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12 Goals: Set Your Monthly Goals (Step 2)

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

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

Getting Ready

Click for photo You have your vision.  Now it’s time to formulate (and document) your monthly goals for the coming year. While this may sound easy or even uninspiring, it’s actually quite the opposite.  It’s hard and it will take more time than you think.  But that time is well spent, both in terms of the outcome (a set of clear goals to work against) as well as the inspiration it can immediately provide.

Remember, goals help form the building blocks for positive emotions and subjective happiness with life.  So while there’s obvious benefit in having goals soley as virtual signposts for achievement, there’s also a residual sort of “under the covers” benefit of enhanced well-being – a deep well-being that can be long-lasting.  If you’re setting, working towards, and achieving goals you’re more likely to find flow regularly.

Now, it can be pretty difficult to sit and write up your twelve goals in twelve minutes and be finished.  You should be prepared to take your time, ensuring that the goals you’re creating are the “right” goals for this time in your life given all your circumstances.  I generally take a phased approach and assume my goals are going to be in flux for a couple months before I lock on my annual plan. 

Here’s one way you can do this:

  • A few months in advance of your new year, start keeping a running list of potential goals in a notebook.  Have some targeted brainstorm sessions where you generate your “300% list” – or all the things you could accomplish in the next year if you have to the time.  If you haven’t been doing this already for the next year, you can certainly catch-up with a little extra legwork provided you’re focused on it.
  • A few weeks in advance of your new year (for 2010, this is now), you’re going to want to “get real” with this list, validating your current goal list with your vision and their feasibility.  This means getting your total goal count down to twelve, one for each month of the year.
  • If there’s a particular goal or two that you’re anxious about, it can be useful to “try before you buy” for a few weeks.  In other words, give the goal a shot prior to committing to it for next year.  This is particularly useful for goals that involve a fundamental change in your schedule (i.e. a 5pm biking class a few miles from your office) since they can be the first ones to go.

Assuming you currently have a blank slate, let’s get going.

Starting with Virtues, Categories, and Attributes

Before getting started on documenting your exact goals for the year, one thing you should do is revisit your vision.  Your goals should flow from the ultimate vision you have for yourself, so if you need to modify your vision before you start, you should.  Your vision should be accurate and speak to who you are right now, not who you were a month or a year ago.

Once your vision is up-to-date, grab a pen & paper (or a keyboard & mouse) and start with the “ultimate brainstorm”, taking as long as you need to exhaust your mind of all possibilities for the year.  This is how you’ll generate your 300% list.  Again, it may be best to do this in several sessions a few months in advance, but you should be confident that you can start this at any time. Realize that this isn’t your list of goals, this is your list of possible goals to choose from.  Because it’s not yet “real”, don’t constrain yourself at all – the sky’s the limit!

If you’re having trouble getting started, I’ve found that starting with virtues, categories, and finally attributes can be helpful. 

A virtue is an “admirable quality” you aspire to have – so if you look at virtues and consider what it’ll take to improve upon them, you may be able to generate a set of meaningful goals. 

Here are ten virtues I’ve found helpful over the years (not coincidentally they roughly map to categories on Refocuser):

    1. Courageous.  Overcoming fear and “false expectations appearing real”.
    2. Present.  The right time-perspective; focusing on the present over past/future most of the time.
    3. Active.  Strength training, cardio, yoga, or any other thing to get your heart beating regularly.
    4. Efficient.  Making the most of your time each and every day; focusing on important things.
    5. Nourished.  Keeping your body and mind fueled with the best food, vitamins, and supplements.
    6. Alert.  Prioritizing sleep, meditation, active rest, and downtime.
    7. Determined.  Being goal-oriented and focused on constant improvement.
    8. Connected.  Spending time with the people that matter most to you.
    9. Purposeful.  Living a meaningful life; working towards something bigger than yourself
    10. Positive.  Banishing negative thought; finding the light in every thing and every one.

Once you’ve exhausted all virtues, it’s time to level-up and look at broad categories of goals.  Each person will have a different approach to each category, and people may interpret what they mean in vastly different ways.  But they’re all important – it should be difficult to look at the following categories without coming up with a bunch of potential goals!

Here are seven categories to explore:

    1. Mind.  Learning, teaching, and challenging yourself intellectually.
    2. Body.  Exercise, nutrition, supplementation, and generally being active.
    3. Family and Friends. Fostering and growing your most important relationships.
    4. Spiritual.  Religious and/or spiritual needs; how you connect to the source.
    5. Professional.  Making a living; progressing or advancing at your pace.
    6. Financial.  Savings, earnings, investments (tip: what you have, not what you make).
    7. Hobbies and Passions.  Making time for personal things that help you feel alive.

