It’s about that time, the time when average people sigh and give up on themselves because they think they’ve screwed up their New Year’s Resolutions again. That’s because people seem to think that a first draft is somehow typeset, bound, printed, and archived. We think if we made a typo, it’s carved into the base of a statue somewhere. We think if we misspoke, it’s recorded and played back before Saint Peter at the pearly gates. Or whatever.
Look, if you want to win at this game, make your own rules.
The point of this whole “resolution” thing is for you to decide, for yourself, that you want to upgrade your experience of this life. You choose your values and your standards and you choose your behaviors to match. You set up your own environment to support your choices.
That’s where revision comes in!
This is perfect. You came up with a really good idea for something you want to do. Now you’ve tried to put it into practice in your daily life, and you have more information on how that’s working out.
As an example, I made a resolution to work on hip openers, which means various kinds of leg stretches. I want to do it because when I do, it feels good, and when I don’t, I get plantar fasciitis, I’m asymmetrical, and I suck at roundhouse kicks, which embarrasses me in the gym because everyone is constantly trying to give me advice.
Right now, we’re two weeks into the year and I haven’t done a single stretch. Not one.
Does that mean I’m a stinking failure loser and that I should quit making goals? Well, maybe. Too dumb and stubborn for that, though, so I’ll keep trying.
What I learn from my own experience is that I set out to make a bunch of changes to my schedule all at once this year, and some of them I’m already doing and some of them I’m not. Everyone who reads this should take away the message that the more stuff you try to change at the same time, the harder it is to get any of it right. By “right” I mean, “done in a way that will easily work for you, year in and year out, and feel like an improvement.”
The other thing I learn from my own experience is that I don’t do fitness-related activities when I am ill. This is a GOOD THING!
I made the mistake, when I set the goal of running a marathon, of pushing myself and overtraining. I made my goal, sure, and this is why goals are not as good as resolutions. I injured my ankle and couldn’t run for three years. If instead I had framed the resolution as “run four days a week, aiming to increase my endurance,” I might have been able to keep running all three of those years (and maybe run a marathon the following year). Instead I got a marathon medal and an ankle brace.
One of my toughest resolutions has become, “respect my physical vessel and aim for the long term.” My main fitness goal is longevity.
The bigger and more long-term the goal, the more challenging it is, which is excellent. I mean literally excellent. If you want to excel, it doesn’t happen by doing ordinary or average things, by definition! Doing anything out of the ordinary means doing something different, and that means you don’t already know how to do it, and probably nobody else you know does, either. (Though that won’t stop them from turning into total naysayers).
Knowing how to instantly make new stuff fit into your regular routine is exactly the kind of thing nobody knows how to do.
Say your resolution is to finally organize your photos. Have you decided what you mean by “organize”? What does ‘done’ look like? How long is it going to take you? When are you going to do it? My guess is, it would take a couple of hours a week for a couple months. That doesn’t come out of a wormhole from space. You don’t suddenly get extra pages in your calendar. It has to come from rearranging your schedule, or cutting out something else you normally do. What thing that might be, it’s not obvious to me (since I don’t know your life) and if it were obvious to you, I’m guessing you already would have done it!
Looking at my resolution to do these special stretches, I have a few entirely separate issues. One is physical space. We live in a studio apartment, and there is only one space big enough for a person to get down on the floor and stretch. Issue two, my hubby is also doing a floor thing, using a foam roller to work on his neck. In a different home, we could be accountability partners and do our exercises side by side, but here, it’s a zero-sum game. Issue three, our dog loves to participate in floor stuff. Issue four, I get bored quite easily and I know I need to give myself something distracting to do while I stretch, especially when it hurts! Issue five, I’m constantly rushing around doing other things, and right now it doesn’t feel like I “have time” to do this.
The whole entire POINT of taking time to stretch is that I feel so rushed and busy. I’m REQUIRING myself to recast this attitude and change how I think, not just how I act. I must keep at it.
What I resolve to do is to keep reframing and adjusting until I’m satisfied. What will probably happen is that I’ll test out a way to anchor something I like (reading the news) with this new thing that “doesn’t come naturally” yet. Then I’ll find myself down there, stretching away for 40 minutes at a... stretch.
What are your stretch goals? What is it that you’ve been resolving to do? Remind yourself why you wanted it. Now revise your approach and see if you can fit it in at some point this year.
Two weeks into the New Year, and how is it going? Personally, I think all of January should be dedicated to hanging around the house, catching up on sleep and maybe reading a few articles about your resolution for the year. In my life, the first couple of weeks of the New Year always seem to include a bunch of dramatic change, and this year has been no exception.
We came home from our New Year’s in Las Vegas, carrying a stack of index cards with our carefully wrought Resolutions and plans for the year.
Then I got sick (AGAINNNNN) and lost seven pounds in a week. The hard way. On the other hand, that sure was a quick way to deal with the excess I accumulated over vacation and the holidays...
Despite this pretty annoying setback, having plans has helped both of us stick to our vision. We remind ourselves that we have a 52-week year every year, and that even a rough month is only 12% of the allotted time.
While it doesn’t show up in our Resolutions, we have some tentative ideas for camping, travel, and bicycle outings. We decided that given my hubby’s travel schedule for work, we need a new strategy if we’re going to be able to plan trips together.
How is 2019 going so far?
My personal Resolution is to submit a book proposal this year. I bought a course, downloaded some software, and started going through my notes for the book. It turns out I have 183 pages JUST SITTING THERE. This is starting to sound much more straightforward than I had thought. (Famous last words). I’m framing it as a “book report for school” that has to be done before the end of the academic year.
My career Resolution is to finish the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. So far this year, I have won two Best Table Topics ribbons and one for Best Speaker, and I’ve completed another speech toward my ACG. I also won an award for Area Director Excellence and they made me a special custom travel mug. We also got a new member in the club I’m coaching. Considering that we’re only two weeks into the year, this is bananas! I may be able to pull this off after all.
