If the thought of having an uber detailed plan of goals and action steps for the year ahead makes you twitchy with over-structure, you should just quietly back away from this post. No, seriously, off you go now.

If, however, you’re a personal development whore like me who’s completely turned on by intention setting and checklists and dividing things up into pretty little color-coded boxes, then welcome home, baby. You’re just six steps away from joining me in a blaze of 2012 goal setting glory.

Ready? Let’s do this.

Step 1 - Look back over the year that’s about to end and make your “Eff Yeah” List. You know, that list of badass things you accomplished throughout the past 12 months – big and small – that makes you want to dance naked around the kitchen with pride.

A few of my Eff Yeah 2011 List items include moving in with James Bond, quitting drinking, launching my food blog, and completing my first half marathon. Yep, it was a pretty damn good year.

Step 2 - Think about the big picture of your life and choose one word or phrase that best represents your dreams for the coming year. After you’ve settled on a word, spend some time thinking about why you chose that word and list a few bullet points about what it means to you and how you’re going to manifest that word (or phrase) into everything you do.

My 2011 word was intention, and my 2012 word is honesty. More specifically, I’m gunning for greater honesty with myself about the difference between what I actually want and what I think I should want in any given situation. Goal: more truth, less shoulds.

Step 3 - Choose nine different “Life Buckets” that, when looked at together, represent the sum of who you are and how you spend your time. These nine different categories should be like the puzzle pieces of your day-to-day, taking into account your most important priorities and values.

A few of my Life Buckets for 2012 are self-explanatory (Romance, Food, Running, Friendship) and a few are more creative, like “Do Uncomfortable Shit,” which represents things I’ll try next year to totally push me out of my comfort zone.

Quick note: when I’m making my list of Life Buckets, I never include anything work-related because I like to do an entirely separate goal setting exercise for that. You can absolutely include work as a bucket it if it makes sense for you, though, which is the gorgeous thing about this system: it can be whatever the hell you want it to be. Customizable down to the last drop.

Step 4 - Write down three big goals in each Life Bucket that you’d like to accomplish by the end of the year. Keep in mind that these goals should reflect where you want to be by the end of next year and aren’t things that you all of the sudden have to start doing at 6am on January 1. Thinking about it now, actually, I feel like that’s a big reason that a lot of typical New Year’s Resolutions fade out so quickly. If we feel like we have to be perfectly on track as soon as the year begins, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to wake up on January 1 and be an entirely different person with entirely different habits; habits take a while to build and even longer to stick.

For example, one of my big goals in the Exercise Bucket for 2011 was to work out three times per week, and yet April was the first month that I was able to do it. I tried in January, February, and March, but it just didn’t happen. Sure, I was working out, but there was always at least one week per month where I only worked out twice, or once, or not at all, and it took me until April to check off 4 consecutive weeks of regular exercise. Then, in the middle of May, I signed up for a half marathon – a goal I would have found hysterically unachievable at the beginning of the year and never would have thought to add to my goal sheet – but yet here I am, nearing the end of December and consistently working out 6 days a week and training for my second half marathon in February. The Craziness, no?

What I’m saying here is that goal setting is a process, and that you have to trust in that process if you want to grow. You have to trust that you can’t see the whole picture or the finish line when you make your goals, because you have no idea where they’ll lead you once you start down that path. All you can do is make one good decision after another and continually reevaluate as you go. I mean, if I never would have committed to a year-long goal of working out three times a week, and if I would have quit after January (or February! or March!) because my results weren’t perfect, then I never would have fallen in love with running in April. Which brings me to another thing: sometimes the biggest accomplishments are ones that spring up out of nowhere (like my half marathon!), so make sure you trust your instincts when you’re drawn toward something you can’t say no to. Except maybe heroin, that’s never a good idea.

Step 5 - On January 1, and on every first of the month thereafter, write down one small action step you’re going to do that month for each of your big goals. These action steps are ones you’ll work to check off throughout that month, and then at the end of the month you’ll make a new list for the next month, and so on and so on during the entire year.

For example, one of my Life Buckets for next year is “Food,” and one of my big goals is to attend 4 food related events by the end of the year. So in January, the action step for this big goal will be to research food events and narrow it down to the ones I’d most like to attend. Then, on February 1, assuming I’ve completed January’s action step, I’ll write a new action step for that month that moves me closer to my goal. Maybe that next step will be to buy tickets to an upcoming event, or to make travel plans if the event is out of town, but I don’t have to worry about that yet because I won’t know the second step until I’ve accomplished the first step. This process, like so many things, is best done one step at a time.

Now, listen, if you do the math, you’ll realize that with nine Life Buckets, three big goals per Bucket, and one action step per goal per month, you’ll wind up with 27 action steps to do each month, which, yes, sounds like a lot. But here’s the thing: I’ve never done all 27. I think I hit 18 or 19 one month in 2011, but that’s it. And that’s okay. Because really, it’s 18 or 19 more things than I would have accomplished if I didn’t use this system, and that means I’m still moving forward and making progress at an awesome rate. And honestly, the majority of my personal growth has come from looking at the things I didn’t do each month and asking myself the all-important question: “Why not?” That’s where the really interesting personal development comes into play, I think, when you start examining why you didn’t do the things you said you wanted to do. For me, it’s always one of three reasons. Either I was just totally fucking lazy, the action step was too large for the time frame, or it doesn’t represent something that I truly want. It’s the last reason that’s always the most eye-opening for me, and it takes the physical act of moving something from January’s list to February’s list to March’s list, etc. etc. to realize that, hey, maybe I just don’t want to do that thing – or at least, I don’t want to do it right now. That’s what happened to me in 2011 with my book of essays. One of my big goals in the Writing Bucket at the beginning of the year was to complete the first draft of a book of personal essays, and it wasn’t until I saw the smallest action step get moved from month to month to month that I realized I just don’t want to write a book right now. So, during my mid-year review in June I erased that big goal and replaced it with a new one – to start a food blog – a goal that come to fruition much more smoothly because it was in line with what I actually wanted.

Step 6 - Once you’ve chosen your word of the year and your Life Buckets and your big goals, take some time to go through them with someone else. It doesn’t matter who you choose (your best friend, your fiance, your mother), but the act of talking about your goals really brings them to life and helps you clarify exactly how you’re going to pursue them. Also, it starts a support system that I think you’ll need if you’re going to be successful. It’s possible to do all of this on your own, of course, but it’s eleventy thousand times easier if you have someone (or multiple someones!) to share the process, challenges, and accomplishments with. Sharing is caring, yo.

Bonus step - Take your list of big goals, make it pretty, and hang it somewhere you can see every day. If you’re a scrapbook-ey person, do it by hand. If you’re a spreadsheet-ey person, do it in a spreadsheet. If you’d like to see what I do, click here to download a preview of my layout, as well as a blank Word Doc layout for you to fill in yourself if you’d like to join me in my 2012 planning madness.

On that note, if you do join me (yay! partners in madness!), it would be awesome if you could leave a comment and let me know your word for the year, some of your Life Buckets and big goals, and anything else you have planned. I’m embarrassingly obsessed with hearing about other people’s goals and dreams, and if there’s anything I can do to help you out, I’d love to make it happen!