A few months ago, I realized I hadn't accomplished any of the goals I set at the beginning of the year. Worse still, thanks to pandemic-induced brain fog, I had a hard time even remembering what they were.
I'm not beating myself up about it, given everything humanity collectively endured in 2020. But after months of endless Twitter scrolling, trouble sleeping and constant worrying and anxiety, I was ready for some positive life inspiration. So, I set aside a Sunday afternoon for my favorite annual ritual: A "life audit" to remind me of all of my aspirations, hopes and future goals.
The concept of a life audit originated in a 2014 Medium post by Ximena Vengoechea, an author and illustrator. Vengoechea created the process in order to tune out the mundane distractions of everyday life and remind herself of the bigger picture.
"Life has a funny way of getting in its own way: We get so busy, sometimes we forget to look up," she writes.
Although the problems we all faced in 2020 won't magically disappear once January 1, 2021 arrives, this activity can at least offer you some clarity and control of your life. Each year, it helps me reflect on my larger goals and the general values I try to live by. I'm able to push aside the banal things that don't really matter and get back in sync with myself.
Here's how you can perform a life audit yourself.
Prepare for your life audit
I've adapted and refined Vengoechea's process over the past five years to suit my own needs, and you should too (I have also written about it in the past). But essentially, a life audit involves taking an afternoon or evening to tune out distractions and write out every single one of your goals, big and small.
Before you start, you'll need:
- A pen or marker
- At least 100 sticky notes (I prefer to use different color notes)
- A large, blank wall, door or board
- A journal for brainstorming
I'd also recommend collecting any journals you've written in over the past year or keeping your phone's notes app or camera roll handy if you document random goals and thoughts there like I do.
Otherwise, turn your phone off or on Airplane mode for the duration of the exercise. You want as few distractions as possible for your evening of self-reflection.
Write out your goals
Find a comfortable spot near your blank wall (or wherever you have space to post your sticky notes) and start writing out your goals, one on each note. Vengoechea recommends aiming for 100; I write out as many as I can over the span of a few hours. These should be short- and long-term goals, concrete and abstract.
Here are some examples of the types of goals to include:
- Save $X amount of money
- Learn French
- Get a dog
- Be a better friend
- Build a business
- Invest in art
- Work with kids
No goal is too big or too small. Of course, list out your moonshots — "write a book" and "establish legacy" are on my list — but don't forget the more attainable things that make life worth living. "Go to museums more" and "consume less" aren't the most exciting ambitions, but I know that they increase my personal quality of life.
I use the process as a sort of brain dump, so I write specific goals ("Save $10,000") as well as broad ones ("Spend less on food"), but you can tailor the process however is most beneficial for you. Some people benefit from having a set goal to strive for; others just need general guidelines.
That said, it's helpful to break down large goals into smaller steps. "Write a book" is a great goal, but "set up a workable writing practice" might also deserve a note of its own.
It's OK to take breaks while you brainstorm. If you start to run out of ideas, read through your journals or look through your phone to find some inspiration. It's also OK to list things you already do that you want to continue doing.
Remember: This is your list. Use the time you've set aside to really think about what you want out of life, not what you think other people expect from you or what you "should" achieve.
Categorize your sticky notes
After you've exhausted your ideas, categorize your goals. These will vary, depending on what's important to you.
When you're reading through your sticky notes, themes will likely emerge; use those themes to shape your categories. This year, mine are personal, work/career and money. Vengoechea's are more discrete: adventure, community, creative side projects, design, family, health, professional, skills and writing.
Again, use whatever makes sense to you. I could break my goals down into many more categories — and I might when I reflect on the goals later in the year — but three seems manageable to me right now.
Next, organize your goals within those categories according to when they might reasonably be accomplished. Some of your goals are obviously future-looking; others you might be able to check off tomorrow.
Here's how Vengoechea thinks about it:
Now/Soon: For wishes that were immediately actionable but in need of next steps and prioritization. i.e. "To publish a podcast series." (Stay tuned!)
Someday: Milestone moments/long-term goal-posts. i.e. "To be spry at 80."
Always/Every day: Deliberate intentions/mantras to live by every day. i.e. "To share what I've learned, in life and professionally."
When you're done, take a photo of your notes or document them permanently some other way. Previously, I organized my notes in a software program called Trello, which lets you create cards that you can add to different columns, so that they were easily accessible whenever I wanted to look back on them.
This year, I took a more analog approach: I stuck the most important notes to a bulletin board above my desk, so I can see them every day. Because I spend so much time isolated these days and not actively doing many of the things I'd like, I wanted the daily reminder that I will get back to them in the future. The rest I catalogued in OneNote, an app I use to organize my life.
Reflect on your goals
Once you've listed and categorized your goals, it's time to reflect. Take out your journal (or use an app on your phone) and write out the big themes or trends you noticed during the exercise. Why do you have certain goals? Were there things you had no idea you wanted until you wrote them out? What can you do going forward to keep some of these goals at the front of your mind?
Here are some of the questions I ask myself that might be helpful, either in writing out your sticky notes or in reflection after:
- What kind of life do I want to lead?
- Will that life look different in 10 or 20 years?
- What do I believe in?
- What type of work do I find most satisfying? Do I need to do that full time, or am I just as satisfied doing it on the side?
- What do I enjoy outside of work?
- Am I satisfied with my relationships?
- How do I want people to remember me?
- What did I miss doing in 2020?
- What did I learn about myself in 2020?
Finally, write out why your goals are important to you in your journal. You don't need to draft an essay for each sticky note, but a line or two for the most important ones can drive home what your values are and give you the motivation to live by them going forward.
After a particularly difficult year, I found comfort and clarity in my life audit. When comparing my goals to past years, I noticed that many had changed, while others had been underlined. Vengoechea calls the life audit a spring-cleaning for the soul; this year it feels like a soul reset.
Now, on to 2021.