The Minimalist Guide to Visual Goal-Setting


Note: This is a post from Joan Concilio, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

When we talked about the Olympics, passion and the cost of hobbies in a recent post, one commenter, Jason, mentioned the concept of vision boards – basically, visual representations of your biggest goals.

I’m a huge proponent of goal-setting… but my attitude and approach toward it have changed drastically over the past couple of years.

How I used to set goals

At one point early last year, I read 42 Goals in 42 Months, a post by J.D. Roth on Get Rich Slowly about what he wanted to accomplish, drafted in honor of his 42nd birthday. And I got inspired.

That’s my for-real comment, made for all the world to see, and I did start drafting a list of 30-by-30 goals.

The problem was, though, I stuck to the traditional advice I’d heard about goal-setting. I made a list of “tasks” – specific, concrete, measurable achievements in the areas of finance, health, career and personal life that I wanted to check off a list by Nov. 29, 2012, the (quickly approaching) date of my 30th birthday.

Conventional wisdom tells us that goals are supposed to be focused and specific. I think that’s good advice – to a point.

Unfortunately, while the idea of making a list of goals inspired me, the “task lisk” itself did not! For instance, I had a series of financial goals that looked an awful lot like my set of Very Next Step goals for each of my debts. The list looked like this:

1. Balance owed under $20K on BoA Mastercard.

2. Balance owed under $3K on Discover card.

3. Balance owed under $6K on my Citi card.

… and so on. That stuff is absolutely important in my life – but I didn’t wake up in the morning excited to work toward those goals, because individually, they weren’t what I was aiming for.

I really don’t care if, on my 30th birthday, that Citi credit card is at $7,000 or $5,000.

The REAL GOAL is to be debt-free except for my mortgage no later than March 30, 2015 – and to stay free of consumer debt afterward.

The health, career and personal goals were similar.

14. Own fewer than 200 articles of clothing.

15. Have the family scrapbook from my mom’s side finished.

16. Have the family scrapbook for my dad’s side finished.

17. Have the Otto annual scrapbooks caught up (at this point, that means finishing the 2010 annual, completing the Christmas 2010 book, and, before the ”end date” of my challenge, finishing 2011, Christmas 2011, and all of 2012 up to November.)

The ideas are good, but the minutia wasn’t inspiring me. The 30-by-30 project, which I was so excited to undertake, basically stalled; I never even came up with a full 30!

Looking back at the project a little more than a year later, I realize that, for me, goal-setting cannot be done as a “task list” approach. I have plenty of tasks in everyday life. When it comes to my goals, I need to both think bigger – and think smaller. I need to find the common themes among the tasks – and narrow my efforts down to the things that best fit my life’s themes.

Brainy, blond and ready to rumble

Scroll back up to the top of today’s post and take a good look at the image.

That’s a collage that I’ve been working on for the past decade, titled “Brainy, blond and ready to rumble.” Until late last year, I looked at that as a piece of art. Cool, incredibly personal art, but… just art.

I’ve come to realize that this collage is more than art. In a very real way, this is my self-portrait – or the portrait of the self I want to be.

THIS is my goal.  These are the things I want to be. Head-turner. Built for possibilities. A perfect balance of grace and attitude.

There are no tasks listed on that collage. No concrete steps toward a plan. But looking at this – it motivates me to see the big picture of my life.

Most of my “task goals” in life have consistent themes. Not having a lot of stuff, taking care to preserve my family’s heritage, being a valuable member of the communities I’m part of, working hard at the things I love.

The details of the tasks often change. Since I created the old 30-in-30 list, I’ve made a major career shift and become a homeschooling parent. Some of my former “bullet points” no longer apply. But those themes – simplicity, family, dedication, community – are still there.

This is another of my “vision collages,” created during 13 years of full-time work as a professional journalist. My idea was to get this one matted and framed and hung in my office when I eventually became a newspaper editor or publisher. Who knows – it still could happen.

