Make Better Resolutions by Understanding Your True Goals

With the turn of the calendar year, it’s resolution time for many people. The New Year feels like a clean slate, a world of opportunities, a chance for new successes that have eluded us.  An unknowable number of resolutions are made come January 1st, many of them falling into the familiar and repeated: to lose weight, to get more sleep, to eat more healthily, to exercise more, to spend less time at the office and more time with family.

Plan for Better Resolutions

Will you succeed?  The University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology reports that just a measly 8% of Americans are successful in making and implementing their annual resolutions. Why is this?  Presumably a person chooses a resolution that is important to her life, that she wants for herself, and which she believes would represent a positive change.  Why such a poor success rate?

1.     Know Your True Objectives

Buster Benson offers a mental framework to use to make and keep better resolutions.  Benson starts by encouraging us to know our true objectives. Success in sticking to your resolutions requires an understanding not only of what you think you want to change in your life, but why you want to make the change.  In other words, what is your real objective?

The traditional resolutions I listed above appear at face value to be positive changes.  Who doesn’t want to improve their health?  Who wouldn’t want a more fulfilling work-life relationship?  Who can argue with spending more time with family?  Standing in a vacuum, however, these resolutions are actions without objectives.  The objective is the “why” of the resolution.

In making your resolutions, spend some time thinking about your objectives.  If you have a practice of a weekly, monthly, or annual review, where you reflect on past performance and set future goals, you should already have a good sense of these.  Think about the objective behind the resolution.  If it is not a goal that you are committed to, that will fuel your days, weeks, and year, you’re probably not going to get very far with the resolution.  Picking resolutions that align with your goals is the task here.

2.     Understand your personal environment

Your life is like no one else’s.  Your familial, professional, physical, mental, emotional, financial, and geographic situations combine to form a unique environment in which you operate.  That environment will influence your ability to change or alter certain aspects of your life and routines.  Understanding your personal environment will provide you with a much greater insight into what resolutions you actually have a chance of sticking to.

This is the point that so much self-improvement and productivity systems literature ignores, as Benson adeptly notes:

This is why goal-achievement is so difficult to prescribe from afar. The goal-achievement self-help industry cannot create personalized instructions for them to grow in 7 billion different environments, and so the instructions often ignore the environmental conditions entirely saying simply:

  1. Take goal out of box
  2. Water at the goal every day for 21 days
  3. Make sure it doesn’t die
  4. Success!

Step 3 is usually left purposefully vague — just commit yourself, they say. Go ahead and throw out any how-to manuals that you have (including this one). Growing a goal requires that you put on your own gardening hat and gloves and pay attention to the soil that you and you alone have to work with.

Figure out the details, advantages, and hurdles of your environment.  If you are single, you will have distinct time advantages in your environment than someone with many small children in the house.  Note your work schedules, your family commitments, your responses to stress (eating? drinking alcohol? skipping the gym?), your commute time, and anything else that stands as a contour that you must navigate in your daily life.  Once you’ve done this, you might revisit your resolution choice.

Consider swapping your original resolution with one focused on changing the environmental condition that has the most potential to prevent the success of your original resolution.

As an example, two of my objectives this year are to increase the number of posts on this blog to at least three per week, and to read at least 100 books.  My personal environment includes family commitments to two young children, who wake up early and require a lot of attention during their waking hours.  I could have simply “resolved” to write and read more.  But this wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere, as it is conclusory and doesn’t detail an actionable step given my environment.  Thinking about the details of my life, a more focused resolution is to get up earlier.  So I’m going to try to move my wakeup time from 5:45AM to 5:00AM this year.  If I’m successful, that will give me nearly an entire hour additionally to myself in the morning, before the kids get up, to read and to write. Hopefully, it will give me more time to reach my objectives.

3.     Remember, review, and revisit your resolutions.

If you’re going to successfully make some change in routine or habit, you can’t rely on just blind memory to help.  You need to use tools and reminders to check in and remind yourself of your objectives.  First, you need to identify your goals for the year as part of a reflection and planning process.  Then, you need to revisit those goals on a regular basis.

Pick a review interval that makes sense for your life.  You might consider doing different types of reviews at different intervals.  For example, I start each day with a morning ritual that consists of a workout, a short journal entry making notes of opportunities and gratitudes (similar to this), a short mindfulness meditation, and a review of my to do list for the day.  On a weekly basis, I block out about two hours on my Friday afternoon for a weekly review, where I gather all loose information and to-dos from all the places they collect over the week, and review the status and to-dos for all projects, both personal and professional.  I check my progress against my goals for the week.  Then I set three goals for the following week.

I do the same thing on a monthly and annual basis on a higher level.  Monthly reviews allow for a review of goals and targets, including the resolutions and habit changes I’ve set for goals.  There’s no magic to this pattern, and you might find that a completely different review process works better for you.  You must make the time, whatever method you choose.   It is only through regular review of progress against goals that you will understand whether you are on or off course, and be able to identify any needed changes in course.

4.     The Point of Any Resolution Is to Increase Your Quality of Life

There is no secret universal blueprint for great resolutions that will work for everyone.  Remember that the point is to increase the amount of time in your life that you consider to be high quality.  That may be family time, it may be more time for yourself, it may be more time focused on a new project or business endeavor or hobby.  Whatever it is, spending the time to identify your goals and priorities will allow you to understand what it is that really makes you happy.  Once you know that, you’ll be able to think about discrete, meaningful changes you can make in life that will help you take small steps every day toward those goals.

Good luck!  Have a great 2016.

photo credit:Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Protecting Time for Your Most Important Work

The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal; just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil or paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.

