Why I Totally Stopped Setting Goals and Made a ‘Life Brief’ Instead

Photo: Getty Images/Tim Robberts
I usually spend the first weeks of the year making a list of goals I intend to crush and trying out new strategies for how to make it happen. But by the time February rolls around, that list quietly gets nudged to the back burner, thanks to all the other to-dos that have piled up and new realities with which to contend.

With that in mind, this year I decided to try something different—and I couldn't be happier about the results. I took the first few days of 2020 to audit the bigger picture lying beneath the lists of goals I’ve been working toward. For instance, while I may say it's a goal of mine to feel fulfilled by my work, going deeper allows me to figure out how I’d like my work to fulfill me and why that’s important. But since these answers are decidedly trickier to nail down, I sought a guide in figuring it all out: the Life Brief workbook ($20) by Bonnie Wan.

A longtime brand strategy executive, Wan invented the Life Brief concept after finding herself at a crossroads 10 years ago. Drawing upon her experience creating briefs for brand clients, Wan put pen to paper to create one for her own life. The resulting document became the groundwork for the Life Brief book and workshops she leads today, one of which I attended a couple of months ago at the In goop Health summit in San Francisco.

I saw several inspiring speakers that day, but Wan’s presentation really struck a personal chord: With my birthday on the horizon and feeling stuck in a creative rut, I was grappling with what I really wanted to achieve going forward. Wan’s Life Brief workshop invited us to “go deep, get sharp, and be bold” in manifesting the lives we want. It sounded like exactly what I needed.

“The Life Brief asks driving questions to get to the root of what’s really most important to you. That question for me was, 'What do I want?'” —Bonnie Wan, creator of the Life Brief

“The Life Brief asks driving questions to get to the root of what’s really most important to you,” Wan says. “That question for me was, 'What do I want?' It’s a simple question, but it packs a powerful punch when you’re honest with yourself.”

After pointed questions, the other key component of creating a Life Brief for yourself is, well, being brief. “Great briefs are short and sharp," Wan says. "They express the essence of things in a way that inspires you to act.” Once you gain extreme clarity on what you want, she adds, your attention starts to shift toward making those things happen.

Wan says it worked wonders for her: Completing her own Life Brief prompted her to make a fortuitous move to a another state, to create a more flexible work situation, and to strengthen her relationships with her husband and children. In her workshop, she assured that it's also opened paths and possibilities for others in their marriages, careers, as parents, and in health. I was sold to try it for myself.

What happened when I created my own Life Brief

When I received my Life Brief workbook in the mail, I was surprised to find that it looks more like a children's coloring book than a guide to fine-tuning an adult life you love. Wan says that’s intentional. “For many people, The Life Brief is simple, but not easy. The handwritten font invites people to get messy and let go of any need for preciousness or perfection.”

And before long, I found that it worked: With its large, unintimidating lettering, the Life Brief workbook looked to me like something I could breeze through rather quickly. I got out my colored markers to keep things fun and started on the first section: a bird’s-eye view of sorts that led me through thought starters and word associations to get to the root of any limiting beliefs that may be holding me back. I quickly realized, though, that the rest of the brief required deep emotional work and deserved a much larger time commitment than I’d allotted.

"The Life Brief nudges you to act on [what matters most] in tiny ways every day and encourages you to let go of the need to know when or how things will happen.” —Wan

Wan is hardly surprised by my reaction. “It’s not every day that we ask ourselves these questions. Actually, it’s easier than ever to avoid these questions," she says. "The Life Brief nudges you to act on [what matters most] in tiny ways every day and encourages you to let go of the need to know when or how things will happen.” (There go my to-do lists.) To be sure, the Life Brief is not a plan for exerting control over the future. Rather, it's a practice that connects you to making decisions with your heart. The goal is to make space so your words in the workbook can guide you to an intuitive place of knowing what’s best for your health, spirit, and future.

Over the course of a few days, I chipped away at my Life Brief, writing out my current blocks and deepest desires. I was surprised to find how much my intuition was taking over: There were many moments during this process when I questioned whether what I wrote was my actual truth or a desire I had in the past that no longer actually served me. Or, even more surprising, whether a dream wasn’t mine at all, but something someone else had said I should do at some point, leading me to passively co-opt it as my own.

Then, at the workbook’s prompting, I reworked my ideas and musings until I got down to the clearest, most distilled iteration of what I want most in my relationship, in my work, for myself, and for my community. I walked away with a concise purpose statement for each, expressed in just a few easy-to-digest sentences.

My finished brief has served as a gentle daily reminder to come back to the truth of not only what I want my life to look like but, more importantly, what I want it to feel like. I read through it every morning so it’s in my mind as I start each day. It's an approach that's much more global than linear for refocusing on what I really want any time I get off track, feel overwhelmed, or lost.

My partner created a Life Brief of his own, and we plan to create another one, specifically for our lives together. We pinned them on the wall in our bedroom so we can refer to them easily and often, especially when making big decisions. Even sharing our individual briefs has brought us closer and aligned us on some mutual goals. So, it seems like it's already working.

Speaking of goals and rituals, these seven habits can boost your happiness. And on the career front, here are nine habits that entrepreneurs credit for their success.

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