7 Rules For Setting Goals For 2021

goal setting

Do you have goals for 2021 that you want to achieve?  If so, you’re in the right place.

You see … the most important part of goal achievement is the work you do upfront when you set those goals.  Like following a recipe before you bake a cake, you need a road map the leads you where you want to go.

If you follow these 7 rules for goal setting (T-R-I-M-A-R-I), you will be half way to achieving what you want in 2021. Not only that, at times it will be so effortless that it will feel as though you’re cheating.

However, the work you do upfront when you set those goals is anything but easy.  So if you’re serious about achieving your goals for 2021, read below and follow these proven rules for goal-setting.

Rule #1 (Time): Take 30 Days To Set Your Goals

When you sit down to write your goals for 2021, the first thing to keep in mind is not to feel the need to finalize your goals in one fell swoop.  Developing goals that are meaningful to you (financial goals or otherwise) requires time and fine-tuning.  The first mistake is to believe you can finish writing your goals for the next 12 months in just 30 minutes or an hour.

“He who has a why can bear almost any how.”  

-Frederick Nietzsche

This wisdom in this Nietzsche quote is vitally important to this first principle of taking time to write your goals.  The reason is because achieving goals will require sacrifice, hard work, and probably a some discomfort.  In order to withstand these challenges and have a chance at achieving your goals, you need to make sure your “why” question is satisfactorily answered.  

Spend 30 Days On Goals

But you should allow yourself more than one afternoon or a few hours to write your goals.  In fact, I usually start working on my goals in late november and don’t finish them until late January or February.  

Giving yourself plenty of time to write goals might seem like a small point, but it’s a critical part of setting goals that you will realistically achieve.  For most people, it’s unrealistic that you can pinpoint exactly what you want and why you want it in only a few minutes.  

Giving yourself at least 30 days to finish writing your goals for 2021 is vitally important so your brain and soul has time to reflect on your life and where you want to drive it both in the short term (this coming year) and the long term (this decade and beyond).

Establish Your “Why”

Your mind needs that time to let these big questions “marinate”.  You need time to reject or confirm what you believe is important to you in your life.  It’s often a great idea to take one pass your goals and write down a quick rough draft of what you think your goals are for this year.  

Then try to spend a few minutes each night before you fall asleep re-reading your rough draft for you goals.  Ask yourself questions like: 

  • “why is this important to me?”
  • “what would it mean for me if I achieve this goal in 2021?”
  • “is there a deeper underlying goal beneath the surface that is perhaps more important?”
  • “how disappointed would I be if I didn’t achieve this goal this year?”

After you repeatedly ask yourself questions like this over at the course of several weeks, you’ll feel a lot more conviction about the goals you set.

goal visualization and reflection

Spending time to reflect on your goal gives you time to answer your “why” and gives you the will to work through the challenges will accompany your goal.  Not only that, giving yourself weeks (not hours) to finalize your goals for 2021 lets you fine-tune them and set them appropriately to give you the best chance of achieving them.  

And that leads to the next principle of goal setting and achievement…

Rule #2 (Realism): Be Realistic on Goals For 2021

Anthony Robbins likes to say that “most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade”.

I have never read anything by Tony Robbins but maybe I should because he is spot-on with this insight.  Most of us tend to be insanely overoptimistic about what we can reasonably finish in one year.   Have you ever found yourself saying “wow, the year really flew by”?  ….It’s seems that way because it’s true!  

Avoid Unrealistic Disappointment

We are all busy with a lot of responsibilities and demands pulling us in different directions and chewing up our time.  We don’t have as much disposable time and energy as we think to allocate towards a monumental goal.

Any big goal takes a long time to bring to reality.  For example, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994. But Amazon did not have a full year of profitability until 2003.

“Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.”

-Anthony Robbins

We like to dream big and we should.  But you need to give yourself a long enough runway to get the plane off the ground.  A big goal is going to require a lot of effort and time, so make sure your timeline reflects that reality.  