The funny thing is, while the “job” has changed, this collage is still very much who I am. I’m here at Man Vs. Debt because I want to be a writer who beat the odds. As with the newspaper, at MvD, I make deadlines – and the front page. Hopefully, I also make a difference.

How to create your own vision

I’m not saying that lists of specific goal-tasks don’t have a place. I love making lists. But if you’re serious about setting goals for who you are – not just what you do – I highly recommend the eye-catching approach of a vision board or collage.

If you’re “not artistic” – and I say that laughingly, because my friends and family know how UNARTISTIC I really am – don’t get hung up on design.

This is YOUR vision – and if you want to paste words and pictures from whatever old magazines you have laying around, with no particular arrangement whatsoever, across a piece of posterboard that’s been in the back of your kid’s closet for 6 months, no one is going to tell you it’s wrong.

Don’t overcomplicate this. There are great, in-depth tutorials online that go into a lot of detail on what materials work best and how to arrange the items on your vision board for maximum mental impact and where to display it and all that.

I prefer this simple “walkthrough” by a poster named Desirae over on fitness community Lululemon (and she ties in how to include those “task goals” as well!) Here’s the super-short version:

  1. Find pictures and words that describe the kind of person you want to be.
  2. Paste them onto something.
  3. Add any notes, mission statements, task-goals, personal photos or anything else that really reflects YOU.
  4. Display the finished product somewhere where you’ll see it weekly if not daily.

At the very least, you’ll learn more about yourself as you search for the text and images that reflect your “best self.” (This, by the way, is a reason I love Pinterest – my boards are full of the things I most want to be, reflect and experience, in a wonderfully visual way!)

You’ve probably learned something about ME seeing my images in today’s post – that I’m motivated by powerful words and beautiful typography more than photos. You might learn that photos are what motivate you most! Either is fine – which is the great part!

The BEST result, for me, of seeing my vision for myself laid out so clearly is that it keeps my focus on clear, simple statements of purpose.  To motivate. To inspire. Make things happen. Hyper-efficient.


So how do you set your goals and personal mission or vision? Are you task-based, big-picture-focused, or somewhere in the middle?

What are some of the key images or phrases on your own vision board, if you have one?

We’d love to hear your “vision stories!”

55 thoughts on “The Minimalist Guide to Visual Goal-Setting”

  1. This is great Joan! I’m somebody who likes to write out daily task lists and biannual lists of goals. However, like you, those lists don’t really inspire me to work toward my goals. The goals have been clearly mapped out, and I know that they are there. But the lists just don’t inspire action. I love your idea, and I think that I just may have to try it for myself!

    1. Thanks, Greg!! I think we have a lot in common, from reading your comments on different posts. I am very task-focused day to day and month to month, but when I look at the overarching stuff, which I do have mapped out, I need something that inspires me to DO the tasks! I hope the system will work for you as well – keep me posted!!

    2. I never thought to write out daily tasks! What a great idea!!! My husband and I have a visual aid that he made where we keep track of our mortgage debt! Everytime we pay off a certain amount, we get to take a piece of the “black hole of debt” off. It is so motivating and inspiring because we have seen the hole get smaller and smaller. Our goal is to pay off our mortgage next year 😉 Here is a link to our visual aid:

  2. Great idea!

    My goals are not bullet list type of goals. I want to travel and visit with friends and family, and help people. At the end of my life, I believe those things will feature more in my “what have I accomplished” than what I own, weigh, eat, wear, drive or leave (or owe).

    To remind me what some those goals are, I’ve taken pictures and put them on my computer wallpaper. When I fire the baby up, the first thing I see is Welcome… and then a picture. That reminds me what I want to do. I change it every month or so. That’s when I ask: did I take my wife out for dinner more than once? Did we take a drive up into the mountains? Did we hang out with friends? Did we help someone in some way?

    We also focus not only on goals but accomplishments. If we accomplished something, we make a celebration out of it. What’s the reward if you reach a goal and simply move on to the next? Why have a birthday when you can have a birthweek?

