Not Another New Year’s Resolutions Post: Nix Your Outdated Approach to Self Improvement

It’s that time of year again. The weeks of reflection and false-promises. Countless posts written on how to make an effective new year’s resolution. I don’t know about you, but I’m over it.

I don’t want to hear about “this one trick” that’s going to change my life. As I think about the start of 2017 and the tradition of making soon-abandoned promises, the question on my mind isn’t” how do I make better New Year’s resolutions?” it’s “why do most of us only reflect and set goals once a year?”

When we make New Year’s resolutions we are essentially taking an old-school management approach with ourselves. It’s time to get contemporary. It’s not just in our professional lives that we need to adapt to the era of complexity; it’s in our personal lives too.

This post isn’t going to tell you how to make a better new year’s resolution, because even a perfect new year’s resolution isn’t designed to get you real improvement. It’ll guide you to make better decisions all year long. Here are a few principles to apply to your 2017 approach to growth and self-improvement.

1. Purpose & Values: Start with “why” rather than “should”

Just like in business, we often base plans in our personal life on what we think we should do and how things have typically been done. When we base goals on the principle of “should” our plans aren’t grounded in something actually meaningful. This leads to immediately — and often subconsciously — devaluing them, making them a lot easier to drop. When it comes to resolutions this habit is a common pitfall.

I’m going to work out more and lose weight because I should.

I’m going to save money because it’s responsible.

I’m going to be nicer to people because that’s what good people do.

None of these statements are bad resolutions, but none of them are inherently connected to the real value you are trying to create.

To explain more clearly what I mean let’s dig into the first statement above.

So your resolution is to work out more and lose weight. Why is it really that you want to do this? Is it because you value family and want to increase the chance of long-term health so you can play with your future grandchildren? Because you love adventure and have a kick-ass vacation planned that you want to make sure you can fully enjoy? Because you want to kill it at work and you know that exercising makes you more focused and motivated? Or do you actually feel fine with your body and health and this goal is the result of pressure felt from being around others who have more strict health regimens?

If it’s the latter, then this resolution isn’t a good use of your time.

A goal that isn’t connected to or rooted in something you truly value is not worthwhile. Plain and simple.

If the reason for the resolution is something like one of the first three, then you’ve got a solid foundation for success. You get two main benefits from identifying purpose before moving to specific, tactical goals.

First, you will be more motivated because you’re working toward something a lot more important than just the immediate outcome. Exercising for exercise-sake isn’t as motivating as thinking about the real life experiences you’re working toward.

Once you have a clear understanding of what those tactics add up to, you’ll feel stronger cognitive dissonance when you make decisions that don’t line up. Want to blow off the gym tonight — how will that help you on your scuba adventures? That tension will either push you toward your goals, or you’ll try to rationalize it away. While rationalizing is always a possibility, it’s a lot harder to do when it gets in the way of something you really care about.

Second, you’ll get more choices. Exercise isn’t the only way to improve health. If something comes up (and spoiler alert: it will) there are other ways you can make progress if you understand your overarching goal. Starting with purpose provides you more options when you face challenges or unexpected conditions. It will help you see options you might not have originally considered.

For example, if you’re only thinking about exercise as your goal, you’ll stop cold if you have a hectic week at work that doesn’t allow you to get to the gym. If you’re thinking about health in general you might choose a more nutritious lunch and prioritize getting enough sleep to still maintain a positive trajectory.

This year start with a little soul searching to identify what you really want and why before writing resolutions.

2. Rhythm: Match frequency of reflection with frequency of change

Purpose and values are foundational to a year full of effective decisions, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle. As I mentioned in my last piece, setting purpose is only as effective as your ability to keep it alive. It’s the same in our personal lives. Not building a rhythm for reflecting on our goals throughout the year is a key reason most New Year’s resolutions die, and why New Year’s resolutions are — in general — a little silly.

Once a year we reflect. Once a year we make personal goals. And in the time between we typically forget them and make decisions that slowly but surely get us off track. Then comes the new New Year’s Eve, and we start the process over again. It’s no wonder the holidays can be overwhelming. We squeeze what should be an ongoing process into a one-time event and then use the output as a value-judgment on our entire year.

Our cadence is totally off. Just like annual performance reviews, annual self-reflection isn’t the best way to promote growth or evaluate outcomes. Rather, we should be thinking about our progress toward goals and recent decisions frequently, if not as they’re actually happening.

A weekly 15-minute block to think about what you accomplished, what generally got in your way, and what felt awesome or frustrating will do wonders for the outcome of your year. In any given week things happen that we don’t expect. Taking a moment to think through what came up, how we reacted and the outcomes we got can help us better understand what we need to adjust (which might even include adjusting your medium-term goals).

Try scheduling a weekly calendar event to reflect on the past seven days and your goals. Or, even better, pick a trigger that already occurs in your life so you don’t just ignore that calendar invitation if or, more realistically, when it just so happens that something takes away the time. For example, reflect while you have your first coffee of the morning or on your commute home in the evening.

You’ll be surprised how even very short but frequent moments of reflection help you stick to your goals, especially if you jot down a few notes afterward.

3. Networks: Understand, curate, and leverage the people around you

New Year’s resolutions, just like traditional performance management, focus on the wrong unit for creating change — the individual. We are greatly influenced by the people around us, more than we usually recognize. We are social animals hard-wired to act like the people around us.

If you don’t believe me check out the Asch social conformity experiments or read up on mirror-neurons. With this in mind, how do we make sure networks help rather than hurt progress toward our long-term goals?

We have to take stock of, curate, and deliberately leverage our networks. If we reflect each week and only see that we keep making poor decisions but don’t notice we’re always with the same friends when we do so, we’re missing an important variable in the equation.

Just as managing-out team members that don’t add value is critical to long-term performance in a business, personal networks should also be evaluated and shaped. This doesn’t mean you should cut out any friend that doesn’t hold your specific goals; that would make for a very boring life.

It means understanding where your values differ from those around you so you don’t find yourself thoughtlessly mimicking their actions and then wondering why you’re unhappy. It also means identifying the people who make staying on track feel easier and spending more time around them.

Lastly, leverage your network by openly communicating with it about your goals. Transparency increases accountability and available resources. Tell your friends and family what you’re working toward this year. You never know who will have some insight or connection that could help you. You’ll also have more social pressure to stick with the goals you’ve outlined. Social networks can be a powerful tool. Don’t let yours go to waste.

Let’s do a quick review of how to manifest a 2017 you’ll be proud of next New Year’s Eve. Explore what you really value in life and translate that into a few meaningful goals. Reflect weekly to understand and adjust your path toward those goals as new opportunities and challenges emerge, and lastly, use the power of networks to your advantage. Of course, like everything else worth doing, these are easier said than done, but the good news is we have all year to try, experiment, and learn.

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