The new year is upon us and it's easy to get excited by all the things we're going to do in 2006. It's a lot harder to stay excited and actually make those things happen. More than half of those who join a gym in January have stopped going by April Fool's Day, and many more New Year commitments don't make it much beyond the last strains of Auld Lang Syne. So, what can we do to give our resolutions more resolve?
AT THE OUTSET
Most of the resolutions we choose are set up to fail: they may be over-ambitious, unhelpfully vague, tortuously complex, mutually exclusive or simply not worth the effort. Half the trick to achieving our ambitions is to have the right ones in the first place. Here are five ways to generate resolutions that you stand a reasonable chance of realising.
Set goals that stretch but don't strain. Learning Italian may be too difficult, given everything else you've got on, or too vague to mean much.
Learning enough Italian to hold an hour's conversation with a native or to read the front page of Corriere Della Serra might be a more suitable stretch. (Being able to understand the menu in the local trattoria wouldn't be nearly stretch enough.) If your goals seem daunting, break them down into a dozen smaller ones - for example, one for each month.
Decide on just a few priorities. You can't do everything, so it's best to focus on two or three goals and achieve them. Think about the benefits accruing if you do get there and the consequences if you don't. If you're confident that the gain of realising them is worth the inevitable pain it will take, that's a great start.
Plan how much time is needed. We tend to underestimate how long something will take us to do ourselves, usually quite badly, because in our imagination all goes swimmingly. However, when we estimate for someone else we anticipate the possible pitfalls and so are much more accurate.
To get a reliable sense of how much of your time these goals are going to take, work them out in detail, base it on your own past experience or ask a friend to challenge your estimate. This is one time when adopting a pessimistic attitude can be helpful.
Think about all the roles you play - parent, team leader, client adviser, gym enthusiast, cook, chauffeur and so on. What percentage of your time is currently taken up in each of these roles? (You can always merge a few if you have too many.) Rather than guess, try measuring it for a few days or even a week. Now, what proportion of your waking hours do you want to spend in each of these roles, or in any new ones, next year? This exercise helps us understand the pay-offs and so decide which resolutions are really worth pursuing.
Visualise the journey. Find somewhere comfortable, relax and close your eyes. Imagine you have achieved your goal. Now work backwards in your mind through all the steps that you took to get there. The more we have thought about what the journey will involve, the better prepared we will be to deal with the unexpected on the way.
Get these done and you have a great base for the year ahead.
DURING THE YEAR
Getting off to a good start is half the challenge, but only half. It is vital to maintain your momentum throughout the year.
Review and refresh the goals. It's easy to get caught in the corn flakes of day-to-day implementation. Put review moments in your diary to see how you are doing against your goals and to check that they are still the right ones. If you're bored, create new challenges; if you're stressed, reduce the stretch on existing ones.
Celebrate successes. Just because we haven't achieved the big goal, it doesn't mean that we haven't achieved a lot. Celebrating the mini-milestones is a fine way to keep our spirits up and realise how much progress we are making.
Learn from setbacks. Some things are sure to go wrong. Instead of being put off, see these as a source of new information that will make you more capable of tackling the challenges ahead. Heroes build from past mistakes.
Do the things that will have the most impact. It's easy to get caught up doing lots of things without doing the right ones. This is a form of procrastination called action illusion. Instead, decide what is likely to make the most difference towards achieving your goal, even if it feels unpleasant just now.
Bring others on your mission. Identify what their interests are by asking them (if you don't already know), and see if there is a way of tying these into your own. They could sign up for just part of the journey - though if they buy into the whole goal, all the better.
Be generous with the credit for your achievements. The more other people feel that they are gaining from your successes, the more they will continue to help and others will want to join in.
Delegate. It's impossible to do everything, so best not to try. Instead, try 'capability delegation'. This is the way we help the other person become more skilful so that they can not only do the task well this time, but can take on similar challenges in future. It may take longer now, but it will save time later.
Watch out for distractions. Can you help me on this project, take on recruitment, organise a petition against the all-night licence for the bar next door? Make a decision based on what is in your best interest, and not because you're being chivvied and don't know how to say no.
Use rest to recharge. High achievers tend to use their relaxation time to achieve even more: sign up to a tennis tournament, evening dance classes.
Purposeful relaxation can be invigorating, but it's not the only kind.
Pointless relaxation - say, a gentle stroll in the park - can be even more reinvigorating.
Forgo instant gratification. The odd treat is one thing, but those who look only for the path of least resistance are less likely to experience the deeper joy of achieving something difficult.
Successful people have few traits in common, but stamina, staying power, or whatever you want to call it, is one of them. Keeping at it won't guarantee success, but losing impetus will pretty much remove your chances of reaching resolution on your resolutions.
- The Mind Gym: Give me time (£12.99) is the second in a series published by Time Warner.
- The Mind Gym: Wake your mind up won the MT/MCA Management Handbook of the Year Award 2005
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
There will be bleak times: the report is rejected, the pitch lost, the vacancy filled with an external hire, it's the fifth weekend in a row you've had to work, your daughter's sport's day clashes with an essential away-day and the builders still haven't fixed the roof. If only it wasn't raining. Here are five ways to keep going, however tough it feels ...
1. Remember how you coped last time there was a disaster. It wasn't the end of the world then and it almost certainly isn't now. Draw on the same character strengths that got you through before.
2. Find someone to talk to. Getting it off your chest will help and acknowledging how you feel out loud will put things in perspective.
3. Take a break. Sometimes, we simply get stuck. Going to do something else absorbing reduces the conscious worry and leaves our unconscious mind to work things out.
4. Wait. As the saying goes, there are times for thinkin', there are times for sittin' and thinkin', and there are times for just sittin'. If you can't see the way through, just sittin' and waitin' may be the best course.
5. Do something positive. Is there something you can do that will make your life better, quite possibly unrelated to the current crisis, no matter how small? Simply taking a positive action gives us back a sense of control.