    In the end it’s the laughs that count, not the dollars. And computer wallpaper pictures are a good way to not let those goals slip away unaccomplished. 🙂

    1. William, that’s a great idea!!! My wallpaper is usually something gorgeous with some of my favorite song lyrics on it, but I may have to give that idea a shot!

  3. Very creative! My assistant at work makes “lists” like this. When she takes notes, it’s all over the page, she will even write sideways, or upside down on her note page. That works for her. It makes my head hurt. Haha! When I take notes in a client meeting, I have bullet points, stars, in fact, it’s almost in outline form.

    What I think is cool is that you do have concrete ideas, you just have put them in a more visually stimulating fashion. You still have specific things you want to do, but you have little phrases and ideals to keep you motivated. I’m more in line with the VNS method that you employ. Things like that motivate me.

    1. Arlea, I love it! Isn’t it great how different people are? My notes are like yours – to the point, straight lines, specific things highlighted or underlined. My husband’s look like his brain exploded on the paper 🙂

      So cool – and thank you so much for your comment!

  4. Wonderful! I always thought that I had no self-discipline because I could never reach the goals I set. But maybe I was just going about them wrong. I am definitely going to try this.

    The “to do” list was actually de-motivating for me. The best way for me *not* to do something is to be told that I have to do it — and the to do lists, even though I had written them, were something I was being told to do. This made me want to do the complete opposite. Somehow I’ve still maintained my teenage attitude well into my 40s.

    A vision collage might just be what I need to be truly motivated and inspired to do the things I’ve always wanted to do. Thanks!!

    1. Jean, I hope it works!! I love it – and there are probably many benefits to keeping that “teenage attitude” too! You’ll have to keep us posted when you give it a try 🙂

  5. I love this! I wanted to go to brazil in 2011 and had a picture of brazilian beach on my wall. Everyday I would wake up and look at it. In march 2012 I thought to myself, I have no stable job so why not? I booked a flight and ended up going to ecuador to visit my sponsored child, then couchsurfed in sao paulo.

  6. I love this so much! I love that you are using non-specific, motivating words and images to get to where you want to be. You know what each of those phrases mean to you, and that’s all that matters. I think is such a great idea and am inspired to get going on my own!

  7. Visual goal setting promotes accountability as well. Many Fortune 100 companies use visual goal boards such as this because it not only promotes accountability, but it provides a physical visual when a goal is accomplished. Whether it’s placing a check mark next to something, crossing it off the list or removing it from the visual board, the act of completing a task/goal on your visual board provides a sense of accomplishment. Great idea…

    1. Thanks! One of my favorite experiences was working in project management (scrum) for a few years; that is VERY much designed to foster a sense of visual accomplishment and it was so neat to see our huge boards change throughout the month with all we hit. Definitely a team-building and rewarding process!

  8. Joan – this is the perfect idea and as an artist, I will use this in my art journal for motivation. For years I have been keeping to-do lists, basically steps of what to do to get my day to day activities done. This idea of yours gets to the bigger picture and is so motivational. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Marci, thank you so much!!! I love art journaling – in fact, as you can see, those collages are from my “books,” which is what I called them before I knew art journals were an actual thing 🙂

      I can’t wait to hear how it motivates you!

  9. I’ve always been a list maker, but usually those are very short-term tasks. Things I need to get done this week…. errands I need to run…. etc. I’ve never been very good at formalizing my goals into a list or anything like that. But then again, I’ve always been taught (as you mentioned) that a goal has to have a deadline and be quantifiable and all that stuff. It isn’t that I don’t have goals…. it’s just that the task of putting them into numbers is something that turns me off.

    I like your ideas alot – I’ll need to give some thought to how to put my goals in front of me and make them motivational…

    By the way, I just followed some of your boards on Pinterest – I’m interested to see what sort of things you like….. I’m Luna C over there.