My physical Resolution is to work on hip openers. I can honestly say that I have made zero effort toward this.
My home Resolution was to set up an outdoor writing area. My hubby ordered me a folding screen, and the weather was nice enough the first week back that I was actually able to sit out on the porch and work! It was magnificent, and then the rains came. But the screen definitely does the job and my bird loves it.
Our couples Resolution was to start doing meal prep. This is going better than expected. Marry an engineer and show him an Instant Pot and your troubles are over. Our freezer is already fully loaded with soups and stews, a nice activity when it’s rainy and cold, and we’re both remembering how much we love our home cooking. Definitely a keeper. (The resolution, and also him of course)
My Stop Goal is to stop being sick and tired. Really not making much progress here yet, at least on the illness front. If I could just go a month without coming down with something, that would be great.
My lifestyle upgrade was to get a new desktop computer. I should have done this last year but I always procrastinate on spending on myself. I went out and got it, despite my eyelid twitching, and was stunned to find out that it cost only half what I had thought it would. Well in that case!
My Do the Obvious is to schedule time blocks. This is indeed working, as I’ve been steadily chipping away at a backlog of random dumb tasks. It actually looks like I may get through everything by spring.
I’m tracking metrics, and I added a few more to see what would happen. The first thing was that I got really embarrassed about tracking how many news articles I read every day, and that’s dropped to about half. We ordered a handheld body fat measuring device, which has been motivational for my husband and a wakeup call for me, since I am nowhere near the range I was in during marathon training. I also got an older-model Fitbit to track my sleep.
My Quest is a sleep project I’m going to call SleepQuest 2019. This is going better than expected already. I quit taking melatonin after 8 years *gasp* with very surprising results. It seems that I’m getting close to managing 8 hours of sleep a night!
My Wish is to be signed by a literary agent. I keep reminding myself of this as I work on my book proposal.
That’s it for me so far. I didn’t have a great start to the New Year, in one way, but in another I did. That’s because I laid the foundation by doing so much planning throughout December. It’s also because I keep myself accountable by reading my goals over and over, and publishing my progress (or lack thereof).
There are still fifty weeks left of 2019. How are we going to use them?
Boring goals are the guaranteed way to quit and fail. If you want to do anything worth doing, it has to matter to you. That means it’s probably going to take more than a year to do it. Goals that take longer than a year need more planning and more check-in sessions. Think about how you can sustain your interest into a second year, expecting that it will be different than the first year.
Three years seems to be the best timeline for the biggest goals. Almost anything can be done within a three-year span, except college, and if you assume that freshman year is for being undeclared, then you’re back to three years. Not every goal is worth spending three years of your life on, though. If you want to preserve your energy and attention for only the best goals, then you have to write in permission to break up with goals that aren’t working for you. You cannot allow a goal to continue to distract you once you realize that you aren’t into it anymore.
This is why an annual review is so important. You have to take the time to pause and reassess. You have to be willing to mercilessly throw some of your old projects overboard and sail on without them and let them sink to the bottom of the sea.
Never let the time you’ve invested in something force you into a lifetime commitment to it. Life is for learning and discovering new things. You can always go back. (Though sometimes the effort of applying again and starting again is so complicated that it’s better to push through to the end. Building momentum is hard, so sustain it as long as you can).
One year, I decided that it was time to learn to read technical diagrams. I had been knitting for a million years and I realized that all I could make were scarves and potholders. Boring! I realized that if I could learn new stitches from a book, I could make anything. I didn’t know any more accomplished knitters who could demonstrate more stitches in person. I was right about the skill of reading technical diagrams, and I eventually used that skill to learn to put together furniture and to use backpacking equipment. In the shorter term, I upgraded my knitting and made hats, mittens, slippers, socks, and poseable children’s toys. I quit knitting, though, several years later. I gave away all my yarn and all my patterns and all my equipment.
There was no way I could turn knitting into anything else. The only way I could sustain my interest in knitting would have been to make some kind of award-winning art project or something else I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t care enough to find out. I quit quite easily, knowing the twenty hours a week I had been knitting away would be better used doing something else.
Nobody ever came for me when I quit knitting, demanding answers. Nobody cared. Nobody cared at all. It turns out that you don’t need permission to quit things, any more than you need permission to initiate new projects. That’s important.
A three-year goal should be big enough that it transforms you. It should make your world bigger in some way. It should demand spiritual progress, in the sense that you have to rise up to it. The person you are when you start, the person you are after the first year, will not be big enough, experienced enough, smart enough, or skilled enough to carry you through to the third year. If you already know you can do it, then you already know you’re playing it too safe.
Why three years and not five? Isn’t there a thing called a Five-Year Plan? Ahem. Well, yes. The thing is, though, that by the fifth year, if you chose well and you worked hard, you will have changed your event horizon. You’ll have learned new skills and met new people, and everything about your options will be far beyond what you could have pictured when you started. Also, you’ll have learned so many things that you didn’t know, that your picture of that ultimate fifth-year goal will be far more accurate.
As an example, when I started public speaking, my purpose was just to get over my paralyzing terror of public speaking. I didn’t have any real plans for it. A few months in, people kept saying how funny I was. (Am I??) They started encouraging me to try stand-up comedy. Much to my shock, I was able to perform in public under the hot lights, and I didn’t feel nervous at all. In the second year, the topic of a podcast came up. In the third year, still on plan, I started to understand that I had a knack for leadership and that people relaxed when I took charge. Wherever this is going, it seems to be somewhere good. Why quit? What happens when I double down? What would this look like after another year, or two or three?
