Lessons from business: how to make new year's resolutions stick

If you're like me, every other year you set a few new year's resolutions. Fast forward a few weeks and most of them haven't stuck. Any by most, I mean none.

Right? I'm right. 

If i'm wrong and you regularly achieve your new year's resolutions, please leave a comment below on how you do it. I'd love to learn.

So, the start of a new year is such a great opportunity for reflection and planning. And I always have the best of intentions for using a few choice resolutions to make a positive change in my life. But judging by my track record, I haven't been doing it right.

It goes something like this:

Me: Keri (my wife), howzit? I've decided i'm going to get super fit by running every 2nd day this year. *Fist pump*, as I think to myself how awesome I am for making a commitment to positive change.

Keri: Awesome, that sounds great. *Rolls eyes*. When will you start?

Me: Right now. See you later.

And so I kick off a few trail runs at the beginning of the year. Now, you need to know, trail running in Cape Town is really easy to get into. Table Mountain is basically a trail runners dream, with its myriad of trails weaving up to and along its many contour paths. And I live really close to the mountain, which makes kicking off this new year's resolution particularly easy. It's a quick win.

On reflection, my default to immediate action is hardly surprising to me.  My top strength, as per Clifton Strength's Finder, is Activator. And while this strength benefits me greatly in some areas of my life, i've realised that my quick default to action is one of the reasons my new year's resolutions don't stick. More about that later in this post.

So, a few weeks into the year I find myself skipping runs. And a month or two in, i'm back to last year's rhythm of two runs a week. Nothing has changed, including Keri's expectation that the same process will repeat come the next new year's resolution frenzy. Surprise!

This year is going to be different, and here's why.

A new year's resolution is just a fancy phrase for a goal that we set ourselves at the beginning of a year. It's usually a personal goal, and in execution it is not materially different from the goals we may set ourselves at work. It needs to be specific and clear - to us and others - so we can hold ourselves accountable to it. It needs to have a time period, otherwise we won't know when it is done or for how long it is relevant. It needs to be attainable - can I really make the time to achieve it? Is it important enough for me to dedicate time and effort to? These questions follow the classic SMART goal setting format that managers have grown to know and love: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. 

At this point I can hear some of my friends saying "Sam, that goal setting stuff is all great in a business, but don't you be bringing all that management sh*t over here. You hear me?"

Business and personal context is different. And we can't just translate theory from one context to another without some degree of sensitivity for the new context. But I believe strongly that we can borrow from our learnings in the workplace and apply these lessons in our personal lives.

In 2014, I learnt a lot about goal setting at GetSmarter. We adopted a strategic planning tool by Gazelles Inc that had every one of our 150 team members setting up to five priorities for each and every quarter. We call them 90-day priorities because they last for 90 days at a time, and they are written in SMART format.

Since we first started setting 90-day priorities, I have completed three sets of priorities. In addition to formatting one's goals to be SMART (I highly recommend this), here's what I learnt about setting great goals:

Choose goals that really matter to you

There's a good reason why most new year's resolutions don't last. It isn't easy to effect change in our lives. Yet, when achieving a goal that really matters to us, our belief in the importance of that goal allows us to push through times of fatigue and self doubt that would ordinarily cause us to give up. It's the goals that truly mattered to GetSmarter, and that I knew deep down inside mattered to me too, that got my attention first each morning. And I achieved those goals. The goals that matter less, fail more.

What matters most to you right now? Give yourself permission to think about the changes that would have the most impact in your life this year. It takes time to identify and buy into the goals that matter most to us.

My default to quick action I mentioned earlier in this post is one of the reasons my past resolutions haven't stuck. I need to spend time buying into truly important goals, otherwise I won't have the motivation to achieve them.

Invest in the process, not the outcome

I borrow this line from Srikumar Rao, who explains in his TED talk "Plug into your hardwired happiness" why many people fail at achieving happiness in their lives. He says that our generally accepted mental model of "if this, then that" drives such views as "if we have this car, then we'll be happy" or "when I get to this position in my career, then i'll be happy". And this drives immense unhappiness because we control so little of what allows us to get from where we are today to where we want to be. If we set goals that are way outside of our control and invest all our energy in the outcome, then only a few people will be lucky enough to achieve them and feel the satisfaction at the very end. He proposes a new approach to setting goals: invest your emotional energy in the process of achieving the goal. Get your wins from each step along the road towards achieving your goal, rather than only at the end once you've achieved it. His philosophy has struck a chord with the 500,000+ people who have viewed his TED talk and where he teaches at Columbia Business School.

There's nothing wrong with setting big goals, but once we've set those goals, break the goal down into smaller more manageable goals. Then focus all your energy on achieving the smallest goal closest to you. Once you've achieved that, bank it as a win and decide on the next incremental goal you wish to achieve along the way to achieving your bigger goal. Repeat this process a few times, and all your emotional energy will go into each incremental step along the road towards achieving your big goal. You'll be far more likely to achieve the big goal, and even if you don't - you would have banked so many wins along the way that the loss will be minor when compared with the number of smaller goals you've achieved up till that point. The primary point is that if you can invest your emotional energy in each step towards the goal, you will feel more successful as you achieve each incremental step. Small point, big mind shift.

I find that weekly check ins on my goals helps me hold myself accountable and course correct. At GetSmarter, we check in on our 90-day priorities every week with a simple four-colour metric. Green is on track, yellow is behind, red is far behind and super green is way ahead. This helps me hold myself accountable every week to achieving the goal in the 90-day period, and it gives me the opportunity to celebrate wins and recover from losses along the way. The colour scheme metrics is probably too formal for personal goals, but the discipline of regular check ins, in whatever format is appropriate, on our goal progress drives accountability. This could be via a daily journal you write, or some time you spend with yourself each weekend.

You will fail along the way

If your goal really matters to you, it's going to be hard work to achieve it. There is so much in our lives that we don't control. Some people believe that we control as little as 40% of our lives - ouch! And that means that you may experience set backs that are beyond your control. Some days, you may not have the willpower to progress towards your goal.  Other days, life will happen to you.

Judge yourself not by the number of failures you experience in pursuing your goal, but by the number of recoveries you achieve after failing. Easy to say, hard to do. But recovering from a set back can be seen as a win in it's own right.

So, this year I am going to apply the lessons i've learned to set personal new year's resolutions that will stick. What are they? I'm not sure yet. I'm giving myself time to consider what is really important to me. Then i'll spend time wording them so they are SMART, share them with a few close people around me, and then go out there and make them stick - one week at a time.

Happy new year, and all the best for using new year's resolutions to affect change in your life.