If you live to be 80 years old, which is about the first-world average life expectancy, then you will experience about 30,000 days or 700,000 hours of life (if we take out sleeping time the number drops to more like 450,000 hours).
In 8,760 Hours, Alex Vermeer provides a quick overview to how to get the most out of the upcoming year. I was inspired by his suggestions, and so in 2022 I decided to put his recommendations into action.
Getting the Most Out of Next Year
Vermeer’s proposed methodology is simple:
- divide your life into discrete areas;
- review your current state for each area;
- articulate your ideal state for each area;
- set goals for the coming year that should bring you one year closer to that ideal state.
Vermeer proposes dividing one’s life into twelve areas in his original document and has since extended his personal list to fifteen. I began with his iniital twelve, but over the course of the year I chopped, changed and re-organised them to suit my own needs, and when I adopted the Johnny.Decimal organisation system later in the year (which I’ll write more about another time) I decided to reduce the areas to 10 to allow me to align everything nicely.
This left me with the following ten life areas:
- Health, Fitness & Well-being
- Assets, Finances, Location & Security
- Values, Purpose & Identity
- Productivity & Organisation
- Fun, Travel & Adventure
- Career & Work
- Volunteering, Contribution & Impact
- Knowledge, Training & Education
- Arts, Culture & Creativity
- Social Life & Relationships
build a detailed picture of our life as it currently stands. By answering a few questions (e.g.,
what went well?) about the last year for each life area, we end up with a disjointed collection of notes for each. We then put this into a mind map, with one section for each life area; I used FreeMind, which is a very clunky piece of software, but I think now I’m adjusted to it. I stretched this process of information elicitation over the course of about a week, adding to my notes for each area whenever something new popped into my head. Vermeer also provides several other question prompts for each of the life areas.
Once we are finished with this,
the end result is a massive mind map with a complete picture of the current state of your life. Now the planning stage begins, in which we take a new mind map with the same life areas and aim to describe our ideal state for each. For example, here is my current description for the Fun, Travel & Adventure life area:
My lifestyle provides me with constant, varied stimulation and I am recognised by others as living a remarkably adventurous life. I have a story for every occasion, and can tell them all with aplomb. I am well-travelled, have experienced many cultures and ways of living and learnt from each of them; I have also visited every place that holds particular interest for me for whatever reason. I regularly practice my various hobbies and derive enjoyment from the simple act of performance as much as I do mastery. I am fearless and take risks that most others would not, and this pays off more often than it does not, but I am not reckless.
Finally, we create a third mind map, again with the same life areas, and start adding goals for the next year. Vermeer also suggests giving the year a
theme, an approach well-described by CGP Grey here. Vermeer also suggests rating the importance of each life area on a scale of 1–7, but I decided not to bother; instead, I set one life area as the theme for each quarter to highlight which was the most important for that period.
I then did the same for Q1, with a combination of specific annual goals that I wanted to tick off during these first three months and quarter-appropriate sub-goals that would bring me closer to achieving my longer-term annual goals.
How I Did
Overall, I achieved a little under 60% of the goals I had set for myself in across all areas. Most areas saw over half of their specific goals completed, and almost all (with the exception of Productivity & Organisation) had some goals cancelled throughout the course of the year, or otherwise blocked for reasons outside of my control.
In the rest of this section, I will go through each area in more detail:
Health, Fitness & Well-being
I completed about a third of my goals here. I failed to improve my various health metrics to the level I had set myself (though I did improve those metrics relative to what they were at the start of the year). I also didn’t record as many activities as I wanted and failed to persistently establish many parts of what I wanted to make my regular routine. I did well in health, however, completing Dry January (as part of my Year of Lents project), maintaining a regular sleep schedule and eating well.
Assets, Finance, Location & Security
Almost 80% of these goals were achieved, which is all the more impressive considering several (like my target end-of-year account balances) were not necessarily entirely in my control. Various asset downsizing goals were motivated by my travel plans and largely took care of themselves, but I did cancel several location-based goals (e.g., to attend a Town Council meeting) due to my exit from Lancaster. Also, I managed to spend slightly under what I had budgeted for the year; not bad for my first attempt at an annual budget.
Values, Purpose & Identity
With 70% of my goals achieved, I think this was another success. I did a lot of work on this site (which I class under
Identity), delved deeper into Quakerism through sporadic local Meeting attendance and several Woodbrooke courses and I even explored with veganism through my Ben’s Twenty project. I had a few articles published elsewhere in which I articulated my political views and values and I maintained my ethical integrity with a conscientious objection to a risky work project. I also read through the Qur’an and, to quote one goal description, I made some progress towards
figur[ing] out what to do with my life.
