Almost all of my past New Year’s resolutions have been lifestyle changes where I commit to stop a bad habit or start a new one. I never managed to keep them because my motivation would disappear as soon as I broke them and I started to fail. My real problem was that I was measuring my success and failure on the wrong timescale. Instead of evaluating the year as a whole, I would be looking at each week or even each day and writing it up as a win or a loss. I was mixing up monitoring and evaluation and labelling myself as a failure way too quickly.
New Year’s resolutions are typically changes to your current lifestyle that you hope will deliver you benefits in some way. If we had a similar goal in business, to change an operation to deliver better outcomes, we would also want to monitor progress (to check that the change is actually being implemented) and then evaluate the change to see if it delivered on the outcomes. These are two separate actions with separate purposes. You wouldn’t recommend to your manager that the entire operational change is scrapped after a couple of weeks because you haven’t had 100% success in implementation, so why do we give up on resolutions in February when we have the whole year to be successful?
My issue is that I’m a completist. I have a desire to complete a collection and tick everything off a checklist, just for the satisfaction of reaching 100%. If I know I can’t complete something I’m more likely to give up entirely than stick it out and get a 75% mark. With resolutions, this outlook makes me destined to fail. SMART goals like ‘go to the gym at least three times a week’ would be written off the first week I couldn’t make the planned Monday or Wednesday sessions, then couldn’t pack in the extra days into the rest of the week to meet the goal. The week would be a failure and I would give up the entire year’s resolution. I needed to change my perspective.
Instead of setting specific commitments I tried to adjusting my New Year’s resolution to a broader focus area. This might include specific goals, but they are adaptable and work in harmony with each other. Using a broader focus area, committing to one habit often makes it easier to establish other, related habits. The evaluation of ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ is elevated to analyse the whole year and I let go of the concept of needing to reach 100%. Instead, if I could make most of my choices align with my New Year’s focus (say 75%) then I would consider myself to be successful.
This is how I set it up:
1. Pick a focus area that aligns with your values
Last year, my focus was on improving my financial security. In a year when a lot of people suffered economic upheaval, I was fortunate enough not to be affected, however these events really drove home why financial security is something that I value. I kept this ‘why’ in mind and wrote it at the top of my resolution page. The end-goal was not just saving money, it was improving my financial security so that I would feel less stress in periods of uncertainty, and be reliant on a lower income level.
2. One focus area for each year
2021 will be my focus on health and wellbeing. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to throw out all the financial habits I set up in 2020 and go into debt, these have been set up over the past year and have become a part of my ‘normal’ lifestyle. It’s easier for to now to continue to budget and set savings goals. It does mean that the primary driver for my day-to-day decisions will be health and wellbeing rather than saving money. For example last year if I went out to a cafe for breakfast, most of the time I would order the cheapest item. This year, I’ll be ordering the healthiest item most of the time. Picking one focus helps avoid conflicting factors and simplifies decisions. You might be tempted to create a ‘perfect’ lifestyle in one year with multiple focuses, but have a bit of patience and improve on one aspect at a time. If you had succeeded with one focus each year of your adult life, the change in your habits over this time would be huge!
3. Regular actions that will help achieve your focus
In addition to using your focus to put a lens on your day-to-day decisions, which tend to be ad-hoc, plan what regular actions you need to undertake and add them to your weekly schedule or daily routine. Last year, these regular actions were to create a budget every payday and to prep my lunches for the week. I’ll be continuing with these actions this year, adding a weekly exercise routine, expanding my meal planning and planned prep time to include dinners, and scheduling time to do a proper grocery shop to help achieve this year’s focus. I’ll also be adding things to my daily routine: drinking 2L of water throughout the day, using my sit-stand desk in the stand position for 2x half-hour periods, and flossing my teeth at night.
4. Create a tracker for the year to monitor
Create a tracker to help monitor progress over the year. This is different to evaluation (where you determine success), and should just be used to help gauge how much your are using your focus in your daily decisions and undertaking regular actions. It can help adjust the regular actions you have set if they are not achievable. Last year my tracker was an annual budget that tracked savings goals. This year, my trackers are more like reminders that I will look at each month and decide whether or not they need more attention. They are: cardio fitness, flexibility, diet, posture, alcohol intake and stress levels. I make it part of my monthly checklist to monitor these aspects and decide whether I need to put more focus on them.
5. Have an end of year goal to evaluate against
Even though you will be monitoring throughout the year using your tracker, don’t be tempted to make an evaluation on your success until the end of the year. This means that you can give yourself some slack if you have an off-month, and you can dedicate the whole year to your focus. Your end of year goal can be a SMART goal, but shouldn’t be based on a weekly or monthly requirement, these regular actions should only contribute to your annual goal. For example, my annual goal this year is to run 5km in 30 minutes and my regular actions will help me to achieve this. My annual goal is not to go to the gym three times a week, because this could be broken in the very first week!
Last year I had a specific savings goal, based on a bigger multi-year plan to achieving financial stability. I actually only managed 50% of this because our car got hit by a hail-storm and we decided to purchase a new one after years of having no air-con, and electrical issues with a second-hand purchase. I could then adjust my goals to saving up for a new car and making 50% of my original savings target. I did achieve this combined total, giving me the satisfaction of labelling the year as a success and allowing me to move on to a new focus this year.