Being realistic about your timeline helps us avoid being unnecessarily disappointed for not realizing a goal that you never had a chance of completing in such a short time. If you get discouraged because you never achieved an unrealistic goal, you might falsely believe that there’s no hope … and then quit.

Being realistic helps avoid this trap and keeps you motivated to keep going even when things are developing slower than you would like.

Anticipation About Time & Effort Required

But it’s not only important to be realistic on timeline but also on the effort and degree of difficulty required for the goal.  

For example, if you have the goal of becoming fluent in a second language, what is a realistic goal for how much time you could invest in this goal daily or weekly?  Is it realistic that you could study for 4 hours a night after work when you’re already exhausted and have other responsibilities to take care of?

Probably not.

That’s why it’s critical to challenge yourself NOT to set goals that are unrealistic.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should set goals that are easy; but rather, that you’re honest about how much time and energy you have to allocated towards your stated goal.  

For the next several weeks, try to pause at various points in your day and take notes about where you spend your time and when are realistic times you could devote towards working on a goal.  

For example, you might have time to work on something after 10pm, but will your mind have the energy and clarity to take on a high-focus task?  I can’t but you might be different.

The point is to be honest with yourself not only about how much time is required to achieve a goal but also about how much time YOU have to allocate towards a given goal.  If you keep your goals for 2021 realistic, you have the best chance of achieving consistent and steady results while maintaining your motivation and sanity.

Now let’s talk about the next principle of goal setting that also relates to the concept of realistic goal-setting.


Rule #3 (Inputs): Focus On Effort — Not Outcomes

What does this mean and how does it relate to your goals for 2021?  The mistake that many people make when writing out their goals is to articulate results that are not entirely within their control.  

Let’s say that you want to double your income by the end of next year.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting this result but you have to be honest and understand that this outcome is not entirely within your control.

What’s In Your Control?

Focusing on the inputs means that you focus on the actions that ARE within your control that put you in a position to potentially get the outcome you want.

For example, after you write down that you want to double your income this year, ask yourself what actions are required to make this outcome a possibility.  Once you identify what those actions are, build your goal around taking those actions routinely.

For doubling your income, you may set the goal of waking up earlier and spending 2 hours every weekday morning working on the high-value, 80/20 effort that leads to the most results.  

Even if you succeed at taking this action for the entire year, there are circumstances that could conspire against you that don’t allow you to realize your original goal of doubling your income.  

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”

-Epictetus

The economy could tank and it sinks your new business before it even gets off the ground.  Or, maybe your boss doesn’t compensate you fairly for the value you brought to the company.  

Whatever the circumstances, it’s important to embrace that stoic concept that most things are not within your control.  

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that positive outcomes will likely result if you build your goals around productive actions.  These positive outcomes might be completely unpredictable.

Unpredictable Positive Outcomes

Even if your business idea fails, you will emerge from the experience with more knowledge about where the potential opportunities and pitfalls are.  This will give you a much better chance of succeeding on your next venture.

Ask anyone who has achieved big goals and they will tell you how important failure was in their process.  Don’t be afraid of failing because the outcome is not entirely your fault.  There is rarely one cause to any event in life.  There are usually multiple factors that contribute to any result.

However, this does not mean that your actions have no influence on the results in your life … they do. 

But it’s likely that your hard work and focus will manifest in ways that you don’t anticipate.  For example, your first business may fail but the habits you develop in the process carry into your next venture and it succeeds beyond your wildest dreams.  

Or maybe all the work you put into becoming a more valuable employee leads to another employer luring you away to a much higher-paying, more-rewarding position.

The maxim “the harder you work, the luckier you get” is true.  So build your goals for 2021 around your hard work and let the mysterious and unpredictable good fortune of the universe come to you.


