Should you set New Year’s Resolutions?

At this time of year, almost everyone is thinking about their New Year’s Resolutions. Maybe you are too. Maybe you’ve read some articles about how to set good goals. You know your SMART from your OKR and you’re ready to start writing.

I’m going to argue that you shouldn’t.

What? No New Year’s Resolutions?

That’s right.

There’s a reason that I sometimes wish people a “Happy Arbitrary Division of Time Day” instead of a Happy New Year. Who decided that the year would “start” on 1 January?[1] Time is continuous, not discrete. In a way, every moment is the start of a new year.

If you tie your hopes to your NYR, several things happen:

  1. You put off starting until the new year. Why then? Why not now?
  2. You believe that to be successful you have to “do” your resolution for exactly one year. Not more, not less.
  3. You, along with around 90% of other people, give up on your resolution. Usually in late January.

So yes, I hate New Year’s Resolutions.

Mind you, I have nothing agains goals per se, I just don’t think they should be tied to an arbitrary date in the calendar, and they aren’t enough on their own. Instead, they should be carefully integrated into your life.

The missing piece

A typical internet list of how to achieve your goals would go something like:

  1. Decide what you want to do.
  2. Write it down. Probably mentioning SMART.
  3. Tell someone.
  4. Break your goal down. This is especially important for big goals.
  5. Plan your first step.
  6. Keep going.
  7. Celebrate.

Most people (or at least most people who fail at achieving their goals) skip steps 3-7. And yes, accountability and planning the first steps are important, but there are two major problems.

Know your WHY

Step 1 should be “Decide what you want to do and why“, because without knowing your why you have no incentive to keep trying when the going gets tough.

Goals vs. Plans

My other problem is step number 6. It’s not nearly specific enough. What on earth does “keep going” even look like? How do you know if you are doing enough?

Perhaps I over plan, but I believe that you need the whole road mapped out, at least as a rough sketch. How else are you going to know if your plan is achievable?

I’ll give you an example.

Say you want to learn to cook better. You decide that you want to cook one new recipe every week all year. You tell your partner (who, after all, is going to have to put up with this cooking!). The plan is already relatively broken down – one recipe a week doesn’t sound so bad, right? You plan your first step: in the January sales you’re going to buy a recipe book!

At first it goes well. You get your book. You cook a couple of meals. Then you have that week when you were going skiing and can’t cook anything, and the week after that your house is in chaos with all the unpacking and washing and catching up on work, and suddenly it’s February and you’ve only cooked two new meals.

Now you’ve missed your goal of cooking a new recipe every week, and you might as well give up.

If instead you looked at the whole year when you were planning, you would have realised that there would be weeks you weren’t going to cook. You would have framed your goal differently. Maybe you still want to cook 52 new recipes, but you’re going to do 5 per month rather than 1 per week. That gives you some flex for life events (and some spare capacity in case you miss the target one month).

How long is a year?

The trouble with planning in detail is that life happens. The longer you plan for, the more likely it is that something is going to change in your life that makes it impossible to complete your plan.

Obvious example: how many people had goals for 2020 that had to be abandoned in March?

The 12 Week Year is a book by Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington which advocates splitting your year up into four smaller years. Your year is now only 12 weeks, which makes planning easier and ups the urgency on your tasks. There’s no putting it off or “catching up” later if you only have 12 weeks!

I’m not sure if you need to be that rigid with the number of weeks. 12 feels about right, but some goals won’t take that long, and some will take longer. As long as you set the period in advance and stick to it I think there is room to flex a little.

Tracking the outcome

It’s also important to keep track of how you are doing. This could be as simple as a calendar where you tick off the days you did certain things, or it could be a massive complex project database – it really depends on what you are doing and what you are comfortable using.

Tracking can come in two sorts – the effort you put in, and the outcomes you get.

Say for example my goal was to get new students for the dojo. I could plan to use social media posts and blogging to increase our online presence, and go round asking local cafes to put up flyers for us, among other things.

My prospective tracking options now are number of posts and blogs written, and number of places that flyers have been put. Retrospectively, I can track interactions with our social media presence, number of people who sign up for a trial lesson, and number of people who come back for more and become permanent students.

Once you know how much effort you’re putting in and what results you’re getting, it is easier to figure out what works and what doesn’t, meaning that your next set of plans will be better.

Your Goals and Plans

Are you setting New Year’s Resolutions this year? Or are you going to create Plans instead? Share them with the world – or don’t – but make sure you know how they integrate into your life, even when life throws you something unexpected.

[1] Turns out, possibly originally the Roman king Numa Pompilius, who decided to have the month named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, as the first month of the year, instead of the month named after Mars, the god of war. It went through some changes for a while before being brought back to 1 January by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. [* please note that "ten or more" is still something.]

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