Year-long goals are too long

Man worried about his bills. With the new year, everything you wish to improve about your life and your skills come back to the surface. Everybody is making lists and sharing them online, so it’s hard not to join in the fun even if you don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe it’s useful to set resolutions and goals but you have to set them the right way. Just taking the time to think about them will set you on the right track for next year. When I look back at the end of the year, I’m always surprised at the number of things I was able to accomplish despite not paying that much attention to the list.

The best resolutions fall into two categories:

  • Reaching a concrete goal: goals such as doing a project, learning a new skill or reading a book in particular. I just wrote about the process of learning and setting goals as a software developer since new skills are always an important goal for me.
  • Good habit to build or bad habit to get rid of: habits such as cutting sugar, exercising more or writing a post a week that will improve your life in the long term. Those are ongoing habits you want to establish and keep going year after year without reaching a finishing line.

Be careful with yearly goals: a year is too long a period to really grasp. You can put those goals on your list but consider them more like a theme than a real goal. You may have less time in certain periods of the year, and a yearly goal makes it too hard to adjust to the other things going on in your life. For example, I spend a lot of time gardening in the summer, so I’ll set big goals for the winter. When everything is under a few feet of snow I have more free time to work at the computer. I also put in long-term goals I want to reach on my list and I use them mostly as an inspiration.

When you’re ready to work on a theme, you need to break this theme down into smaller goals so it stays doable. A good length for a goal is 3 months or less. This is a good duration to complete a tutorial or part of a larger project. Longer than that and you’ll lose track of the deadline and procrastinate because you have tons of time.

It’s also worth revisiting your resolutions every 3 months to add new items that are not important to you, prune old ones and gauge your progress. If you only peek at your previous list at the end of the year, you’ll find that you forgot about resolutions that were important to you.

Finally, starting a new year is not a race. There is no rule that says that you have to get started on all your plans for the year as soon as January hits. All times of the year are good to start something new if it fits with your life and is most important things you want to learn or reach for.