Productivity & Organisation
Another pretty good effort, around 70% achievement again. I put into practice various organisational techniques that I will detail elsewhere, but I never did get around to trying the Pomodoro Technique. I completed around 74% of tasks on the day they were set, with my target being 75%, so I gave myself that one. I also felt that I satisfactorily fulfilled each quarterly theme as well as my annual theme:
Fun, Travel & Adventure
A big winner, with 80% of my goals achieved. I visited almost everywhere I wanted to visit this year, went Interrailing and broadened my coffee horizons (although I did have to modify the original goal from
try Robusta and Liberica to just
non-Arabica after realising how impossible it would be to get Liberica in the UK).
Career & Work
At just under 43% completion, this was tied with Knowledge, Training & Education for my worst showing of 2022. However, in this case at least, it’s a bit of an anomalous result, as I also had my highest rates of cancelled and blocked goals in this area, including a cancellation rate higher than my completion rate (52%). This was largely due to the fact I set my goals for the area on the assumption that I would have all year to achieve them (i.e., that I wouldn’t end up quitting my job in the summer as planned, for whatever reason). As a result, when I did hand in my notice accrding to plan I had to cancel a lot of the work-related goals. Many of the goals relating to another job of mine revolved around attending courses and earning qualifications, but no opportunities arose during the first half of the year so these were all likewise blocked.
Volunteering, Contribution & Impact
A respectable 65% completion, but again with a large number (33%) of blocked goals, again as a result of me leaving Lancaster (and by extension all of the groups I was volunteering with) early in the year. Nonetheless, I attended several events, donated as much blood as the NHS would let me (not much, as it turns out) and managed to achieve most of my goals with the Scouts and City of Sanctuary before I left Lancaster.
Knowledge, Training & Education
Another negative outlier, though I think this was a case of me biting off more than I could chew, with this area having the second-highest number of goals set (42). Also, many of the goals were language-based, including several linked to Duolingo;
Achieve a Duolingo streak of 365 fell apart the moment I encountered two days without Wi-Fi and broke the streak, and when I later decided that Duolingo isn’t actually a very good tool for language learning, my motivation to
Earn 5 crowns on all Duolingo Arabic lessons really fell through the floor. Other goals were just too vauge, such as
Learn basic Turkish, though a good number that were more precise (particularly ones of the form
Finish [book/course/whatever]) ended up deprioritised.
Arts, Culture & Creativity
This area had an anomolously-high number of goals set (80) because of my decision to set child goals listing individual films, books, etc. So under the goal
Finish all books started before 2022, I then had 8 sub-goals: one for each book. Ultimately, then, I managed to complete 50% of the goals I had set, including a little over half of the films and TV series’ I had specifically listed, a little less than half of the books and almost none of the games. I did well on the creativity front though, writing several blog posts and externally-published articles as well as editing a video for the Monkey Run Scotland.
Social Life & Relationships
And, finally, my most successful area with 85% of goals completed. This was one of my main areas of focus in the time leading up to my departure as I wanted to ensure I visited all of my friends and family in both the UK and Europe before leaving. With the exception of three friends, and certainly not through a lack of trying, I did manage to see everyone.
So, what have I learned from this first attempt at optimising my year?
Keep Visibility on Your Goals
It is easy to only look at the mind maps every quarter when it’s time to review and make a new one, but I think it’s important to check in with them more frequently than that. Over the course of three months desires and circumstances can change, you might think of a better way of phrasing a goal or you can check things off that you’ve completed to help highlight what goals to focus on next.
Personally, I look at my quarterly goals at least once per month when I need to come up with monthly tasks for a new month. I generally try to look at my annual goals at the same time so that I can identify any that need tweaking in time to allow those changes to ripple down through the quarterly and monthly lists as needed.
Write Intelligent Goals
It’s generally a good idea to write goals in a SMART format, making them Simple, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bounded. Vermeer extends this to CSI Approach goals: goals that are Challenging, Specific, Immediate and Approach-oriented. This is generally pretty good advice, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily always appropriate in every context, hence my use of
Actually, I think vaguer goals can be entirely appropriate at the annual and quarterly levels, particuarly considering when you will and won’t have the data needed to assess more measurable goals. For example, one of my Health goals was
Stay hydrated (~2–3 l per day); I wasn’t going to start tracking my water intake, so writing anything more specific would be pointless; I made this mistake with another goal to
Eat ≤8,000 kJ per day.
That said, it’s important to have a good number of hard quantitative goals mixed in, particuarly (though I didn’t do a good job of achieving them) in areas like health and fitness metrics. That said, choose your metrics wisely; if I had set a goal to achieve a lower BMI, it would have been at odds with my other goals about exercising, so instead I set my goals around body weight, waist circumference, Multi-Stage Fitness Test (MSFT, a.k.a. the bleep test) level and VO2 Max.