There are tricks behind choosing a goal of grand enough scale that is also rational and practical enough that you believe in it. First, don’t run it by anyone you know. The closer people are to you, the more they will freak out and immediately try to talk you out of it. They’ll do this by telling you that your goal is stupid, that you aren’t good at that kind of thing, and that you’re being selfish. These are amazingly clear and bright signals that you’re onto something.
They probably don’t know what they’re talking about, which is proof that you don’t need to listen to them. If they do by chance have credentials in the area of your chosen goal, then you can also ignore them because they will probably be motivated by jealousy of their turf. Do not let other people define you. It is irresponsible.
Thinking about your larger-scale goals should compel you and scare you a little. You won’t be able to quit thinking about them even if you try. These are signs.
Your larger-scale goals should snap your tinier goals into perspective with almost instant clarity. You need somewhere to write, and you transform part of a room into a workspace and it only takes two hours. You need a workshop, and you’ve gutted the garage over the weekend, and you walk out there on Monday after work and sit down and get started. You know you need to train, so you sign up for classes and you’ve made arrangements for your domestic responsibilities over a single lunch break. You can do the basics. You know how to sign up for things and pay for things and make a schedule; you’ve done it for television and now you’ll do it in service of your dream instead.
Never ask “how,” ask “when.” Which month, which day, which hour of the day will you be doing your thing? When do you do this in the time dimension?
In the first year, you experiment and realize that this thing could be a bigger part of your life. It’s real to you.
In the second year, you understand that this thing is worthy of your focus. It interests you more than most of the other minor things in your life, and you double down.
In the third year, you can see a specific outcome, something with a deadline. You clear the decks and put all your resources toward finishing this thing, no matter what. You tell people over and over again, “I wish I could, I’m doing THIS right now. I’ll be free again in [July?].”
What are a bunch of things you can do within a three-year time horizon?
Some examples would be:
Getting a graduate degree
Building a house
Going to the culinary institute
Becoming fluent in another language
Training from zero to run a marathon
Becoming a competitive bodybuilder
Writing and publishing a book
Getting a black belt in a martial art
Becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster
Launching a career in a new profession
Training a service animal
Recording an album
Some of these can be done faster, and some realistically take most people longer than three years. It depends more on how focused you are, whether you begin with a workable plan, whether you are coachable and receptive to criticism, and how many hours a day you can work. Certainly, though, you’ll have a good idea by the second year whether you’re into your project enough to take it farther. You’ll understand how putting more time and effort into it would be more interesting and get you further.
Double down on your second-year goal, because if it’s worth doing for a second year then it’s worth more of your time. Put your heart into it and let it take over your life.
If you have dreams that feel impossible because you’re just too busy, then this is the book for you. The authors of Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, found time to write this book in the midst of working demanding professional jobs and parenting small children. They focus on research-based and personally tested ways to gain energy and focus. A fun feature of the book is that the two writing partners sometimes have totally different approaches to a similar problem. It’s illustrated, so their cartoon heads debate back and forth.
Highlights are the most valuable and important things we should be doing, and according to Make Time, if we plan each day around a highlight, then everything starts to come together. Highlights should be prioritized by urgency, satisfaction, and joy.
Noticing highlights is a really excellent way to elevate simple things and make them into a bigger part of daily life. For instance, when my husband joined my kickboxing gym, we coincidentally started riding our bikes home together along the beach at sunset. Nothing in either of our schedules said “ROMANTIC SUNSET BIKE RIDE.” It just happened. That part of our route only lasts about ten minutes. Technically it’s a commute. Still a highlight, though, a part of our day that seems somehow much more significant than much of the rest of the day. Someone who was driving home at sunset might not think “saw beautiful sunset every day this week,” though, because driving sucks.
A technique from Make Time that I really liked was to write out a plan for the day, add a column for the “actual” or how it really turned out, and another column for the revised plan. This is a huge help in accounting for the reality of daily interruptions. As an example, I record a podcast five days a week, and I learned through experience when the building landscaper comes by with the weed whacker.
Make Time is such an excellent book. It could easily be shared with a partner or coworker, or maybe even a whole office. It’s full of the kinds of notions that appeal to everyone, yet still feel so productive and business-oriented that there aren’t really any arguments against them. Read it and ask yourself, what are the highlights that you wish you had the time to do, if only you weren’t so tired?
Goals are for quitters because a goal implies an endpoint. A goal implies something that is checked off a list. Achieving a goal has quitting baked in.
This can be demonstrated by how many people run a 5k or a marathon and then never run again. Not just never run a footrace again, but never run again as an activity.
The fact that goals are for quitters can also be demonstrated by how many people finally reach their goal weight and then promptly put the weight back on. (Raises hand).
Fewer than ten percent of people who take an online course actually complete it.
Picture a messy garage, and that’s another example. We’ll decide to Clean Out the Garage and then gradually fill it back up.
Goals are great when they’re a small part of an overall system, a plan and a strong visualization. Goals suck when they feel like something big, a final answer of some kind. That’s because they don’t work. A goal is like the crest of a wave in the sea, something temporary that exists and then, suddenly, no longer exists. Think of the sea, not the wave.
There are quite a lot of ways to go about life transformation that work better than goal-setting. The concept of life transformation itself is one of them.
The thing about goals is that we picture ourselves as the same as ever, “myself” as a fixed entity and “the goal” as something external. That implies that our default is working great and that what we’re doing right now is what we’ll be doing every day for the rest of our lives. This goal is going to be a little prize, a thing that can be obtained. A goal is a little sticker, a gold star or a smiley face. It’ll peel off by the end of the day.
One approach that works better is to consider the goal in the context of identity. How is this particular goal consistent with my sense of self? How does it reflect my values? How would attaining this change me fundamentally, change my perspective, make me a better person?
Parenthood is the first and most obvious example of this. Many people find that they are instantly able to change when they first find out a baby is on the way. My child, my daughter, my little son. They quit smoking or start saving money or take on the mantle of adult responsibility. Everything is different now because it’s not just me, I’m having a kid and now I’m the grownup.
