Plan for joy, not just goals

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Many of us set goals or resolutions for the new year, but we often forget to plan for joy. This post shares a new, free tool that you can use to plan your most joyful year yet. 

I love this time of year, as inboxes everywhere go quiet and the world seems to slow down a bit. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used this time to reflect on the year that has just passed and make plans for the one to come. At different times I’ve called these intentions, resolutions, or goals, and it always fills me with excitement to think about the full clean slate of the new year ahead and the potential that lies within those days, and within me, to bring my dreams closer to reality.

But awhile ago I started to notice that this focus on goals inevitably turned my attention to work. To my career, certainly, and then toward objectives that may not have been a part of my “day job” but were also work, like growing my blog and working on my book. There were goals relating to self-improvement that were not work in the traditional sense, but required effort, discipline, or will. Developing a habit of exercising, writing in a journal, eating healthier foods, or keeping my desk organized: these are all worthy goals that I’ve adopted at one point or another, goals that enriched my life, yet nevertheless involved at least a little bit of drudgery in the process.

After a particularly grinding year, it occurred to me just what my annual planning process was missing. It was joy, of course! Every year we sit down and plan how we’re going to be better people, more rigorous and diligent and considerate people. We write out the achievements we aspire to: the weight loss or the muscle strength, the pages written or published, the milestone markers we hope to see in the sideview mirror as we whizz past. In the process, we forget to plan for joy.

It’s not that we shouldn’t plan for our big dreams and goals. These are the seeds of future joy, and well worth cultivating. But as we train our sights on these distant hopes, the small joys can easily get lost in the shuffle. We forget to take the hour-long detour to the small museum, and instead waste the time scrolling on our phones. We forget to keep track of friends, and six months go by without a phone call. We forget about that new recipe we saw, and instead fall into a rut of making the same thing again and again.

I think we forget to plan for joy because we think of joy as something that just happens, not as something that we make happen. In our minds, joy is spontaneous and effortless. Yet if we think about it, many of our most joyful moments — the picnic in the park or the family vacation, the birthday party or the nature hike — exist only because someone thought to plan for them. Perhaps we forget this because in childhood, all of that orchestration is invisible to us. It’s sometimes even made to seem like magic, such as at Christmas when Santa arrives on his sleigh, instead of the thoughtful efforts of harried parents.

When we’re children, joy seems effortless because someone has planned it for us. As we get older, we can either believe that life has gotten less joyful, or we can take charge of planning it for ourselves.

To that end, I’ve created a free downloadable Joylist Planner that you can use alongside whatever system you use for your resolutions or goals, to ensure that you’re keeping joy in mind as you think about your new year. It’s broken out into categories such as “Occasions to Celebrate,” “People to See,” and “Outdoor Fun,” to help you brainstorm different ways to find joy that suit your interests and fit your life. You can download the Joylist Planner here.

This tool has helped me in countless ways. One thing you can do with it is use it as a basis for forming a joy budget. Again, most of us create budgets based on necessities and savings, and then have a leftover space for whatever discretionary or fun money we get to spend on ourselves. Using the Joylist Planner can help you decide how best to spend that discretionary money: whether that’s on a daily latte (if that brings you joy), having a monthly movie budget, or by saving it up for a trip. Last year, Albert and I decided that one of our joys is living by the water, and one way to increase our joy would be to get out onto the water more. We bought kayaks and spent a good part of the summer exploring the different bays and inlets near our house. Without that intention, it would’ve been very easy to spend that money on dinners out and various other things that wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact on our lives.

Another way to use the Joylist Planner is to come up with a list of activities to do in small spaces of time. This is something that time expert Laura Vanderkam recommended in our conversation earlier this year as a way to bring more joy into your everyday. She calls this a daily vacation. “Figure out what are these treats, the things that you enjoy, the things that you would savor,” she says. “Put in these little daily vacations. Play guitar for 10 minutes, go sit in a park for 10 minutes, whatever it is that makes you feel joyful… putting these things into your life can massively change your experience of time.”

She also recommends this as a way to take advantage of those awkward spaces of time between meetings or events that are easily wasted. For example, if you have a list of books you want to read, you can download one in audiobook or ebook format and pull it out whenever you have 15 spare minutes instead of scrolling over to Facebook. Similarly, whenever I hear about a store, cafe, or gallery in the city I might like, I add a “favorites” pin to it my maps app. Then, whenever I have a spare few minutes, I pull out the app to see if there are any of those places near to where I am in the city. This has given rise to a number of field trips that feel quite spontaneous, yet never would’ve been possible if I hadn’t taken a bit of time to plan. As Vanderkam says, “By leaving open space, you can seize opportunity [if you] make a list of ‘bits of joy’ you can put in your life.”

Lastly, the Joylist Planner can inform your calendar. Maybe you want to make time for a weekly phone date with a friend. Maybe you want to make sure you celebrate a special someone’s big day. Maybe you simply want a little time for inspiration in your week. Scheduling in joy is making a promise to yourself that it will actually happen. Productivity experts suggest putting everything that matters to you on your calendar. If you schedule business meetings and exercise, you are calling these out as important. So why not also give your joy this same weight by putting game nights or reading before bed into your calendar too?

Download your free Joylist Planner here.

However you use it, my hope is that this tool will help you balance out long-range ambitions with in-the-moment delights, and create more space for joy in your busy life. I’d love to hear about how you use it and what you discover in the comments, and on Instagram.

Image: Copper and Wild via Unsplash

December 28th, 2019


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    Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Pearl Squires on December 31, 2019

    I found you through your enjoyable TED talk and then bought Joyful. I love, love the book and have given it to friends.
    Have you seen the Hoptimist from MOMA? Very fun and joyful! The box says Make every day a little more joyful. I gave it as stocking stuffers, including myself. And I thought of you.
    Loved your sentence, Seek Joy, not perfection. Maybe a T-shirt? Perfect and concise! Good thought!
    Happy New Year!


  2. Erica on January 3, 2020

    Thank you for helping to make the world a more positive place!

  3. Betsy on January 4, 2020

    My daughter-in-law gave me ‘Joyful’ last year and it has truly inspired my everyday life. I’ve shared ideas and pure JOY with my family, friends and neighbors more readily since reading it. I use the word more often, especially since deciding to call my grandchildren ‘my Joys’
    With love, gratitude and JOY ~

  4. Suzette Katopodes on January 11, 2021

    I found you today, at the beginning of another new year, and your post is still quite relevant. Who knew 2020 would be so tough? Because it was, I decided to study joy and post about it throughout 2021. I’m glad I found your site. I don’t see a spiritual component here, that’s something I depend on, but I like what I do see. I downloaded the planner and hope to put it to good use. Thanks.


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