For my birthday party someone asked me what my goals were for the coming year.

I didn’t have a ready answer. I made something up that was pretty generic – succeed at business, become more attractive, and so on.

The obvious question is: for someone who’s a self-improvement nut, what the hell am I doing without a ready list of goals?

I’m not sure. Maybe it’s stupid that I don’t have a list. But when I look back at my year I have a bunch of things that I did improve on. I’ve substantially reduced my social anxiety and expanded my comfort zone a bit; I’ve dated more and gotten better at first dates; I’ve exercised more and gained muscle; I’ve gotten better at business; I’ve become more productive and I waste less time; I’ve developed better sleeping and napping habits; and I have higher self-awareness about my emotional state and habits.

If you asked me on my birthday last year if I wanted to improve these things, I would have said yes, but I didn’t write them down as goals because I had trouble making them “time-bound and measurable” (the traditional goal-setting advice). And in the few instances where I did try writing things down, the attempts to improve those things backfired in some ways. For example, I tried to put “go out and talk to strangers once a week” into Beeminder, which forces me to pay money if I don’t keep up with a given goal. This caused me an extreme amount of stress when the deadline was coming up. I did talk to people for three straight weeks, but did worse and worse each time, until it was obvious that this goal wasn’t working and was distracting me from important work, and so I quit it.

And yet I did improve. For example, making phone calls to find things out was a thing I sucked at and knew I wanted to improve. I didn’t ever set a time-bound measurable goal to improve this, but I found opportunities to make more calls over the past year, and each time I made a call, I got a little bit better at it. If you had asked me to set a target for number of calls per week it would not have worked.

Does this mean I suck at setting specific goals? Maybe! I’m certainly not prepared to give up on it, and there are certain cases where I set specific targets and this makes me move forward pretty well. (Such as blogging once a month, meditation, and a few other things.) But I think the better plan, at least for me, is to think hard about things I suck at and want to improve, brainstorm a bit about ways to do it, write things down and then just let them sit. Then check in again a while later and see if I’m making progress.

Scott Adams wrote about “goals vs. systems”, which has a similar thesis: Essentially, he implements his self-improvement goals by finding sustainable ways to do things he wants to do but isn’t currently doing. I generally think this is a good approach, and I definitely recommend brainstorming about ways to get yourself to do things which minimize willpower costs. If you can’t tackle a hard goal directly, find ways to approximate it that are easy and sustainable.

So what am I thinking about improving this year? On the business side, I want to get better at thinking from a user-acquisition perspective, since I currently mostly think and work from a code / operations perspective. I’m not quite sure what this means yet but I’m working on it.

On the personal side, I want to be more attractive and more socially confident, and I want to talk to more people, and I want to save a little bit of money, since I spent a lot of savings last year.