Resolutions, Goals, or Pipe Dreams?
Can you achieve your new year’s plan?
Well, it’s January 5th, 2021, and already some people are losing steam with their new year’s resolutions.
What do you call the plans you made for yourself this year? Goals? Commitments? And how can you be successful at making it past the first week or two, whatever you’ve promised yourself? Some people think the practice of making resolutions is counter-productive, but I think it’s useful to assess and aspire. The timing is arbitrary. You could do it at any point in the year, perhaps at your birthday. But January gives us, universally, a common set point if we choose that.
So if you make personal resolutions, how can you plan for success? The truth is, there’s no magic tool. What works is what works for you. And what works for you will probably only work when you’re finally done fantasizing and face hard reality: change is hard, and it’s difficult to sustain, even when it’s good for you, and especially if it’s not fun. Giving up the guilty pleasures you enjoy, taking on the challenge of getting fit or finishing a difficult project, putting discipline into your life in ways that only you can enforce…these are not easy choices for anyone to embrace.
I am no better or different. It takes strength of character and willpower to make significant change, especially when the individual is in control. It’s often easier to stay focused when someone else is in charge. In school or training or at work, when you’re accountable for progress to a teacher or manager or boss, somehow most people manage to get the job done. It’s less likely to happen when everything falls on self, when you have to carry both the visionary and operational roles.
These are tools and motivations I’ve used over the years to reach for my goals, sometimes successfully. Full disclosure here, I have to re-focus every day, in some way, at some level. I’m preaching (writing) to myself. This is where I begin:
- Set an intention, have a vision. This is critical to any hope of success. When I write out, on my screen or in a journal, what I want to do, I’m a thousand times more likely to actually do it. The more specific I am, the better. It’s even more powerful if I revisit my intentions on a daily or weekly basis, and speak my goals out loud. Self-talk is always a great reinforcement. Lists, planners, bullet journals, sticky-notes…the actual tools don’t matter so much as just doing something to define and describe your plan.
- Accountability. When I share what I plan to do, I’m more likely to succeed. Whether I tell my spouse, a friend, or an accountability partner, I’ve put an expectation out that I’ll be doing / changing something, and to be honest, I don’t want to be embarrassed to admit failure.
- Bribery. This is one of my favorite tactics. I promise myself a reward if I do “X.” Reward you say? This is tried and true and works for everyone. Companies give annual bonuses, trips, or promotions for meeting goals. Getting fit is rewarded with the promise of new clothes or other personal prize (of course in addition to feeling better or looking better). Finishing school or a training program comes with the expectation of a better job and more income. We can know there are excellent reasons for the goals we set. But a lovely self-bribe is a wonderful carrot to seeing the commitment through.
- Time limits. When I know I have a limited amount of time to accomplish something, it’s a powerful incentive to get moving. Whether the timeline is set by external forces or personal choice, putting a timeframe around a goal makes it more urgent, keeps it in the forefront of my thoughts, and makes it seem more achievable. A concrete time tied to a goal gives you a way to gauge progress and also reinforces that whatever you’re doing is short-term. If you’re slogging through tasks that are no fun, but still important to finish, just knowing the clock is ticking can help you stick it out. In other words, I can get through almost anything if I know there’s an end in sight.
- Welfare of loved ones. Occasionally I’ve set a goal for myself that’s really more about someone else…doing something for someone I love can be a powerful incentive to accomplish almost anything. The truth is, sometimes we do things for others that we wouldn’t do for ourselves. In fact, I think that’s often true. Sometimes the willpower I need comes from recognizing that my motive is outside myself, maybe the highest form of motivation there is. Good examples would be making a difficult personal choice such as giving up smoking or getting fit so you can be around to see your kids grow up; or saving for a family need like college or buying a house; or giving up some of your leisure time to invest in your grandchildren.