That happened for me when I remarried, moved to the suburbs, and realized I had a home and a family. I was not a bachelorette in an apartment with a temp assignment. I was a wife and a stepmom. I stepped up and learned to cook nutritious meals. That concept of “woman” as “hostess, matriarch, cook, mother, and homemaker” came from somewhere out of the dark swamp of my subconscious, a primal and weird instinct. That throwback energy manifested itself in a lot of pot pies, hot bread from the oven, and steaming soups, which was quite nice.
My husband already knew how to cook. He had been a dad for a long time already. We took turns cooking, let me make that clear. It was right around that time that my stepdaughter, still in grade school, started cooking dinner now and then. It made her feel like a grownup too.
Changing my identity made me feel capable, warm and needed and useful in a new way. Caring for others is a solid excuse for self-care, a good reason to do something that many of us will not prioritize in any other way. I did it for us, and us includes me.
This is a sneaky little side approach to many goals, because anything I do to make my life better also makes other people’s lives better. If I’m happier, I’m easier to be around. If I get a better job, my mood is better and I bring home more money. If I get fitter, my energy level goes up and I’m in the mood to participate in more stuff, more often. It’s when I think that caring for others leaves zero for me, it’s then that I get burned out. Burnout is selfish because it makes us too tired and crabby for a fun life.
Fun? Since when did ‘fun’ find its way onto my to-do list?
My endless, endless to-do list?
A to-do list is a pernicious killer of goals and destroyer of dreams. We put stupid things on there like ‘buy groceries’ because checking off a list feels like accomplishing something. Like we wouldn’t buy groceries anyway at some point, because we got hungry and we know how to make it happen. We make the same to-do lists over and over and over and over and over and over again because it keeps us from wondering restlessly, could there be more?
When do we elevate with these endless lists? When do we write ‘wow myself with a gourmet dinner because I like it and it sounds awesome’?
This is where curiosity comes in, and through the same transom window comes hedonism.
Out of hedonism I resolve to sleep more, to buy another set of thousand-threadcount sheets, because I in fact am the Queen of Sheba and nice sheets are not against the law. I’ll wallow if I want and when I get up, I’ll eat blueberry pancakes, crawl right back into bed, and sleep some more. So there.
Out of hedonism I resolve to stay hydrated and well-rested, because migraines are from Satan.
Out of curiosity I track my health metrics, because I want to know if another life is possible. Is there a recognizable me without this problem, this problem that my doctor has no idea how to solve? That my doctor doesn’t entirely believe is even real?
Out of curiosity I sign up for classes, I attend them, I make new friends. I rearrange my schedule and finally delegate chores so I can find the time to get to my class. There is nothing I do that someone else could not help me do, up to and including a more interesting, more fun and better life.
It’s easy to change your life when you do it out of desire, curiosity, and a feeling of entitlement. Why should anyone try to stop you from taking a class or changing an hour or so out of your schedule every day? Why should they even care? You don’t need permission to make a resolution or transform something about yourself.
(If you do, here, I give you permission. You are allowed to do whatever you want. So say I, the actual, factual Queen of Sheba).
Don’t quit on yourself. Don’t quit on yourself because it’s quitting on life and because it sets a bad example. People are counting on you to prove that it can be done, that you can get more fun into your life without hardly trying.
Skip January, you know that, right? Nothing you do in January counts toward your New Year’s Resolution. Also skip December because come on, let’s be real. It makes much more sense to keep your goals only ten months out of the year.
This is how I think of a calendar year. One month, January, is the research month. January is for taking notes.
Ten months equals ten percent each. Give or take. It’s okay to do five percent one of the months, if you’re busy or sick or distracted, because you can still get an A+ over the remainder of the year.
Then December, the final month, is for writing up your report. Journal and strategize and think about what worked and what didn’t work.
Ten months on, two months off. It works, it’s easy to calculate, and there is no moral hazard in it. You can still be a total perfectionist this way.
Choose your major personal goal based on the level of challenge, because it works much better if you use your curiosity and imagination. What is this like? How do I do it? How will doing this make me a better person? Will it make my life easier or more fun or more interesting? Will doing this help me make more friends?
Choose your major personal goal based on whether it will make you more confident. Personally, I like to aim for something that does not come naturally to me, something about which I know nothing, less than nothing. When I feel uncertain and awkward and useless, it’s the best use of my time, because I have no bad habits to train away. I can start with an empty cup.
It also means I’ll get the maximum value out of my work. The gap between where I started the year and where I ended the year will be wide and noticeable.
The year I decided to learn to cook, I started out by screwing up the instructions on frozen food. I ended by throwing dinner parties for twenty people. This is one of the best year-long projects because the results are delicious!
The year I chose running, I started unable to run around the block. I couldn’t run a quarter mile. I couldn’t even run for three full minutes. My goal was 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks.
The year I chose public speaking, I was so scared I had to force myself to stand up and say my name. By the end of the year I was winning ribbons for Best Speaker.
It feels great to do something that used to scare you and not be scared anymore. It feels even better when you realize that you’re good at it. After that, you start to enjoy it. It seems weird to know how scary it used to be.
People of the fixed mindset persuasion always say things about Still Being the Same Person. They feel like doing anything different will be bad, that it will make them into someone unrecognizable. Someone, what? Arrogant or full of themselves or vain or shallow or boring or dumb? An attitude along those lines comes from contempt for other people, people who are different. Where I am now, in my comfort zone, it’s safe here and it also proves that I’m the smartest and the best. I’m on top of my hill of pride and I’m happy to be stuck up here, thinking I’ll never change.
