Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code

Writing Goals as Narratives

I’m as susceptible to productivity “hacks” as anyone else. I’ve collected different techniques and methodologies like so many trading cards; looked over, examined, and eventually put back on the shelf. I’ve hopped between a good old-fashioned notebook and a complex map of different apps and notes (and then back again). I’ve read books and blog posts and tried more free trials than I can count.

But last year, I settled on something that just kind of… works. It’s not perfect, but it fits my brain. And I’ve made a conscious effort to put aside my once-endless search for a perfect system. The result has been some actual clarity and space in my thinking these days. Most days, I’m able to prioritize what needs to be done and leave a little time for writing and reading and all the other things I want to do. It’s far from perfect, but that’s kind of the point.

For the first time, my goal isn’t to “get more organized.” This leaves me with an exciting question about where to focus.

Goal Setting: The Old Way

Usually when I’m thinking about goals, I’m really thinking about projects. I have a list of things that I need to get done and another list off to the side of things I want to get done. I take those lists, roughly sort them, and stack the blocks. Finish the projects, finish your goals It’s the agile-driven SMART goal methodology adapted to my personal life.

Which can be effective in my work life, and setting goals for a team, but lacks the higher level thinking that those goals are usually informed by. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading Kalyn Brooke’s latest post about setting a word of the year. It’s a way of centering all of your habits and goals for a year around a single concept. For instance, Kalyn selected abundance this year. It’s a goal setting strategy I’ve seen elsewhere and it can be a powerful way to center your life and focus.

But that’s not exactly how my brain works. I like to stretch an idea out a bit and see if it has legs. Some of my goals and habits are interconnected, but they also can spin off in different directions.

The Power of Narrative Goals

So I’m going to give my goal setting a little twist. Instead of a single word, I am crafting small, past-tense narratives for each of my goals. This method isn’t just about envisioning an outcome; it’s about telling a story and reflecting on the milestones as though they’ve already been achieved.

Writing goals as narratives that have already happened is a pretty powerful psychological shift. It is a recognition of what is possible in a year, and a way to work backwards from a final goal. Each story becomes a miniature act of self-fulfillment, a private victory etched into the year’s end before the journey even begins.

For instance, I have a goal to mix things up a bit with my History of the Web project. I have no idea exactly how that’s going to take form, so rather than write out any particulars, I’m focusing on how I want it to feel.

History of the Web

I’ve launched a new site, a mixture of different types of content and various experiments. It has become a place of exploration, filled with different kinds of information, mixed and remixed into something that resembles a museum and a blog, digitally interpreted. There are places for people to donate and contribute.

I don’t know if everything will get done. But at the end of the year I want to look back and be able to say the above has come true. It can guide my decisions and help me focus on the real meaning of the goal, rather than just turn things into a endless todo list I just have to get through.

These goals are pulled from different areas of my life. Some are personal, some are career-driven and some are about side projects and passions. Together, they tell a story about where I want to be at the end of this year. But separate, each will be a self-contained story, a snapshot of success that acknowledges the interconnection of my goals without forcing them into a single linear path. They will allow for divergence, recognizing that sometimes the journey will take an unexpected turn or two.

I’m hoping this will open new doors in my mind, and allow me to walk a path with focus and conviction. Here’s to the story that’s only just been written. Let’s see how it goes.