I’m a seriously goal-oriented person. I’ve been setting and reviewing goals for myself on an annual basis since 2012. But somehow, this year is different. It’s not just a new year, it’s a new decade. Does that feel intimidating to anyone else?
(Yes, I’ve seen the relevant XKCD. No, I don’t care. Welcome to the 20s.)
In this post, I’m going to start by reviewing the goals I set from 2012 to 2019 and discuss the benefits of maintaining such a consistent set of themes. Next, I’ll talk about why I feel like I need a new goal-setting strategy for the new decade. Finally, I’ll share my goals and affirmations for 2020. In those affirmations I’ll attempt to define what kind of father, husband, creator, athlete, and altruist I want to be.
From 2012 to 2019, I set goals for myself every year without fail. The goals were remarkably consistent over that time: get fitter, run further, earn more, become a better person. And they weren’t so consistent simply because I failed to meet my goals each year — in fact, the goals generally got loftier over time as I made consistent progress.
Let’s look at a snapshot of goals across the 8 years span.
Although the numbers or the approach may have changed over the years, the direction of the goals was very consistent. I’ve taken a ton of incremental steps over a long period of time, and those small steps have cumulatively transformed who I am.
In 2010 I was an obese sloth who could barely code and had idle dreams of starting a software business. In 2020 I’m a lean marathon runner who is productive in several programming languages and runs a software business with ten thousand active users, hundreds of paying customers, and a real chance of delivering financial independence by the end of the year.
In January 2019, a couple of months after the birth of my daughter, I stepped back and tried to look at why I was setting these goals. What was the purpose? Why was I trying to achieve variations on the same themes each year? What am I striving for in the long-term? Am I being true to my values? How does being a dad change all that?
What do I want to do with my life?
Trying to answer that question feels a bit like trying to program an AI. It feels like it should be easy, but it’s actually an existential risk. You just want to tell the AI to do whatever you want it to do. Except you’re worried it’ll take things too literally. So you tell it to figure out what you actually want instead, then do that. But if you’re honest, you probably don’t really know what you want anyway. And would you really want an all-powerful super-intelligence to fulfill your every desire? What about the rest of humanity, or the rest of the universe?
In the end, I borrowed from the idea of a Coherent Extrapolated Volition and offloaded the problem to my future self. For now, my top-level goal is simply to be happy and healthy in the year 2100. To achieve that goal, I need to be consistently working towards health and happiness throughout my life. As long as I’m always adapting to my current needs and investing in the future, I can figure out the specifics as I go along.
So why was I intimidated by the arrival of 2020? Why was it so scary to set new goals in the face of a new decade, even with a clear guiding principle?
After countless hours of introspection during my long runs, I uncovered two truths that I think might have caused my angst.
First up: I am at a strange crossroads in my life.
We now have a daughter, and we know we want to have another child in the near year or two. But we don’t know exactly when we’ll be ready.
We now own a house that gives us absolute stability and security, but we know we’ll need a bigger house before the second child arrives. And we don’t know how much we’ll need to spend, where we’ll want to live, or when we’ll want to move.
I now have a well-paid and interesting job, and I know I need to keep earning enough to support my family. But I don’t know if my current job it will allow me to spend enough time with my daughter and wife to keep me happy. (A year of paternity leave spoiled me rotten, and now I have very high expectations for my work-life balance.)
The only way I’ll find answers to these unknowns is to wait and see. By the end of 2020 I might be expecting a second child, living in a new house, and working a new job or working full-time on my own business. Or I might be in the same job, living in the same house, and not expecting a new baby. Everything could change, or everything could stay the same.
And that’s okay! I’m comfortable with the fact that we don’t know exactly what we want yet (or when we will want it). But that uncertainty also makes it much harder to know what my goals should be.
So why not fall back on the old faithful goals? Why not just plan to run some number of miles, lose some number of kilograms, earn some number of dollars, read some number of books? Or be 100% vegan, or buy 100% ethical clothing, or give up alcohol?
Which brings me to my second realization.
Highly specific goals keep me motivated to consistently put in time and effort on activities like running, dieting, and reading. But I’ve recently begun to realize that they also cause me anxiety and a feeling of failing or falling behind.
I set stretch goals because I want to push myself. The flip side is that I find myself feeling guilty if I don’t run a stupid number of miles while I battle a chest infection, or for the occasional small slip-up in my vegan diet. Or I feel like a bit of failure for only growing my side business by 1200% from £30/month to £350/month, instead of treating it as a huge success. Those feelings are extremely counterproductive. Absolute adherence to my goals should not be necessary for success, and worrying about the specific numbers will rarely help me achieve the outcomes I want.
So where do these two realizations leave me? How should I set goals for 2020 and the decade ahead? How can I best ensure I will be happy and healthy in the year 2020?
I’m going to try something radical: replacing my usual specific goals with some fluffy positive affirmations.
These affirmations are intended as daily reminders of who I aspire to be, without judgment or anxiety about where I am today.
For 2020 — and perhaps for the entirety of the roaring 20s — I will do my best to be true to these affirmations and live up to the aspirations they represent.
Happy New Year, and Happy New Decade.