I think, generally, if you can make a goal more measurable you should, but you should also consider setting a vague top-level goal and then defining more quantifiable goals as children to it (e.g.
Improve metrics, which had specific sub-goals for weight, VO2 Max, etc.). You may want to explicitly define a threshold of child goal completion over which you will consider the parent goal complete, but I generally just played it by ear: if I generally felt the spirit of the parent had been achieved, even if not all of the children had been, I marked it as complete.
That said, one thing I’m considering doing for 2023 is explicitly marking parent goals as AND or OR logic gates; that is, defining at the outset whether a parent is to be considered complete when any of its children are complete, or if all of them must be. This would also clarify things when I am writing the goals themselves, because at the moment I definitely have some parent goals that aren’t really dependent on their chilren and it seems a bit flabby.
Expect the Unexpected
Life throws curveballs and things will definitely change for you over the course of 365 days, or even in the space of a single month. I never quite settled on satisfactory way to handle this; usually if I made a change to a goal, I would record the change made and date I made it in small print underneath to encourage accountabilility, as well as so give me some insight into which goals changed and why.
However, I think it is important not to ever lose sight of the reason for doing this whole exercise: to enable you to get the most out of the following year and, in a longer timescale, life in general. To that end, I generally took an approach of being tolerant to amendments, particularly for more measurable goals. For example, though I originally set myself the goal of achieving a 365-day streak on Duolingo, when I broke this streak 175 days into the year I just revised the goal to say 190-day streak. The purpose behind the goal was to encourage regular use of Duolingo for the purpose of language learning, and so defining a new streak goal seemed a better way of doing that than just writing off the original goal as impossible.
However, this obviously requires at least a little self-discipline. If you allow yourself to change goals whenever you want to, what’s to stop all of your goals from shrinking and shrinking to conform to what you are doing anyway? Well, just you really. If you are prone to such behaviour, maybe you would do better with a less woolly approach to goal changing, but, on the bright side, it sounds like you have an obvious first thing to aim towards improving in 2023!
Learn Your Limits
As mentioned, this was my first time trying this approach. With a total of 319 defined goals, I think it’s safe to say I probably overdid it a bit, though I expected that this would be the case from the get-go and that it would take a couple years for me to calibrate my ambitions.
Obviously just comparing numbers of goals isn’t the most informative exercise (there’s a world of difference between the effort required to
Lose 10 kg compared to
Climb Everest, after all), but I did achieve a little under 60% of these goals, with 15% cancelled and 13% blocked for reasons beyond my control. This tells me that I’m not wildly off the mark in terms of gauging what is actually feasible within a given year, but that I could certainly stand to aim for less (and perhaps to rethink my approach in certain areas in particular, such as Knowledge, Training & Education).
That all said, I’m not sure 100% completion is an achievable or even particularly desirable meta-goal, as I think it’s is good to have a few unfinished things to roll over into the next quarter or year. I am definitely of the opinion that it’s better to overextend and undershoot than to give yourself an easy ride and finish everything by mid-year.
Remember: The Map is Not the Territory
Finally, it’s important to always bear in mind that you are measuring your progress against the goals you have defined within a given area as an indirect way of measuring your progress against the area itself. If you define your goals too narrowly, or just badly, you could well achieve all of them whilst still doing poorly.
For a silly example, if I set myself a load of goals under Health, Fitness & Well-being that all revolved around losing weight and limiting caloric intake, I could achieve them through self-starvation though this would obviously not be great for my actual health and well-being. Similarly, even through on paper my most successful area in 2022 was Social Life & Relationships, it’s questionable how beneficial for either of those leaving my home continent and all my friends for a lengthy stretch of time will be.
My point is that one must always be conscious of the limitations of this approach. Even with all the intelligent goal-setting in the world, if you still feel stuck in a career rut or you don’t feel well despite ticking off all the tasks you set yourself, don’t ignore that feeling.
Also Remember: Maps Are Still Useful
That all said, sometimes the cold hard objectivity of the exercise can help to provide some year-scale perspective on things. To return to the Social Life & Relationships area, I had something of a falling-out with some friends at my leaving do. It’s mostly water under the bridge now, and obviously I hadn’t set any
Don’t fall out with pepole goal that would have allowed this system to capture and reflect that failure, but I certainly felt bad about it.
However, when looking back over a whole year’s worth of mostly-successful efforts to maintain (and in some cases rekindle) friendships spanning the length and breadth of Europe in preparation for my depature, I was presented with plenty of evidence that I do in fact put a lot of effort into my relationships, which helped to put that low ebb into context.