Once you’ve worked through virtues and categories, it’s time to move on to attributes.  These are traits that each of your goals should have in order to be effective.  This list of twelve attributes has been cross-posted from 12 Ways to Make Your Goals Smarter, one of the first posts related to the Twelve Goals concept on Refocuser.

Here are twelve attributes you can use to refine the effectiveness of your goals:

  1. Holistic.  Each goal must fit like a puzzle piece with all other goals.  If your goals aren’t holistically aligned, you’ll quickly find that you’re working in conflict with yourself.  As an example, if one of your goals is to spend more time with your family, and another is to start a business in another state, you’ll find yourself at odds.  Your goals need to work together or the whole thing could go up in smoke.
  2. Value driven.  Your goals need to speak to who you are at the core.  This means you need to know yourself and understand what drives you.  For example, if you’re someone who lives to spend time with your grandchildren, it’s important that your goals reflect that joy.  If your goals reflected someone else’s values or society’s at large (material wealth based on social comparison) and not your own, you may find yourself chasing down the wrong thing at the expense of what really makes you tick.
  3. Personal.  Are you someone who likes to spend the majority of time with lots of other people, or do you like to spend your time alone or with a small close-knit group?  Are you someone who likes things to be predictable or someone who thrives on chaos?  These aren’t small considerations when it comes to setting goals.  You want to make sure you know under which circumstances you’ll thrive best, otherwise you’ll end up with a goal you don’t even want to look at.  One fun evaluation of this is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – derive goals from your personality type and have a better shot at success.
  4. Fresh.  Setting goals is not something rigid and unbending, it’s actually a very fluid process.  If you’re only setting goals every few years, and only looking at them annually, there’s a pretty good chance your goals don’t align with your current reality.  That’s a sure way to ignore them.  Instead, your goals need to be fresh and adjusted on a semi-regular basis.  My own timeframe is annually – with monthly check-ins and readjustments.  What’s yours?
  5. Scoped.  Only you know how many goals you should have in order to feel balanced.  Too many goals and you can become crushed by the weight of them.  Too few and you’re failing to realize your full potential.  This may take some adjustment, and it may take years to find the right rhythm, but sooner or later you’ll find the scope of goals most appropriate for you.  I’ve had as few as five and as many as twenty for the year – each year is also somewhat different depending on the variables at play.  [Note: In the context of the Twelve Goals program, your goals should be big enough and small enough.  An individual goal shouldn’t be something you can do in an hour – that’s a task – but if it takes you 2 years, it’s too big for this program.  We’re scoping goals to months, not hours or years.]
  6. Habit forming.  Goals that are habit forming are far more powerful than goals that are solely about the outcome.  For instance, if you’d like to get a 5% pay increase, the best way to make that happen is to break down your behavior and get the right habits in place to enact positive change.  Don’t focus on the increase in pay, that’s just a byproduct of the success you’ve created.  The increase in pay may (or may not be) an indirect result, but the more lasting and important change is in your day-to-day approach.  Habits are the building blocks of goals.
  7. Present tense. “By February, I’d like to buy my first home” isn’t a present tense goal.  “I’m a homeowner and have found and purchased my first home” is.  Trick yourself into believing you’ve already accomplished your goal.  By reaffirming this with yourself with each review, you’ll find that your goals come more easily.  I’m not talking about some mystical “Law of Attraction” – I’m talking about proactive reinforcement and implicit influence of your self.
  8. Positive.  Studies have shown that people are more apt to achieve “approach” goals vs. “avoidance” goals, so your goals should be positive in nature.  In other words, make your goals about enablement and the things you’re going to do, not the things you don’t want to do.  If you want to quit smoking, you want your goal to be about improving your health or setting the right example for your children – not constantly calling attention to the thing you’re depriving yourself of.  “Stop taking daily cigarette breaks” is tough to rally behind, but “Improve my health and overall well-being and show my kids how to live a healthy life” is motivating.
  9. Challenge/skill balanced.  Sound familiar?  That’s right – this is a core component of Flow.  You want to have a goal that take you closer to the Flow state and not goals that make you bored, overwhelmed, or otherwise apathetic.  The key is to find the right balance between the challenge involved, and the skill you’re developing to address that challenge.  From Csikszentmihalyi’s Wikipedia entry: “If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.”
  10. Want-to.  A goal can quickly degrade to perceived work if it feels like an imperative.  Yes, there are things you have to do in life, but your goals – in order to really work – have to be things you actually want to do.  The process of setting your goals alone can open your eyes to how many things you do on a regular basis that aren’t things you actually want to do.  And even if some of your goals are have-to goals, you should figure out how best to phrase them as want-to goals.  For example, you have to go to work in order to get paid.  But you want to close 10 sales/week in order to be at the top of the sales force for the year.  And if you don’t want it at all, maybe it’s time to pull out your copy of What Color is Your Parachute and change something bigger.
  11. Lasting.  Goals that are subject to hedonic adaptation aren’t lasting enough to focus on, while goals that have long-term value can make a serious positive difference in your life.  For example, buying a brand new $50,000 car may be a great goal – but research has shown that after some time (shorter than most of us think) we adapt to changes in our circumstances, returning our level of happiness back to where it started.  The best goals are the ones that compound on themselves – similar to compound interest in your retirement account – and “keep on giving” long after they’ve been accomplished.  For instance, learning a new language or skill, spending time with friends and family, or organizing your life are all more impactful long-term than buying a new gadget (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with buying gadgets!).
  12. Shared.  Most of us aren’t an island – we have life partners, spouses, kids, close friends, pets, and imaginary friends.  While it may seem that goal-setting is an isolated experience, it shouldn’t be.  The things you decide to commit yourself to are, in some cases, just as important to the people around you as they are to you.  And (to speak in project management terms): you need to get buy-in from the stakeholders before making any commitment.