Rule #4 (Kaizen): Use Small Action Steps in Goals For 2021

In finance, we have the power of compound interest.  In life, we have the power of Kaizen.

What is Kaizen?  It can be summarized by the familiar Q&A:

Question: “How do you eat an elephant?”

Answer: “one bite at a time.”

Kaizen tackles big challenges by breaking them down in small (sometimes tiny) actions,  then consistently chips away at them over a longer period of time.

Neutralize Procrastination & Fear

The problem with the way that most people approach goals is that they try to accomplish them immediately by completely overhauling their schedules or behavior. This approach has the same problem as starvation diets: they rarely stick.

The power of Kaizen is that it neutralizes the twin enemies of all goals:  fear and procrastination.

By setting your goals with tiny actions, it neutralizes the fear and procrastination mechanisms that normally paralyze us into inaction.

For example, if you have the goal of losing weight, you might set up the goal of going to the gym for 1 hour, 5 days a week.

This type of goal will trigger both your fear and procrastination mechanism.  Exercising for an hour is awfully tiring and uncomfortable.  It would be much easier to relax on the couch.  

By the same token, going to the gym is scary.  We risk embarrassment and revealing how out of shape we are.

Break Goals Down To Micro Goals

But when you set up your goals with a Kaizen approach, you set up tiny actions that are so small that your mind will neither fear them or have any excuse to procrastinate them.

For example, here are some common Kaizen goals for common New Year’s Resolutions:

  • Eat healthier: stop putting sugar in your coffee.
  • Exercise More: do something active for 1 minute a day.  
  • Learn a new skill: spend 2 minutes on it a day.

All of these actions might seem so small that they would never make a dent in the stated goal. 

But they do for two reasons:

  1. The first reason is that the actions are so small, that even your fearful and procrastinating brain can manage them.   So you actually end up taking action and working towards your goal and making some progress.
  2. The second reason is more profound and really the key:  by taking small actions on a goal in the beginning, we are signaling to our brains that this goal is important.

This is the most powerful way to develop a habit.

The Snowball Effect

After we develop the habit, we learn that we can handle the task, and it inevitably starts to gain momentum.

After we exercise for 1 minute a day, we realize that we can do it for 5, 15 or even 30 minutes.  We might even discover that we ENJOY doing the effort and look forward to it!

The results of the Kaizen approach vs the traditional overhaul approach are astounding and too numerous to list.

“You don’t need to get it perfect … you just need to get it started”.

-Gary Halbert

So rather than building your goal around an effort that requires drastic change and willpower, start will a small Kaizen step.  Let the habit build and grow over time and you’ll get better results and more lasting change.

If you want to study the concept of Kaizen and how to apply in various ways to your life, I highly recommend the book “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way” by Robert Maurer.

Rule #5 (Anticipate): Forecast & Plan Around Obstacles

No matter what your goals for 2021 are, you can rest assured that there will be obstacles that stand in your way.  This is the way of the universe and there are no exceptions.

These obstacles could be internal (fear, procrastination, shiny object syndrome) or external (distractions, lack of access to the tools you need).

Here are examples of obstacles that may stand in your way:

  • You don’t have any healthy lunch options where you work
  • You don’t have a gym or convenient outlet to exercise near where you live
  • Your roommate distracts you when you’re trying to work
  • Time spent on your goal interferes with quality time with your family
  • Your activities with friends cost too much money when your goal is to save
  • You’re exhausted at the end of the day when it’s time to work on your goal

Obstacles Are A Constant

There are infinite ways that they universe can stand in the way of your goals.  The key to success on your goals is to anticipate what these obstacles are and develop a clear and realistic plan on how you are going to work around these obstacles.

The problem that most people make when setting their goals is they believe that it will be smooth sailing.  They are then blind-sided and discouraged when they face the obstacles that stand in their way.

After you have established your goals for 2021, start to contemplate what the obstacles will be.

