On Goal Setting in the New Year
Even though new year resolutions never work (University of Scranton says only 8% of people ever achieve their new year resolutions), January 1st brings with it an intoxicating energy…one that compels us to treat the new year as a clean slate and pile onto it everything we wanted to do in the years past but never managed to. I used to do that as well until four or so years ago when I discovered a new strategy that has been serving me well. It is realistic but it also pushes me. It is aspirational but very much measureable. I thought I should go through the exercise of articulating what it is and why I do it for the benefit of myself and others.
Visualizing the goal
I will start with a little story. I have been fortunate enough to walk to work everyday for the last 4.5 years. I live on 34th and 2nd ave and work on 45th and Lex. It is a very doable 20 minute walk and now that I have been doing it for so long, I’ve recognized my patterns. For example, when walking to work, I tend to walk either on 2nd or 3rd avenue because those are far more interesting then Lexington. But when returning home from work, I prefer to walk on Lexington because it is much quieter. I avoid crossing avenues between 36th — 38th streets because it is uphill and exhausting. I’ve learned these things and more.
However, there are those days, especially post work when those 20 minutes feel extremely long. Those days when it is bone chillingly cold or when I’ve just had a shitty day — I want to skip the walk altogether or cab it home. But during my first year of walking home, I discovered a funny little thing. On a lark, once I walked down on Second avenue instead of Lexington. If you are walking downtown from midtown on Second avenue, you will see the blazing gold dome of the Armenian church that is at the corner of 34th Street and Second. This dome is right next to live and somehow, being able to see the dome from as far as 45th street made the walk on 2nd avenue feel much faster and easier. It also made me feel optimistic… made me feel that home was near and by the time I walked home, I would almost always feel much better about the shitty day or the cold.
I realized then, that when you can see where you are headed, the walk becomes much easier. It doesn’t make the weather warmer or the shitty work day better — but it offers hope to cope with what I cannot control and reminds me that the finish line is achievable.
It’s a metaphor that has served me well since. At the beginning of the year, I draw out broad strokes for the personal, career, travel and financial aspects of my life and I force myself to write down what I want to achieve in each of those aspects. Writing, is very important. It demands lucidity and clarity of thought which requires work, revisions and honesty. Also, articulating this on paper makes it real and something I then hold myself to and measure against.
Once I know where I am expected to be by year’s end, I break down them down further and write tactical tasks I need to accomplish each quarter that will lead me towards the fulfillment of those goals.
It doesn’t always work out as planned. And that is okay. Sometimes it takes me a little longer, (developing good eating and exercise habits) sometimes I write it down and don’t do anything about it but the universe makes it happen, (teaching), and sometimes it just lingers for year, making it from one goal worksheet to another. (writing a book). But that is okay — I am harsh with myself but I also know that if I want something bad enough, I always prioritize it enough to go get it. So if the book isn’t happening, it is probably because I am prioritizing other things right now. But carrying the idea of the book year after year is sealing the intent that at some point, I will make it a priority.
The third thing
I believe that we can only really focus on three things at once. At least it is true for me. And two of those are always auto-filled for me, my career and my family. So if there is something else I want to accomplish, I have to be honest with myself about my own capacity to be able to do it because then every spare moment that I’m not investing in my family or my career, needs to be dedicated to this third thing. Last year, I made being healthy and exercising that third thing. And despite my erratic work schedule and frequent travel, I forced myself to remain disciplined about lifting weights and healthy eating.
Resolutions are often about learning or unlearning habits and I have come to appreciate that it takes time. My exercise and food regime is still not on auto-pilot but it is absolutely getting there. Plus it helps that these habits are measurable. I know how I feel when I haven’t worked out or eaten right. I stopped using travel as an excuse and found ways to maintain these habits despite the flights and hotels. There are no short cuts or hacks to certain habits and those are the hardest.
Not all habits require as much maintenance though. A few years ago, the third thing was my finances. I wanted to learn how to diversify, invest and plan well. It took a lot of reading, speaking with experienced friends and counsellors but I was able to wrap it up in the first two quarters of that year and put those habits on auto-pilot.
That’s where the writing has helped immensely. I know my patterns and my limitations well enough that I am able to be honest with myself. I can only juggle three priorities at a time so I have to be careful about picking the third thing. Sometimes it is two things in a year, sometimes it is a thing every quarter that I can master and put on auto-pilot.
To me, that is what New Year Resolutions are about. Clarity.
I need to see, visualize, where I want to go and then find the best way to get there. When I cannot see where I am headed, I am confused, not effective and generally not very confident in myself.
Time versus energy
When it comes to resolutions, I am at the age now where time has become a defining consideration. I want my time to matter. I want it to account for something because there is so little of it. And there will be even less of it as my family grows somedays. I’ve been obsessing over time and better manage it. But My friend S gave me another, far more appealing perspective — energy. She isn’t so worried about her time as she is about the energy she expends and where and how she expends it both in her professional and personal life. She is honest with herself and knows that she has far more limited energy than she has time. She wants to invest it versus wasting it and I love that perspective so much that I am going to incorporate it in own life.
Because 2014 was so intense, I indulged in a lot of mind-numbing television and socializing with friends which was just that, an indulgence. The television or the mindless socializing did not add any value other than making me feel good in that moment, but in addition to the time that was wasted, it was also my energy that was spent. Instead of channeling this energy into activities that are good for me, aligned with my goals, I chose to spend the energy on activities that do not lead me forward. Down time is critical but how I channel my energy and what I do in this down time is even more important. Instead of shit TV, I could do my nails or get that facial I’ve put on my to-do list for ages. Or even do yoga. Activities that I know I enjoy and energy I know I will enjoy spending.
This is a new thought for me but for 2015, I put all my goals through this lens and it has given them a sharpness they didn’t have before.
Writing more frequently is something I have carried on my goal worksheets year after year but not prioritized it enough until now. I have a tendency to begin strong, falter and then pick up again. I’m hoping that my commmitting myself in a public forum, I am building some more accoutability than years before which will motivate me through the down times to continue to write.
Anyways, just my two cents. Hope it adds some value to your lives.