Picking Twelve!

Now it’s time to “narrow the funnel”, taking your 300% list and whittling it down to just twelve, one for each month of the year.  This is going to be challenging, primarily because you’ll feel like you should keep them all on the list even though you know it’s not possible to actually achieve them all.

But without focus, this whole process falls apart!

Cutting goals can be the hardest part of this entire program.  This is partially due to the fact that since you’ve already written the goal down, some part of your consciousness has already pre-committed to it.  Breaking up with your most cherished goals can be hard to do, but in order to make progress against the most important goals, you need to focus on twelve goals and twelve only.

In order to go from 300% (everything you could possibly do) to twelve (the things you will do), try asking yourself these questions:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how badly do I want to achieve this goal?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how achievable is this goal this year?
  • In order to achieve this goal, do I need to achieve other goals first?
  • How much will my life change if I achieve this goal?
  • How much will my life change if I don’t achieve this goal?
  • Can these goals be compounded on top of each other to lead to something bigger?
  • Which categories and virtues are most important this year?
  • Does this goal meet all twelve attributes?

The answers to each question should be able to narrow the funnel further in your quest to get to the “final twelve”.  Keep iterating through the questions until you’re able to make the hard trade-offs; choosing specific goals to keep and jettisoning the rest to oblivion.  Or, maybe just to next year 🙂

Tip: For the goals you postpone to future years, it’s still helpful to keep them in a list that you can refer to, and even add to over time.  This approach is similar to the Someday/Maybe list in Getting Things Done.  It can be curative just to know that you’re not “losing” all of your aspirations, you’re just purposely ignoring them for the time being.  The idea that they could come back in future years can relax your mind for now and help you focus on the ones you’ve decided to commit to.

Making Goals Visual

Once you have your twelve goals, we’re going to put the icing on the cake with imagery for each goal.  Imagery has been shown to be more effective than words alone in terms of getting something to “stick” in your mind, so it goes without saying then that using it for your goals is critical.

Imagery can help awake hidden emotions and unlock feelings about your goals – and more practically, it makes it easier to quickly review and affirm your goals throughout the year.

What does this mean?  This means you need to pick imagery that reminds you of the goal at a glance.  Find imagery that’s both inspiring and meaningful.  And similar to the goals themselves, make sure the imagery isn’t reinforcing a negative (i.e. a picture of a homeless shelter as an indicator of what could happen!) but instead is reinforcing a positive.

Click for photo 

Here are some places to look for good goal images:

Putting it Together

Now that you have your twelve goals and your imagery, you can place them in a basic table, imagery and all.  This table may be in a notebook or in an Excel document; it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you have it and that’s it available when you need it.

January I’ve lost 5 pounds on the scale Click for photo
February I’ve learned how to use my new camera + took 1000 test pictures Click for photo
March I have $2,000 in my Savings account Click for photo

Always have your goals readily available.  You could paste them to your bathroom mirror, keep them on your bedside table, or make them your computer’s wallpaper.  I keep mine in an Evernote notebook that’s available on all of my computers and from my mobile phone.

Congratulations for getting this far!  Creating your monthly goals is step 2.  Continue to: Define and Track your Habits & Tasks (Step 3) ->

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 21st, 2009 at 3:20 pm

  • Kikipix

    Love your site, but I do have a question. I like the concept of breaking down your goals on a monthly basis. But for example, with reference to the table of goals above: January – lost 5 pounds, February – learned to use new camera. What if I wished to lose another 5 pounds in February AS WELL as learn how to use the camera? Most of my goals are not things I can neatly fit into one month. Sure, I can break them up in chunks, but then I would have multiple (smaller) goals each month which kind of defeats the point of a 12-goal program. How do you resolve this?

    • Jack

      This was EXACTLY my thought too. I would like to hear the answer to this question as well…