Usually around this time of year we like to dust off our yearly goals and pay lip service to the resolution gods. But what if instead we could hit the reset button and take stock of what’s really important to us, setting for ourselves real intentions instead of empty goals?
In a nutshell, Vengoechea’s life audit consists of blocking out a few hours of alone, distraction-free time and writing every goal and desire you want to see come true on Post-it Notes. Next, you arrange all of your Post-it Notes into themes and then designate each note with when the goal could be accomplished: either now/soon, someday, or on an everyday basis.
“I work best in analog, so I really wanted to just step away from my computer to get it all out,” Vengoechea says of her process. “We use a lot of Post-its in my line of work for synthesizing and analyzing insights, and I used a similar method to start distilling insights from my own audit.”
One of the things I noticed about this challenge is how nervous it made me going into it. I was really intimidated.
I felt nervous that 1. I wouldn’t have enough goals and I would realize that my existence is pretty pitiful and 2. I have a ton of goals but I will forget all of them in the moment or not know enough or have done enough research in my daily life to know what any of it means.
In fact, one of our coworkers here at Fast Company was surprised to learn that we didn’t have total meltdowns during our life audits. I feel like this speaks to the fact that a lot of us are really afraid of being truly honest with ourselves.
“I think it’s totally normal for it to be intimidating,” says Vengoechea. “It’s actually pretty rare that we take the time to be that honest and self-reflective.”
She believes this is true in part because in our busy lives where we focus more on the day-to-day grind and don’t take much time to reflect, it’s pretty easy to avoid thinking about what we really want. This life audit changes that.
Her advice in terms of preparing for this is to expect that it will be a little scary and understand that that’s okay. “I like to think we can all handle a little discomfort from time to time,” she says. “It builds character.”
Assistant editor Sarah Lawson also found that knowing from the start that there are no “right” things to write helped take the pressure off. “I definitely had a few silly ones before I got down to business and started being honest with myself with real goals.”
A great tip from Vengoechea about this notion of writing the “right” thing: “When you find yourself writing what you think is ‘right’ it’s actually a great time to pause and ask yourself, ‘Why do I think that’s supposed to be important to me?’”
Ignoring that impulse to write the “right” thing can also open us up to new possibilities. There were a few things that I wrote down that I was really surprised about. For example, I had no idea that I wanted to start mentoring. That thought hadn’t previously crossed my mind. But it somehow wound up on a Post-it and now I’m seriously considering it.
Vengoechea similarly hadn’t realized until she conducted her first life audit that she was interested in public speaking. “Now six months later it’s a big focus of mine,” she says.
Another important part of the process is conducting the audit alone and then sharing the results with others. Val Lapinski, a FastCo Studios producer, made an awesome video about her life audit. Halfway through, though, she reveals that she couldn’t actually conduct her audit with the camera rolling. So she decided to turn the camera off. “That’s when the most honest stuff came. I’m totally an open book, but that was one thing I wanted to protect, I guess.”
I, too, was very protective of my process. With my fiancé in the next room, I had to put a do-not-disturb note on the door and lock it.
But after our “me time” as Vengoechea refers to it, it’s time we share some of our results with others. If you’re willing to share your goals, she says, you might be surprised to hear some great suggestions for how to accomplish them:
“I think success is dependent on you and your network of friends, colleagues, mentors. And the thing about people is that they want to help. If you share your goals, you give them an opportunity to help where they can–most people really love to do this! I think we’re just wired that way.”
By sharing her goals with her friends and loved ones, Lawson felt a sense of accountability and reinforcement. “I think that’s going to be the key to maintaining this and not relapsing into my typical resolution failure,” she says.
In this article about setting goals, one expert argues that setting too many goals, setting unrealistic goals, or setting really broad goals can prevent us from actually accomplishing them.
But Vengoechea believes that her life audit process is different from simply setting goals. “Mostly because a lot of my big takeaways were about how I want to live my life, daily, and just the act of writing those out, looking at them on a wall, and sharing them with friends–that helped me internalize those a ton,” she says.
She says having big-picture goals was okay because they eventually helped her get at more specific goals. “I did have a goal of writing a piece that went viral, and that did happen. But I didn’t write that specific article thinking “this is going to go viral”–it was more the result of a bigger goal–‘to write more’ that that happened.”
The purpose, she says, of documenting your long-term goals isn’t to make them part of a really long to-do list, but rather to explore the daily intentions that can help you work on that. “If it’s a big hairy audacious goal, then I’d suggest breaking that up into smaller chunks.”
Vengoechea says she’s a big fan of one habit or goal per month. “I spent a whole year working on and documenting habit changes on a monthly basis, and that was really productive for me.”
Each of us stepped away from this life audit armed with a little more insight about ourselves. Vengoechea, who recently conducted another life audit, learned that she wants to document more of her life through film, photos, and writing: “I do a lot of that piecemeal already, but it took on a new meaning for me when I thought about in terms of archiving moments, documenting lessons, forming a sort of creative thing to hold on to in the future. I’m not sure what it means yet, but I’m working on it!”
Lawson found that a lot of her written goals are practical actions rather than fantastical notions. She appreciates this because those kinds of goals can beget more actionable goals. But Lawson also realized that she wants some of those fantastical, bigger-picture goals as well.
Lapinksi says that she loved the life audit because it helped her realize that her life so far is going well. “I actually expected this exercise to make me feel miserable about how much I have to do to realize my dreams,” she says. “But I felt pretty awesome when I realized I’m enjoying the journey.”
For my part, I learned that being fixated on one huge goal for so long can cloud your judgment on what else is important in life. I realized through this activity that my desire to get fit and live healthier, while a commendable goal, was also bordering on crippling obsession.
Fixating on just that one goal had taken over my life. I always felt guilty when I failed—when I didn’t stick to 1,400 calories a day, when I didn’t wake up earlier to exercise, when I gave into my cravings for something sweet. I want to live a healthier life, but I also want to live a happier one, and I think obsessing on this one goal has gotten in my way of that.
What’s beautiful about this exercise is that you get to see the bigger picture—this picture of a balanced life: one that includes health, of course, but also greater connections with friends and family, working toward greater career goals, making moves on dreams of traveling more, and even admitting some of our deepest desires we didn’t even know were there.
During the life audit I spent almost a half hour focusing on ways I could lead a healthier lifestyle. It felt good to strategize and come up with something I felt I could implement. More than that, though, it felt amazing to get it off my shoulders and out of my way. Now that that was off my mind, for the first time in what felt like ages I could focus on other aspects of my life and well-being.
Check out Valerie Lapinksi’s video above of her life audit. And for our complete discussion with Vengoechea about life audits, take a look at the transcript from our live chat last Friday.