    1. Martha, I love the “Luna C!” 🙂 Nice. Looking forward to sharing ideas there with you.

      I think you’re right – the problem with the “concreteness” of goals is not that it’s a bad idea in and of itself, it’s that a lot of the time, it becomes an obstacle to SETTING goals. And we are totally a remove-the-obstacles type of community, you know?

      You’ll have to let us know how you move forward with turning your goals into motivations! 🙂

  10. I created a vision board on my desktop background. As I look back at that vision board, I am amazed at what I have accomplished on there. I have a picture of the type of dog I wanted, trip I wanted to take, house I wanted to own, business I wanted to start etc etc. My wife and I then created one for the wall. Its in our study. We see it each time we are in there.

    I love your take on the vision board. Its part of your mission statement, of who you want to be. Its amazing how few people make those plans. They will spend days, weeks, or even months spending time on a car purchase, yet devote no time to creating a plan for their lives on who they want to be. What a powerful statement and plan a vision board like yours can be.


    1. Jason, I’m glad you stopped by to comment on this! I was hoping you would. (And I have you to thank for the idea – very appreciated!)

      I think you are so, so right. I, too, know so many people who think harder about the clothes they like than the person they most deeply want to be, and that’s incredibly sad. Here’s to empowering everyone to a vision! 🙂

  11. This is perfect. It is my belief that we have to make our goals visible every day in order to be reminded to stick to them. Having an actual board that could be considered art is much more pleasing to the eye than a black and white word document. This would be something I actually would want to hang in my room, the bathroom, or on the fridge. And when people saw it I would be proud to tell them what it is. Great post!

    1. Alex, thanks!! I really appreciate that – and I hope you do make one, hang it up and come back and tell us about it! 🙂

  12. There are no coincidences, right? The morning before I read your post I had a meeting with a personal trainer to go over my goals for an 8 week program I am starting. I originally thought that my goal was to lose ten pounds – really twenty-five overall but ten for the eight weeks – but right before the meeting I realized that I have had that goal a dozen times and it never motivated me. My goal changed to becoming self-motivated and self-reliant in achieving how I want my body to feel: strong and healthy. Less a to-do list and more an image of who I am – just what your post is talking about! Nice of the Universe (through you) to reinforce my decision, wouldn’t you say? By the way, the bulletin board above my desk is filled with bits and pieces of song lyrics, so I’m right there with you with words being more inspirational than photos for me.

    1. EXCELLENT!!! And I do have to add, song lyrics are a huge “thing” for me – I used to have a blog that was just song lyrics, and like I said in one of the other comments, those are always my desktop wallpaper.

      That rocks – and congratulations on finding the phrase that motivates you to feel like your best self! Keep us posted on how the program goes!

  13. I’m working on a vision board right now to use as a piece of art in my bedroom. We are working on some very big goals right now. I am in the process of losing 121 pounds. My husband is a merchant marine and spends more time at sea than at home. We are in the midst of a plan to get him off the boat. I am going back to school so I can earn a bigger income and we are creating as many income streams as possible. We also have a dream some day to take a vacation to Hawaii. I love keeping my goals right in front of my face.

    1. Kim, I think that is a GREAT example of something a vision board works for – you have that “big why” and you can really visualize it! 🙂

      Keep us posted on how it goes – can’t wait to celebrate with you when you get there!

  14. November 29th is your 30th birthday? It is my 18th birthday!

    I know personally, I keep a tumblr, and use that as my visual inspiration. If I ever don’t feel motivated towards working towards a goal, I go on there and look through pictures I reblogged, and they inspire me like your notebook inspires you, only this way, I don’t have to use glue and get my hands all sticky. 😉

    1. HAPPY EARLY BIRTHDAY!! 🙂 I love having birthday twins. And I love tumblr, too – I think that’s a great way to find and keep inspiration.

  15. I love this because it’s getting away from the traditional task-driven model of goal setting, and instead connecting goal setting with the emotional benefits of reaching the goal. And I’ve read this to be more effective than setting it up like a to-do list (and I do that A LOT). Looking at how achieving the goals will allow you to live different or feel better, I think that’s key. Love vision boards too – very helpful for us visual types in seeing that bigger picture behind change. Great insight, thanks!

