January 22, 2013

by margaret turner

How hard is it to keep a New Year’s resolution?  Pretty hard, if you believe CTV News.  On New Year’s Day this year CTV reported that 90% of New Year’s resolutions are broken—which means that only 10% are kept.  With a success rate like that, you’d wonder why we’re still talking about them at this time every year.

So I began to wonder about the nature of resolutions.  According to the online dictionary I consulted, one of the many possible definitions for resolution is “the act or process of resolving.”  Then I looked up ”resolving” and found, among the many choices, one that seemed to fit our New Year’s preoccupations:  “to reach a firm decision about.”

Maybe it’s not the nature of a resolution itself—a firm decision sounds good—but how we think about them.  Often our resolutions are virtuous and vague, like the favourite:  “Lose weight.”   How much weight?  One pound or 50?  In a week?  A month?  A lifetime?  Or how about “Get more exercise.”  More than what, I want to ask.   Or the best one:  “Get healthy.”  What does that even mean?

Clearly we don’t approach our New Year’s resolutions the way we approach our goals:  while  we find it almost impossible to keep our New Year’s resolutions, most of us are successful at setting and reaching goals.  My FLOW colleague, Laura-Lee McKeown, has a terrific, real-life story about setting and reaching goals.  A few years ago she decided to compete in a try-a-triathlon (shorter than the official Olympic version).  With about four months to race date she started training, first with swimming, cycling and running on alternate days, then with increasing frequency and distance, until by race day she was training hard.  Her goal was to finish the race.  She did.  The next year she decided to do it again.  Her goal was to beat her previous time.  She did.

Successful athletes have a lot in common with successful workers.  Whether you’re a small business owner, an ED of a non-profit, or working to feed a family and pay off a mortgage, you’re in the business of setting goals and meeting them.  How do you do it?

  1.  Make your goal specific.  Not “Get more exercise”, but “compete in the try-a-triathlon, and finish.”
  2.  Make your goal realistic.  Right now an Australian couple has started running marthons, one each day in 2013.  Ambitious?  Of course, and probably too ambitious for all but a few serious runners.  Don’t set a goal that you’re unlikely to achieve.  Be realistic, and use the bounce you get from your success to set the bar a bit higher next time.
  3. Commit.  For Laura-Lee, commitment meant paying the entry fee:  after that there was no going back.  In other circumstances it might mean going public with your goal, or making changes and removing obstacles to your success.
  4. Plan the process.  When you buy a house the amount you owe can seem huge—more than you can possibly pay off.  And it would be impossible, if you tried to pay it off tomorrow.  But you plan the amount of each payment, the interval of payments, and the number of payments you will make.  And suddenly, you have a manageable plan to own your home.  Just like competing in a triathlon, you break the process into the steps that will lead to your success.
  5. Get expert advice.  Whether you’re setting a sales target, expanding the reach of your services, or competing in an athletic event for the first time, you would probably benefit from some informed advice.  Do the research, talk to the experts, and benefit from their experience.
  6. Set a deadline.  “Lose weight?”  That can be an overwhelming challenge.  Lose five pounds in the next month?  Not so bad—something many of us could achieve.
  7. Celebrate your success.  Laura-Lee finished the race and got the T-shirt, along with lots of cheers and applause from the family and friends who were there to congratulate her success.  Assemble your own team of cheerleaders, keep them posted on your progress, and enjoy your success with them.

If I was going to make a New Year’s resolution it would be simple:  don’t make a New Year’s resolution.  Instead set a specific, realistic goal and reach it.  And then set another, and another.  Soon you’ll be competing in triathlons—or maybe even running a marathon every day.

What’s your take on New Year’s resolutions?  Motivating?  Useless?  Something to feel guilty about?  Let me know--