A Minimalist’s Guide to Goal-Setting

This article originally appeared on No Sidebar.

Have you ever tried to form a new habit or set a goal for yourself only to lose motivation and give up midway through? Or you might even try to implement several new habits at once and after a successful first few weeks, gradually begin to wane in your progress.

New habits are hard to form. Even the best intentions can be swept away by busy schedules, exhaustion, and overwhelm. Diet and exercise fads come and go, novel mindfulness trends intrigue us, and fresh challenges excite us; but despite our most valiant efforts, we slowly slip back into our old ways.

A few months ago, I decided it was time for me to get reacquainted with the healthful habits I’d been neglecting for too long. Each day I was determined to drink 3 bottles of water, exercise, meditate, read for 30 minutes, write down what I was grateful for, and do an act of self-care. Sound ambitious? I’d been doing each of these practices for years, I reasoned, albeit rather inconsistently. What could be so hard about starting them up again all at once?

I rolled up my sleeves and made a monthly tracking chart for myself, colorful and creative, true to my nature. For 30 days, I hit nearly all my marks. I loved seeing the brightly colored boxes that reflected my progress and was feeling empowered by my old-now-new-again daily rituals.

By the second month, relishing in the high of my recent success, I began falling off course. I couldn’t keep up during weekends of travel and the novelty of my tracking chart was beginning to wear off.

By month three, I’d all but abandoned my daily routines and began casually fitting them in when I could. Had I tried to make too many changes at once, I wondered. Each month I vowed to start anew but my motivation had long since faded.

As a minimalist, I never thought that maybe I should take the same approach toward goal-setting as I did toward so many other things: quality over quantity, deliberation over impulse, abundant joy over excess need.

Recently I discovered a new way of setting goals for myself: instead of trying to implement several goals at once, I would simply pick one goal (not two or three or five) and focus on it for 30 days. When I first learned about this method, it struck me how well it aligned with the minimalist values I’ve long embraced.

It was simple:

No fuss or frills, just one goal at a time.

It was meaningful:

It didn’t depend on rapidly changing trends or contemporary crazes, only on what was most important to me.

It was pressure-free:

There was no urgency to strive for more than I was capable of, only what was within my reach each day.

It was about the journey rather than the destination: by devoting my full attention to one area of focus, I was able to release myself from being driven by any particular outcome and could instead tune in to what I was learning along the way.

It’s natural to set our sights on more than we can attain and doing so can even be a strong motivator on the way to success. But when we struggle to achieve a goal that’s a bit beyond our reach, it can quickly derail our self-confidence and inner drive. We become so engrossed in our failure, we forget the why behind our what and get lost in the how.

Have you ever bought something only to later forget why you wanted it? So too with our ambitions, we can lose sight of the personal significance they once held as we develop more and more to try to match the joy their initial achievement once brought us.

When you set a goal for yourself, remember why you chose it. See what it has to show you. Is it difficult for you to do each day? Why? What might make it easier? Is it not as challenging as you expected? Find a way to make it more so.

Imagine each monthlong goal as one of your most cherished belongings: spend time with it; get to know it; don’t discard it in favor of something more enticing. Do it each day and let it be a reflection of your strengths and values.