Fixed mindset people hate being beginners. Fixed mindset people don't learn as much because they’d rather pride themselves on what they already do know. How can I feel like an A student if I try to study something new? Especially if I study something physical, no way am I going to expose myself to embarrassment by moving my body. Ugh, eww, yucky.
This is who I am. It’s just how I roll. That’s not me. I’m not doing that.
In my public speaking club, we often get newcomers. They’ve been told by someone, often their boss during their annual performance review, that they need to develop their presentation skills. In other words, their intense fear of public speaking is holding them back professionally, damaging their reputation, and costing them money. That’s what I call motivation, am I right? I know better, though, because I’ve sweated through my own fears and that is an intense one. At the end of the meeting, when they refuse to stand up, I recognize them as just like me. I pull them aside as everyone is leaving.
“Now that everyone is gone, you can practice if you want. We’ll turn our backs and you can stand in front of the lectern, just to see what it’s like.”
They won’t do it. They literally never will. People who haven’t met each other react the same way, like they’re reading a page from a book. They won’t stand in an empty room and pretend they’re giving a speech. That is the NO energy that can stop anyone from accomplishing any goal. It comes from a negative imagination, it comes from stasis, it comes from fear, it comes from a fixed mindset, and it comes from perfectionism.
The perfectionist mindset does not like the idea of blowing off two months out of the year. Oh, no no no, if I’m going to bother to do it at all then I must maintain a perfect streak, never missing a day for the rest of my life. If I miss a day in January, because January is the worst month for goal-setting, then it’s proof that I should just quit and start again a different year.
I say that this is a sloppy and imperfect attitude, a mustard-on-your-shirt attitude.
A REAL perfectionist knows how to use a calendar year to achieve a goal.
A REAL perfectionist is smart enough to plan. That includes multiple backup plans and recognition of predictable obstacles.
One predictable obstacle is that January is the worst month to keep a goal. Another is that December is busy.
Choosing year-long projects keeps life interesting. It’s a good structure for arranging projects and goals and challenges. Just think of it in an academic sense and pick a ten-month year. Ten months on, two months off, and that’s your perfect streak.
Time is the only thing we all have in common. I didn’t make this up. Of course I didn’t! Anything to do with the time dimension always has me running up last, late, to the end of the line. It’s given me a lot of pause lately. Think it out.
We all have different personalities, different families, different incomes and tastes and habits. Even people who work at the same job, keep the same shift, live in the same building, or come from the same family tree are not alike in every way. We do, though, have the same 24 hours a day in common.
That’ll be a bit different after we establish a colony on Mars, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Here we are at the change of another calendar year. It’s arbitrary. Why so many of us are following the Julian calendar instead of some other system is an accident of fate. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a scaffold around all our days. We might as well accept that time is a standard that applies to everyone equally, since nothing else does.
Time passes by the hour and minute, and I don’t feel it. It’s like being color-blind. Direction is another sense I seem to lack, and I struggle with maps in the same way that I struggle with clocks. That’s part of why I take my yearly and seasonal planning so seriously. I like having some kind of metric to measure my progress. What am I doing with my time on Earth?
A year is also a useful benchmark for comparing one physical state to another. Haircuts are the easiest to spot in a timeline of photos. Fashion trends, puppies, kittens, small children. I’m more interested in my personal condition: my health, home, finances, and relationships.
Am I still in touch with the people who matter to me? When’s the last time I talked to them or saw them in person?
How do I feel when I’m at home? Can I relax there? Can I have people over? Does my home feel warm, comfortable, and welcoming? Am I proud? Does it look intentional?
How are my finances? Am I busy spending money I don’t have living a lifestyle I can’t afford? Am I being fair to Future Me? Are Big Banks sucking my marrow?
How is my health? Am I sleeping well? Am I drinking enough water? Can I get down on the ground and get back up again without holding on to anything? Can I run up a flight of stairs? Is my energy level more like “kick down a fence” or “fell down a hole”?
Compared to last year, compared to two years ago, compared to three years ago, how am I doing?
It would be nice if we could see some pictures of the future from time to time. How am I doing today compared to Future Me? If I knew more, would I change my behaviors? Would I save more money? Would I strut my stuff, realizing I’ll never look quite so fly ever again? We can’t know the future.
We can, though. We can know the future by creating it. Things we do today can affect our setup for tomorrow. We can send ourselves stuff in the future, like journals and money and muscle and real estate and specific effort.
If I want Future Me to get a PhD, I have to apply to school and do all the homework in the now-today.
If I want Future Me to be married, then Today Me can’t go around verbally abusing Today-Husband.
If I want a lunch to eat on Tuesday, then I have to go grocery shopping today.
It seems so dumb and insignificant on the day or week scale, but on the year or decade scale it makes all the difference. Can I play a musical instrument, can I touch my toes, can I speak another language, am I up for promotion? Am I giving as much love and kindness as I wish to receive?
Other people do such impressive things with their 24 hours. Other people out there are playing the cello or going to the culinary institute. I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I have bookmarks in thirteen different books.
Most of what we do doesn’t matter. Most of what I do doesn’t, anyway! A hundred years from now nobody is going to care if I left dishes in the sink or made a scene at a party or won the lottery. A hundred years from now, even my own descendants won’t know my name or give a lick about me. They probably won’t have seen my photo or heard a recording of my voice.
In some ways, that’s liberating, ever so freeing. It gives a certain license to behavior of all sorts. We’re judged only in the moment and only by how we made other people feel. The metric is whether we take responsibility for the effects of our words and facial expressions.
In other ways, it’s a tall order, trying to think of something that matters enough to be significant on a longer time scale. Am I capable of more? Am I capable of leaving a legacy of some kind? Have I been working on it? How can I tell if I’m making progress?
In time, in time, certain names stand out for their work and the impact they made. They participated in the great conversation and played a bigger role on the world stage, for good or ill. Could we be among them, you and I? Are we making as much use of the same 365-day year as they did?