    1. Dana, thanks!! I am also a to-do list person a lot of the time, but this has just been so much more successful when I get beyond the daily and weekly minutia!

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  18. I like having tasks but they have to relate to the big picture thing I want to be. I have a motto – which is currently “Learning to Fly” and about 5 or 6 things I want to be – everything from “free” to “financially independent” to “smiley happy”. Then every month or so I try to come up with 2 or 3 tasks under those headings that can help me get there. This also helps you better define what you really want because “being healthy” – cab mean losing weight, getting back to the gym or training for a marathon.

    The most important thing is I don’t fixate on crossing those tasks off the list but rather on making a conscious effort to spend my time only or mainly working on those things that get me closer to those goals.

  19. This is a great post. Breaking goals into smaller goals is a great way to stay on track, I like your bi annual method. Bullets and lists are boring, pictures are fun and more engaging

  20. Thanks for this post Joan. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a vision board on Pinterest but after reading your post, I went ahead and started it. The first post on that board is now this post, a picture of your vision board. I didn’t accomplish all the things on my before-22 list, but I now have a plan for 22 on the way to 23 🙂

    1. Briana, I’m glad you started!! That’s the biggest step! 🙂 You’ll have to keep me posted on how you’re doing with this year’s goals!

  21. I have something very similar-it’s a folder covered in images of my goals. IT’s not meant to be a to do list, rather a reminder of where I want to go. The thing that I’ve realized is that while life is going on and I feel so busy all the time, I often make more progress on these goals than I realize. It’s like how you turn around and your kids look so much bigger all of the sudden.

    1. Kelly, I know exactly what you mean! I actually dug into a “big projects” list I’d written down in a notebook from when I joined the MvD team 9 months ago, and even though I feel like we’ve been totally crazy with the documentary and everything, it was a great way to step back and go, “WOW – we accomplished all that??” It feels amazing. (I’m ignoring the part about the kids looking bigger. My daughter is 12 and just got her own cell phone. I feel like we’ve gone from baby to teenager in, like, a week and I can’t deal!)

  22. I just stumbled across your blog and I’m so glad I did. My family is really trying to get out of debt. I keep hearing about vision boards but haven’t ever made one. Sometimes it seems like we will never be debt free, it’s encouraging to hear that others are succeeding.

    1. Betty, I’m a little late replying, but thank you so much for commenting! I’m so glad you found us too.

      DON’T GIVE UP. I know the “we’ll never be debt-free” feeling well, but I’m trying hard to change my thinking!

  23. Fantastic article Joan!

    I’d say for me, my key phrases on my vision board would be “don’t give up,” and “it’s worth it”. (A little cliché I know), and yet I need to constantly remind myself these two important things.

    There’s always a point where I think it’s just too much to handle or it’s all a big waste of time, but that’s not true. I just need to stick through the tough times and my own self-doubting moments to make it through to the end. Thanks for sharing some of your goals and key phrases Joan, you’ve inspired me to continue doing the same 🙂

    1. Vincent, those are great points! (Sorry I’m a little late replying!) I think the thing is that I’m full of what some people would call cliches too – but they’re cliches because they’re SO often the right thing to focus on, you know! 🙂

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  27. Joan,
    I just want you to know that you HAVE made a difference. YOUR writing this article just threw me a huge paradigm shift. 1., I had never thought about having a board of things I am AND want to be (instead of a huge to-do list) and 2., and this is the big one! I NEVER realized it, but I, too, am SO inspired by well-chosen words and beautiful typography (a font nerd:) and I have YOU to thank for that realization. I’m still rubbing my noggin where you hit me like a ton of bricks.

    1. Jana, you made my day. (Actually, my week!) Thank you so much for commenting, and for being open to thinking differently about vision! You rock… I hope you’ll check back in and tell me what you create!

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