-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

Focus on One Project at a Time

We live in an age of seemingly endless multi-tasking.  At any given moment, our conscious minds are being bombarded by the firing of neurons, reminding us of our professional obligations to our superiors and subordinates, client calls to return, due dates, deadlines, the wants and needs of our children, financial concerns, personal relationships, and our own personal well-being.  We all need to navigate these choppy seas, and the habits of routines and setting daily goals are helpful to focus us on a short-term basis.  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney urge in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength a simple lesson: to maximize your success, “Focus on one project at a time.”

This begs the question, though, of on which project should you focus?  Responsible business, family, and personal management will require some amount of attention to daily operations and maintenance.  But are you directing any time and attention to your bigger strategic goals?  The big projects, the ideas that fill your daydreams and pop up in your mind while you shower, run, or suffer through a daily commute?  These opportunities are important but not urgent, and thus often take a backseat to the reactive mindset of responding to daily asks.  These short-term needs all claim to be urgent, but closer inspection will show that they range greatly in terms of actual importance.  And at the end of the day, you’ll probably find that dealing with very few of those “emergencies” will actually advance you towards accomplishing the goals that are most important to you.  Charting a successful course requires us to protect time for our minds to think about, process, and progress towards our strategic goals and important projects.

Prioritize Your Life, or Someone Else Will

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown observes, “In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.”  In other words, it is impossible to develop focus on the things most important to you and your long-term goals unless you are able to separate from the daily urgencies of life.  McKeown recounts the efforts of Sir Isaac Newton undertaken in writing Principia Mathematica, the three-volume book in which Newton published his laws of motion and universal gravitation, forming the basis of classical mechanics.  Between May 1684 and April 1686, Newton was so single-handedly devoted to the pursuit of his mathematical studies that he often forgot to eat, sleep, or change clothes.  His notebooks related to his chemical experiments have no entries for this same time period, demonstrating his abandonment of other projects and studies.

Newton’s work on Principia is an extreme example of focus, no doubt.  The lesson is of great value nonetheless.  As McKeown pointedly states, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”  Making progress on your long-term goals requires setting aside time to focus on them.  In another example, Baumeister and Tierney describe Raymond Chandler’s practice of developing focus in his writing through a method called “the Nothing Alternative.”  Frustrated with his lack of progress on a writing project, Chandler set about to develop greater focus and avoid distraction.  Of course, in trying to force focus artificially, Chandler discovered what you likely have experienced at one time or another – that attempting to force focus only results in your mind feeling even more distracted.  In other words, you can’t fake it.  To deal with this resistance, Chandler gave himself permission to write, or to do nothing.  He did not allow himself to do any other work.  In alleviating the pressure to “do something,” Chandler gave himself space to think in a focused environment, with an outlet channel of writing during the assigned time.

How to Find Time to Focus

Methods for finding distraction-free time are many, and include creating a workspace conducive to focused work and eliminating outside interruptions and alerts from colleagues and technology.  The most important step is simply committing to the time.  Set aside time on at least a weekly basis for uninterrupted thinking and work on your long-term goals.  If you can do it more frequently, do it.  Put it on your calendar today.  Make sure others know it is time that you need to and will protect.

The Cinder Cone and the Realization of Foster Huntington’s Ideas

Six or seven years ago, I began reading a blog named A Restless Transplant written and curated by a young man named Foster Huntington.  Over the years, it was a pleasure watching Mr. Huntington’s focus flow from idea to idea, from the American landscape, to style, to the nostalgia of college, to career opportunities in NYC, to life on the road.  His latest project was the construction of a more permanent home in the Columbia River Gorge, consisting of two treehouses, a skating pool, and a wood-fired hot tub.  He’s raising money for a new book project through Kickstarter.

His embrace of a dream is inspiring.  The scope and content of dreams is an individual thing.  Watch the film, and I hope that you find some fuel to help you chase down your own.

You Need a Morning Routine

How does your typical morning proceed?  Is it a chaotic, random, angst-inducing race to get yourself and the kids out the door without being too late?  Can you envision it differently –  orderly, structured, regular, predictable, and reliable?  If your mornings are a source of anxiety and stress, it may be hard to imagine creating order during this chaotic time.  The key is spending a bit of time to create a dependable and repeatable morning routine.

Business literature is littered with articles describing ideas for things that successful individuals do in the mornings and at the beginning of each week.  These are great to peruse, and to see if you might be missing out on a practice that would benefit your morning (or any time of your day, for that matter).  It really should come as no surprise that morning exercise is a good practice to begin your day.  For one, it will start your day with increased energy and motivation.  Second, it ensures that you actually do it, and that exercise will not fall victim to an otherwise busy day.  Developing research is beginning to suggest that time spent meditating or visualizing in some form will drastically improve your ability to focus and carry through your day emotionally balanced.

The important point, though, is to figure out what adds benefit to your day, and begin making a routine of it.  Your mornings should be reliable and predictable, not a daily impromptu dance through disorganization.  Routine will eliminate the improvisation of the morning.  It is uncertainty that is a large part of the stress that you feel during morning hours if you are not organized.

My morning routine is this:

1.  Wake between 5:30 and 5:45.

2.  Dress for exercise.

3.  Meditate for 15-20 minutes.

4.  Run.

5.  Eat breakfast.  During breakfast, transfer the important items from my to-do list onto a daily index card that will guide my day.  (This will be the subject of a future post).

6.  Dress and head out the door on time.

Your routine should not look like mine.  It should be a reflection of the important practices that generate energy and focus for your day.  Spend some time thinking about it.  When you determine the proper routine.  Write it down.  Put it into your to-do list.  My routine is actually written and placed in Evernote as a daily to-do item.  It makes it material and concrete, and it ensures that I focus on it.  You may end up trying a few things and adjusting, which is OK.  The effort to establish routine will pay substantial dividends, and I encourage you to introduce it to your life.