Time is the only thing we all have in common, the queens and the killers, the poets and the pop singers. Let’s just pause at least once a year to check in and see if we’re using our time as well as we’d like.
Every November, I convince myself I’m going to do NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried for at least seven years running. Every year, not only do I fail to meet the quota, but I fail to write ANYTHING AT ALL. November is my worst month, between family travel and the weather and cold season and irresistible food photos tempting me to try new recipes. I publish over 1000 pages a year, and I routinely write at least double the NaNoWriMo word count. It’s not like I can’t do it. It’s just that any of the other eleven months would be better for me.
January seems to be that way for most people and New Year’s Resolutions.
I can help with that. I always make almost all my New Year’s goals and keep my resolutions, and many years I do succeed at all of them. The reason 80% of people fail at resolutions is because they structure them wrong, not because they “lack willpower” or whatever sad myth they’re telling themselves. January is just a bogus time to try to start a new project.
I’ve been following a structured annual review process of my own devising for several years, which is why I nail my goals and resolutions. Key to this is that I basically spend December laying out my plans, researching and working ahead on some of them, and then I often do nothing at all in January! The main point of my plan is to keep my momentum going in the second half of the year. I schedule quarterly reviews and publish my progress. Imagining the embarrassment of giving up and even forgetting my public commitments is a dark and scary outcome that keeps me from procrastinating.
January is only eight percent of the year. If you do nothing at all for the entire month, just lie around in your underwear tossing a baseball toward the ceiling over and over while listening to Van Halen, first of all, invite me over. Second of all, that still leaves you a full 92% of the year to work on the stuff that matters to you, and that’s still an A grade.
January sucks for goals, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It gets dark early, the weather sucks, everyone is broke after the holidays, and what’s more, it’s cold and flu season. The gym is full and yet, paradoxically, everyone is talking about failing at their Resolution. Why would anyone set themselves up for failure like that?
Don’t choose a resolution that demands total and perfect adherence forever, with no skipped days. That’s the loser method. You’re absolutely guaranteed to miss days when you try to do anything, from going to work to being nice to your mom or your romantic partner. People don’t even bathe every single day! If a perfect streak is impossible even for easy, fun, desirable things you like to do as often as possible, how could it be possible for something complicated, hard, or scary that you don’t know how to do yet?
Perfection is a terrible reason for either a resolution or a goal, for a project of any kind. It means you’ll fail. It means you’ll feel like a loser even though all you did was make up a game that nobody can win. It also means you’ll be cruel and rude to yourself. What’s the point? Just slap yourself in the face and move on.
If you start something new on January First, how much progress could you possibly make in one month? Fluency in a foreign language? A total physical transformation? Turning in a book proposal? Um, maybe, but only if you’re a goal maniac with a lot of experience and you like gonzo journalism. Stunt projects can be really fun and inspiring, but the reason for that is that the high likelihood of failure makes it feel both more risky and less important. It’s still funny if you fail, perhaps more so.
Check this out. Say you set up a resolution for something you want to do. You do zero in January. You do it 10% of the time in February, which is not even three days out of the month. You do it 20% of the time in March, because you realized it wasn’t that hard and now you know how. You do it 30% of the time in April, because the weather is getting better. You do it 40% of the time in May, 50% of the time in June, and 60% of the time in July. You’re up to 70% of the time in August. In September, you hit 80% of the time, because it’s back-to-school and that makes you feel like working harder. You’re at 90% of the time in October. By November, you’re just doing your resolution all the time, because you’re used to it, and in December, you wish you had chosen a tougher project the previous year. It’s just part of your life now.
What is this thing that you’re doing? I dunno, but I do know that you have to choose some way to measure it because otherwise, how would you know whether you won or not?
I suspect people often choose resolutions they really want to fail, just for the bonding experience of comparing notes with friends and strangers. Oh ya, I totally tried to quit [eating so much ketchup, hate-watching TV, flirting with my ex].
January is for hibernating, for doing winter the way it’s traditionally done. Wallow in the dark and cold and wish for something better, like more money and more sunny warm opportunities to have fun with your friends. Those are good wishes. Resolutions are good wishes, also, and they’re a really nice opportunity to get more of that wish energy into your life. Simply choose something for the year that interests you and makes you curious, and refuse to start on it until mid-February, when everyone else has already quit.
It’s that time again! Goals and resolutions time! This year we’re doing our annual review and planning session on the Las Vegas Strip, because we’re party animals and because planning leads to awesomeness.
This is the mistake so many people make, to choose a “resolution” that is grim and dire, the kind of thing that any sensible person would of course immediately want to sabotage. Get out of here with your “drink more water” and “Get Organized” and “lose weight,” just crumple all that into a ball and toss it over your shoulder, and let’s do this with a little more anticipation and delight, okay?
I’ve been interviewing various Las Vegan personages and asking them to tell me their “New Year’s wish.” Everyone had one. EVERYONE! A TSA agent: “To get paid.” A dreadlocked young fellow: “Growth and prosperity.” A balding guy, blushing: “A new baby.” A bearded kid: “To go back to school.” Wanting something better for the New Year is the driving force behind all human progress.
Personally, I don’t stop at one, because there is no upper limit on wishes. It’s also a technicality, because if you make a longer list, then your chances of succeeding at least once are increased. I’ve been doing this process in one form or another since I was nine years old, and each year’s failures and near misses have simply made me better at formulating my plans. First I’ll share how I did last year, and then I’ll go into my plans for 2019, because publishing my quarterly results keeps me accountable.
These were my goals and resolutions for 2018:
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS+
Career: Launch a podcast - SUCCESS
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together - POSTPONED
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop - SUCCESS?
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses - SUCCESS
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent - POSTPONED
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE - SUCCESS?
