I’ve found that daily progress tracking is more effective than weekly or monthly.  This is because tracking, in itself, is a habit that benefits from consistency.  The more you read and affirm your goals and habits, the more likely you are to be elated with progress, and disappointed with failure.

Instead of tracking everything every single day, I’ve also found that a single yes/no indicator each day is powerful yet easy enough to be effective.  This means that each day, probably at the end of the day, you’ll read your monthly goal, primary habit, and tasks for that month and check off that day if you feel you’ve been true to the spirit of the goal and made ~1/30th progress towards achieving it.

The key is to have as many checkboxes each month as you can – though striving for perfection (going 30 for 30) isn’t something you should worry about.  Read 11 Reasons Why Perfection is Overrated! if you struggle with this.  If you miss a day, or a few days in a row, just look at each new day as a chance to start fresh.

Tracking is easy and there are a number of ways to do this that we’ll cover in the next post on Tools.  For now, here’s what your month could look like (courtesy of Don’t Break the Chain – red equates to a “check” – a day that you’ve identified as positive progress):


Almost Finished!

You’ve come a long way if you’ve gotten this far.  In fact, you’ve already come further than 99.999% of the people in the world in terms of actively choosing who you want to be and how you’re going to contribute.  If you’ve been following step-by-step, you now have everything you need for the next year.  The final post in the series will be about software, websites, and/or things you can use in the real world to help out along the way.

Good luck!  And please do let me know if this series has been helpful in any way.

Continue to: Tools You Can Use ->

You can find all the Twelve Goals posts by clicking on the 12 Goals tag, subscribing to the RSS feed or email updates, or by following Refocuser on Twitter.

Written by Mike Torres

December 26th, 2009 at 4:16 pm

  • The work breakdown structure part of this article falls prey to a few of the Top 7 WBS Mistakes Project Managers Make.

    In the free report you’ll see that you should not include tasks in your WBS!

    Josh Nankivel

  • Thanks Josh – though to be clear, this isn’t *actually* a WBS. It’s a personal task list for achieving goals, so tasks are pretty relevant here.