Don’t expect to know what the obstacles are right way.  This is one reason why you take plenty of time to set your goals.  This time gives us a better chance to accurately anticipate obstacles.

“To overcome difficulties is to experience the full delight of existence.”

— Arthur Schopenhauer

One great way to figure out what you’re obstacles are is to try to carry out your goal tomorrow or this week and see what pops up.  You will quickly learn where the stumbling blocks are.

Once you have a pretty good idea what might stand in your way, start to develop a plan on how to work around them.  

Start asking yourself: “How can I work around this obstacle?”   Again … don’t expect to have an answer right away.  It will take time and reflection to come up with a plan.

Other People Obstacles

One particularly thorny obstacle is if you suspect that time spent with loved ones is actually an obstacle standing in your way.  The best way I have found to solve this problem is to tell those loved ones what your goal is and ask if they have any ideas on how to achieve your goal.

There’s a good chance you’ll get some good ideas and now you have their support when working on your goal.  You may even discover that they also have goals they want your support on. You can then find a way to complement each other as you work towards your goal.

Obstacles will be personal for you and your unique situation.  That’s why you need to spend time anticipating what they will be and making a plan to defeat them. Your success rate on goals will skyrocket if you anticipate and plan around the obstacles before you meet them.

Before you finish your goals for 2021, make sure that each one has its obstacles listed beneath it and what your counter-plan is to these obstacles.

Rule #6 (Measure): Record Your Progress

Most goal-setting systems talk about the importance of measurement.  The T-R-I-C-M-A-R-I system is no exception to that rule.  We need measurement so we have a clear idea of what our progress is.  Without seeing our progress, we might lose motivation.

However, measuring goals is usually fairly easy to do if those goals are outcome-based (rather than built around “inputs” and effort) and are easier to quantify. Not only that, outcome-based goals are easier to see milestones.

Here are a few common outcome based goals:

  • Double my income
  • Lose 20 lbs
  • Save $40,000 for a down payment
  • Write a book

You can see that all of these goals almost automatically have quantifiable measurements built-in. You will know if you reached these goals and how close you are to achieving them.

But since we build goals around “inputs” or effort rather than outcomes, it’s less clear how to measure these goals.

Input Based Measurement

The way I work around this is to set a total amount of time or effort you want to invest in that particular goal.  This varies depending on the goal but a great starting point is to start with the 20-hours rule popularized by Josh Kaufman

Kaufman talks about the significance of reaching the 20 hour milestone and how much someone can develop and learn in 20 hours.  I like to use this tactic as well, especially for skills development.  

If a goal is meaningful enough to me, then I should be willing to spend at least 20 hours on it.  After 20 hours, I can decide if this is important enough for me to continue or to move on.

The 20-hour milestone is a great starting point but it’s not a strict rule.  Every goal will require different measurement and milestones to work towards.  You’ll have to apply a little creativity to your goals for 2021 and figure out which system of measurement makes the most sense.

Rule #4 Vs. #6 Conflict

A word of caution:  the measurement and recording rule can sometimes conflict with Rule #4 which is to use Kaizen techniques.  Sometimes a goal might seem too daunting and imagining spending 20 hours on it might freeze you into inaction.  If this is the case, then it’s better to skip this rule and defer to Kaizen.  

You’ll probably have an idea of which goals you should skip this rule on.  One indicator is if you have failed on achieving the goal in past years.  It could be that you didn’t take action because it seemed too monumental and you were paralyzed by the thought of doing all that work.

If this is the case, I would start with simple kaizen steps and try to get some momentum.  Don’t worry about 20 hours or any other milestone.  As the saying goes “you don’t need to get it perfect … you just need to get it started”.

Rule #7 (Rewards): Build In Rewards 

Building in rewards is the final rule of goal-setting but it’s definitely the most fun.  Now that we’re getting close to finalizing your goals, we need to increase the chances that you follow through on these goals for 2021 and stick with them.