I’m making some changes to my template this year. First, I tried doing a mantra for two years, and both times it wound up feeling like I somehow managed to troll myself. Dropping that. If I do one, it will be to come up with a word or phrase at the end of the year instead of the beginning. Instead, I’m publishing the metrics I plan to track. What gets tracked gets managed. I’m also being more careful about not trying for a twofer, because then if it doesn’t happen for some reason, it screws up two categories instead of one. Another thing is that I realized I keep screwing up my “couples goal” because it IS a goal, rather than a resolution, and goals are much less likely to lead to long-term success.
Goal: a specific outcome. Resolution: an implementation intention. Project: a planned piece of work with a specific purpose. Plan: the part most people leave out of their resolutions!
Personal: My personal project is typically something on what I call the Challenge Path, the specific purpose of which is to push my limits drastically and force me to run full speed in the direction of my greatest fears. Contemplating these projects in advance always makes me queasy. At some point within the first three weeks (aka The Gauntlet), I tell my husband I’m going to quit because it’s too hard and I’m wasting everyone’s time and I don’t belong there. Then I stay with it and within three years I’m as good as anyone. This time it’s to submit a book proposal to a publisher. I keep telling myself that I’m going to do many of these and that they will eventually become a regular, predictable part of my life, but bawkbawk-baGAWK! [chicken sounds]
Career: See above. Also, I’m in the final stages of completing the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. If I can hold the line on all the projects I’ve been doing over the last six months, I can finish this by June 30. If I slip on anything, it will take an entire extra year. The further I go in Toastmasters, the more I see how directly relevant these skills are to what I want to do with my life. That being said, the DTM represents a massive amount of work. It will take the majority of my focus for the first half of the year.
Physical: My fitness resolution is to work on hip openers. If this works the way I want it to, it will help me with my roundhouse kick, my goal of doing the splits, and maybe even my heartfelt desire to turn a cartwheel. Currently I have the ludicrously tight hips of any distance runner and I’m ready to leave that behind. There are a LOT of people in Las Vegas who can do the splits, and most of them can do them while doing a handstand on one hand. This is possible.
Home: My home project is to set up an outdoor writing area. I spend a lot of time on our tiny patio, so my parrot can get some nice daylight, but it makes us visible to a steady stream of foot traffic. We get interrupted a lot by looky-loos. I’m going to set up a folding screen so the wandering public don’t have line of sight with my chair.
Couples: Our couples resolution is to do bulk meal prep. We’ve been taking an evening kickboxing class together, and because it runs from 7-8 it has been making weeknight dinnertime and cleanup complicated.
Stop goal: Every year, I think of a way I’ve been annoying myself (and usually others) and decide to stop doing it. It’s always something I have no idea how to handle, or I would have already done it. Spending an entire year examining my worst character flaws and most obnoxious habits helps me to figure out how to work on them, at least a little. This time, I’m trying to figure out how to clear up the wreckage of my poor health from 2018, a year of chronic colds and the worst sleep I’ve had in fifteen years. Waking up crouched on my living room floor, crying from a night terror that lobster-sized scorpions were crawling on the bed, was the last straw. In 2019 I resolve to stop being sick and tired.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade resolution is to buy a new desktop computer. I should have freaking done it last year, after I decided I didn’t want another laptop, but I’m such a tightwad that few forces on Earth can convince me to spend money on myself.
Do the Obvious: “Do the Obvious” is my thing, because as a divergent thinker one of my best skills is overcomplicating things without even realizing it. It means looking at something so commonplace, such a routine keystone habit, that even a stranger on the street could point it out within five minutes of meeting someone. This year it’s to schedule a time block for everything, every last single thing I want to be a part of my life. I’ll write more about this as I work it into practice. Basically it means I need to have an extra “power hour” every week for random tasks that don’t seem to fit into any other category. I also need to be more protective of my writing time.
Metrics: I track a lot of stuff. It’s what helped me figure out how to eliminate my migraines, for one thing. I track my hydration, I wear a fitness tracker, I record all the books I read, and I follow a budget. This year I’m going to try out gear to track my sleep metrics. I’m going to track specific HIIT exercises, because it will be funny to know how many burpees I do in a year. I’m going to track how many martial arts classes I attend, and I’m going to track how many speeches I give. A big one is that I’m going to track how many news articles I read, because that trend line should be going down. I’m also going to track my daily word count. A whole page of metrics! If I make a project of it I’m more likely to catch everything.
Quest: My quest this year is to pursue a Sleep Project and figure out how to get more and better-quality sleep. I’m enlisting the assistance of my husband, who is willing to apply astrophysics-level mathematical analysis to my metrics, just as he did to help me finally reach my goal weight.
Wish: My wish is to be signed by a literary agent. Did I just say that out loud?
Personal: Book proposal
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster
Physical: Hip openers
Home: Outdoor writing area
Couples: Meal prep
Stop Goal: Stop being sick and tired
Lifestyle Upgrades: New desktop computer
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking
Quest: Sleep Project
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent.
It’s annual review time! Time to compare my sparkly new goals and resolutions of January with the tawdry, musty reality of the rest of the year. How did all of those shiny promises pan out? What happened that I didn’t plan? (Hint: most things)
First, the bad stuff. These are the unforeseen obstacles and fate’s dirty tricks, the kind of things that tend to stall most people out on our goals. There were some rough ones this year.
There was a death in my family, a really devastating loss that has been eating me alive for months. Also, our poor dog was diagnosed with an inoperable liver tumor. The second half of my 2018 played out against gray wallpaper, let’s just put it that way.
I got bit by a dog, a spider bit me on the butt, and I got my first black eye.
