Goal for 2011: Don't Postpone Your Life!

01/07/2011 09:03 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I delight in seeing people realize their dreams and accomplish the goals they set for themselves, whether it's paying off a stubborn debt, finishing their first 10K or finally having the courage to make a relationship better. The promise of a new year motivates many of us to create our annual lists of goals: to lose those 10 pounds; to finally take that dream trip; to courageously wrestle with that gnawing question that still hangs in the air year after year; or take a leap, even a baby step, towards happiness.

Too many of us lead deferred lives. We don't feel worthy of our dreams until our "work" is done, and because obligations seem omnipresent, our dreams take a back seat and ultimately fade away. No wonder so many of us cringe just a bit during the holiday season when the mall's cheerful sound system tries to sell us that this is "the hap-happiest time of the year!" If only our life paths (especially the ones immediately ahead of us) could be counted on to be well lighted, inviting and clear of obstacles and doubt. If only our days could be well ordered and flush with certainty. If only work always ended in success, love without surrender, loss without grief, and lapses with persistent forgiveness.

Instead we roil in uncertainty, surf on chaos, and shape-shift from day to day. With maturity we have the chance to finally begin to embrace the persistent and trusted anchors of love and hope, belief and values, history and recollection, and the steady sweetness of the moments we choose to create (and especially the ones that catch us by surprise and take our breath away). But "real life" too often steps in, and we relent, saying, "Maybe next year."


Allow me, please, to share a simple system that works. I know it works because I've used it, and I've helped many clients, pals, partners and students use it.

Make a goal chart.

In the early 80s, Nancy and I led complex and overscheduled lives in New York. With a son in junior high school and incredibly demanding careers (Nancy was a NBC "Today Show" correspondent, and I was a corporate executive with offices on both coasts), we found ourselves attempting to balance relentless career and family demands. Maintenance soon pushed out meaning, and we were often swamped navigating the logistics of carpooling to football and music practices, dog grooming appointments, home shopping and repairs, and hours of daily commuting. We were grateful for our gifts, but we were also deeply exhausted. What, we too often wondered, happened to delight -- to fun? Is this what we worked for?

Nancy was a lifelong student of achievement systems and had interviewed literally hundreds of experts over a decade. I also taught part time at NYU and UCLA, so I had up-close exposure to some of the best and smartest CEOs, psychologists and researchers on psycho-cybernetics, neuropsychology and, what we called 30 years ago, "brain science." In 1985, Nancy shared her life lessons in a wise book titled "Bound for Success." (Sadly, the book is now out of print.) We decided to put our lessons into practice in an attempt to break old patterns and rise above the "noise" of busy, overscheduled lives.

We created our own laboratory. Our collaboration resulted in a simple chart that yielded incredible results. Here's how we created it.

Every December we'd get large white pads from an office supply store, and we'd separately list the two to six individual goals that we wanted to realize in the coming year. This took some tough self-talk. We quickly discovered that in order for the process to have authenticity, we needed to, ironically, start with those things that we had deferred or edited away from previous lists out of fear or self-doubt.

We agreed to cluster our goals into three categories: self-improvement (lose those 10 pounds, finish the book, begin to learn yoga); wealth creation (save a certain amount, begin a family budget, pay off all debts); and finally (the one that initially gave us the most discomfort), new experiences to share, which often seemed outrageous and self-indulgent (travel to Paris, a weekend at Canyon Ranch Spa, dance classes together).

At the bottom of each chart we ended (in all caps) : HAVE MORE FUN!

After completing our lists, we sat together, usually with a glass of wine, explaining, debating, pondering and playing with each other's ideas. This is where the real "work" (and a lot of magic) happened. With some laughter and a few tears, we landed on our final two to three individual goals and our one to two (no more!) shared intentions. We learned that if we tried to tackle too much, we ended up getting lost in our lists.

We then captured the essence of our agreements on new, visually fun, and creative new posters that we hung inside our master bedroom door, where we would see them all the time. They became part of our visual landscape, so we couldn't avoid them. We checked in regularly to see how we were doing, what we were resisting and postponing. The chart launched some of our deepest and best conversations.

Each year, when the final goal charts were posted, we went to a wonderful dinner to celebrate our intentions. That was our reward. We committed to support one another, and we agreed to push ourselves to tackle the things that made us most uncomfortable, the things that seemed self-indulgent, excessive, even outrageous, at least to us.

The result: we achieved or exceeded every goal each year! Often within just six months.

To use Nancy's term, we were high-achieving "gritters." We pushed and prodded our lives to some level of accumulation and accomplishment but did so at the expense of constant busyness and missing out on time together that once left neither of us feeling as if we were having much fun. Sound familiar?

This trusting process to create our goal charts, and our commitment to acting on them, moved our to-do lists to "to-become" lists.

Give yourself a new year's gift: begin your goal chart now.