The best way to motivate people into action and reinforce positive habits is to build in rewards.  This is a critical piece of motivating anyone including yourself.  If you were trying to motivate a team of people, you wouldn’t say they have to work all day and get no rewards for their effort.

Motivate Yourself Like An Employee

The most effective way to motivate people in the direction you want is to encourage and reward the behavior you desire.  The same rule applies when you’re trying to find ways to motivate yourself towards a goal.

Since most people are not very good at self encouragement, building in small rewards is the best way to motivate and encourage behavior that benefits you because it furthers your goals.

Notice how I didn’t say “bad behavior” or “good behavior”.  There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” in this context.  There are only actions that further your goals and those that don’t.  The reason why we build rewards into your goals is to encourage more of the former and less of the latter.

Rewards will encourage you to take action and it’s the best way to reinforce these actions into habits because you have something to look forward to.

What is an example of a reward?  

It will depend on the person and the situation.  A reward to one person might be a punishment to someone else.  Here are a few examples of rewards you might give yourself after you complete one of your goals for that day:

  • watch TV with your spouse or partner
  • have a glass of wine or a beer
  • go spend time with friends
  • eat dessert 
  • take a nap
  • play video games
  • go for a walk
  • watch your favorite sports team or show
  • take a bath

You’ll notice that these are not extravagant gifts that you’re lavishing on yourself.  They don’t have to be.  This is all you need to motivate yourself to take the small kaizen steps on your goals.

Rewards Are Goals “Ipso Facto”

But it’s important to note that we don’t give ourselves these rewards only because we worked on our goals.  There is a bigger-picture reason to reward yourself which is that these small pleasures are what make life worth living and savoring.  

However, if you schedule these pleasures and small rewards at the right time in your day (AFTER you complete your work), you’ll get far more satisfaction from them.

Rewarding yourself without doing the work on meaningful goals will give you a hollow feeling and they won’t be as gratifying.

So after you finalize writing your goals for 2021, they will not only have the obstacles written beneath them, they will also have a specific reward for each small action that you take.  Watch your follow-through rate on your goals soar when you program in rewards!

Final Concept: Accept Imperfection in Goals for 2021

The final concept on this list is not included in the rules because it’s not actually a rule.  This last concept is a mindset shift that will help you achieve your goals for 2021.  

If you you’re reading this guide on goal-setting (and you have made it all the way to the end), there’s a good chance that you have very high standards for yourself.  There’s nothing wrong with having high standards. It’s an admirable quality.

However, people with high standards also tend to be perfectionists.  They are usually very hard on themselves if they ever fail to meet their standards.  Being a perfectionists is a problem and an obstacle in and of itself because no one is perfect. 

Perfectionism Is Life’s Hamster Wheel Of Misery

If you hold yourself to a standard of perfection, you will inevitably be disappointed.  Nothing will ever be good enough no matter how much you achieve.  You’ll find yourself on a never-ending treadmill chasing perfection and running yourself into the ground in the process.

Even if you follow this guide to goal setting “to the letter” and perfectly set up your goals for 2021, you will inevitably fail to follow through all the time.  For the perfectionist, any small failure is unacceptable.  A perfectionist demands perfection!  ….and any small misstep is grounds for condemnation.

“This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections.”

-St Augustine

The perfectionist mindset will discourage you and thwart your ability to achieve your goals in 2021.  Not only that, it will sap your energy and joy for life.

You don’t set goals to be miserable.  You set them to give yourself a better chance at achieving goals that are meaningful to you and will bring you gratification.  If you hold yourself to a perfection standard, it’s time to abandon that mindset immediately and accept that you are not (and never will be) perfect.

A Plead For Action

What do you think of the 7 Rules and the T-R-I-K-M-A-R-I system for goal setting? Will you use it to set your goals for 2021? Please comment below. Also, if you know someone who would benefit from this system for goal-setting, please forward it to them or share it on social media with one of the buttons below.

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