We moved to a new apartment, and I basically didn’t sleep for three months. I thought our previous upstairs neighbors’ morning housekeeping habits were extreme... I started having precursor night terror episodes again for the first time in years. Then I kept getting sick. I had the common cold no fewer than eight times, coughed until I dislocated a rib, and lost nearly 20% of the year to being sick in bed. My hubby started traveling for work, and at one point we only saw each other for 2.5 days out of four weeks. That’s hard when you’re sick, grieving, and caretaking a sick animal as well, shaking in the rain at 5:30 AM...
It’s important to keep goals and successes in context. There’s this natural human tendency to compare ourselves to one another - I do it too - but we have to remember that we can’t cherry-pick each other’s highlights. If you want anything off my goal table, you have to take from my buffet of sorrow as well. Feel triumphant and confident, mixed with sad and alone and ill at the same time. What I accomplished is the result of a lot of planning, focus, structure, self-discipline, many years of practice at goal-setting, the continuation of prior years’ work, and the learned skill of turning to work as an emotional outlet when life feels difficult.
Also, I don’t choose goals or resolutions that require a “perfect streak.”
I finally paid off my student loan!
I leveled up in Toastmasters: an Advanced Leader Bronze, Advanced Communicator Bronze, Advanced Communicator Silver, a Triple Crown for 2017-2018, Pathways Level 1, and Area Director. All in one calendar year!
I got an orange belt in Krav Maga and an orange belt in Muay Thai.
My friend and I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.
My husband and I went paddle boarding for the first time.
I learned to do a headstand for the first time in my life.
I can do fifty pushups without kneeling.
I got my bike tuned up and started riding again.
I launched my podcast.
I read 187 books.
My husband filed his first patent.
Then he got Gold Status on his preferred airline.
We went to World Domination Summit together for the third time.
We went on vacation to Las Vegas twice.
We befriended a habituated squirrel that comes to our porch every day.
My dad got a puppy for the first time in forty years.
Our city banned leaf blowers!
Our apartment complex remodeled our gym.
Personal: My personal goal was to explore a martial art. I choose my personal goal for each year based on what will feel extremely challenging, scary, unnatural, and contrary to my personality. Previous years were running and public speaking. When I set my goal, I didn’t even know which martial art I would study; by the first week of January I was leaning toward jiu jitsu. I wound up doing Muay Thai along with Krav Maga based on a school tour and the available class schedule. This was a huge success. I’ve made so many friends and pushed my physical limits in ways I never knew would be possible at age forty-three. I really enjoy the structure, combined with the immense variety and unpredictability of each class. I see no reason not to continue all the way to black belt and beyond.
Career: My career goal was to launch a podcast, which I did. This was orders of magnitude more complicated than launching a blog. I had to figure out what gear to buy, how to set it up and adjust it, how to use the software, how to troubleshoot the myriad settings when something didn’t work, as well as planning and creating content. It’s really challenging for me to SHIP IT when I feel like a beginner and I want to be an expert. The lesson is to JUST GET STARTED knowing that it will take three years of consistent effort to reach your standards.
Physical: My physical goals were modest, because my personal goal for the year revolved around fitness. I ran the Shamrock Run with my brothers, and I set a PR even though I hadn’t really been running for a few years. I also set out to build a stretching routine, and discovered how to address my occasional problems with plantar fasciitis. I appear to have gotten rid of my lifetime problem with needle reaction. I wanted to gain fifteen pounds of muscle and I managed to put on ten. This has been a record-setting fitness year for me.
Home: Our home goal was to lower our rent. This was a success, one we locked down early in January. When it came time to renew our lease, they offered us the same rent we’ve been paying all year, instead of trying to increase it $200 a month like usual.
Couples: Our couples goal was to go on an international vacation together. We had planned to book the tickets this year and do the trip at some point between January and March 2019. Then our dog got diagnosed and my husband’s previously nonexistent travel schedule for work got really complicated. Instead, we’re taking kickboxing classes together, nothing like a vacation but still a way for us to have fun together. We did two Vegas trips instead.
Stop goal: I choose a “stop goal” for something I want to stop doing, especially if I’m not sure how. This time it was to stop losing focus on incomplete projects. What I learned in contemplating this is that I do much better with open-ended projects like running a blog or a podcast or going to the gym than I do with specific, time-bound goals that have deadlines. I also need to have regular decision points when I firmly close the books on a project, whether I’ve finished it or simply decided that I no longer want to do it.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade was to upgrade my laptop. I realized during the research phase that I don’t like using laptops due to the keyboard setup, and that what I really need is to go back to a desktop. I doubt I’ll ever really use a laptop again. We set up our shared desktop with a soundboard and microphones, something I couldn’t do with either my old laptop or my iPad.
Do the Obvious: My Do the Obvious goal was to speak more slowly, with more pauses. This was extremely difficult for me because I’ve talked really fast my entire life. Public speaking and podcasting have helped. What especially helped was to get an evaluation from a Sri Lankan friend who told me it’s hard for him to follow English at my speed. I try to reframe not as “I talk fast, so sue me” but as “my friends are translating me in real-time.”
Quest: My Quest for the year was to travel on a fifth continent. This has been postponed to a different year for a variety of reasons, most of them disappointing. The one good thing is that my hubby has been earning so many reward miles that our eventual trip will probably be free.
Wish: My wish was to find an amazing pet-sitter. We were really lucky in this; not only did we find one, but she became a friend. She introduced our dog to her dog-walking pack and now he has a dozen dog friends.
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE. This marks two years in a row that my mantra wound up feeling stupid and unlucky. Pause and breathe, indeed! I spent about 20% of my year “pausing” in bed and focusing on breathing more than I ever have in my life. At this point I’m afraid of choosing a mantra in advance; maybe I’ll try to pick one in retrospect, at the end of the year, as a theme?
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS+
Career: Launch a podcast - SUCCESS
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together - POSTPONED
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop - SUCCESS?
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses - SUCCESS
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent - POSTPONED
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE - SUCCESS?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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