- A greater good. This motivation kicks in when my goal or task is not focused on self or family, but on something I want to do for others. I’m talking about a commitment that benefits a cause, an organization, or a group, something altruistic in nature. If I get fit to be around for my kids, even if they are my primary motivation, of course there’s a benefit to myself as well. This altruistic motivation is less personal, but still important. I think of people who volunteer for causes they believe in, or populations they’re committed to supporting. Maybe the connection comes from some difficult experience in your past…a time when you were vulnerable, so now you work to help others who are in the situation you overcame. When you know why you’re doing something, you find it easier to commit. And when you know you’re serving a greater good, you find strength to deliver on your promises.
- Baby steps. There is a time component to this tool, but instead of using a short-term date on the calendar as motivation, you use incremental steps and small amounts of time to meet your goals. I may not be able to change all I want in a week or a month, but I can take small steps every day that get me closer to my targets. The important thing is to have a plan that connects the smaller goals to the end point. This is another tool that makes it easy to chart progress, and know if you’re on track or need to re-set. And also, I can more easily commit to 20 or 30 minutes of working toward a goal each day rather than a marathon weekly or monthly session.
- Drastic change. A couple of times in my life I’ve made a more dramatic change and it was the right choice at the time. Maybe this is a gut decision to leave a job, make a move, etc. This is an option to use with caution. You don’t want to take drastic action often, or it will backfire on you. If your life is an ongoing drama, you’ll exhaust everyone around you, and instead of coming across as courageous at critical moments, you’ll appear unstable. Most people do not want to have a reputation for being unstable or overly dramatic. But there are decisions in life that won’t wait, can’t be implemented over time and in phases. Only you can be the judge of those moments in your life, and decide if the goals you set for 2021 require dramatic action, or a more deliberate and thoughtful approach.
- Inspiration. There’s no doubt we can all use inspiration and example to show us the way toward our own dreams. We do this all the time…we read blogs, books, listen to podcasts, watch videos, follow influencers, feel the quiet courage of seeing a friend or co-worker achieve something meaningful. Sometimes the right word or image at the right moment is a powerful force that shines a light on what we want to do, or what we’re lacking. Seeing others struggle as we do, or succeed as we hope to, or even fail and become a cautionary tale, can help us walk our path with a little more clarity. If you’re struggling to find your way, maybe you need to look outside yourself for the inspiration you’re lacking. It’s ok to borrow some energy and vision from someone else. We all need that boost at times.
- Take two, or three ideas, or whatever you need from the list and put multiple strategies together. Sometimes you need one tool for a short-term burst of enthusiasm and a different tool for sustaining your goals for the long haul. Do whatever works for you, as long as you can act with integrity.
Goals /resolutions, or pipe dreams? Each of us begins the year with a blank-slate calendar, and we get to color in the days with our choices. I believe personal goals give us a platform to build on, a framework for growth, as long as we’re not operating in self-deception. A pipe dream (defined as an unattainable or fanciful hope or plan) is the worst sort of delusion. When I kid myself that I’m following my dreams, doing the work, seeing the challenges through, but really I’m not…well, that’s just the saddest way to live. It’s easy to do: staying busy with time-fillers that don’t really do much, promising myself to get started “next week,” letting the days drift, waiting to get serious…like pre-Aslan Narnia, always winter and never Christmas, telling myself I’m making progress when I’m not is the most dis-empowering thing I can do.
There are times when we get stuck, and times when we have to re-set, or even dream new dreams. Nothing wrong with that. Life doesn’t always cooperate as we’d like. But it’s important to be honest with self and know what’s really happening when we’re off track. Honest derailment is one thing. Indulging in self-delusion isn’t healthy or productive.
What about you? What do you do to motivate yourself, to keep dreaming and keep moving?
Here’s to all of us, only a few days in to 2021. Here’s hoping we’ll find the courage and determination to follow through with the intentions we set. 2020 derailed so much, destroyed so many dreams. Now, with a new year in place, the fireworks and parties finished, it’s time to re-set. It’s a daily walk, pursuing goals, and a private one that requires integrity and strength. May we all find success at the other end of the year, and may this moment in January be the beginning.