A little late for resolutions : the purpose and method of goal-setting


resolutionsI know I haven’t been posting as actively as I, or anyone, would like. I also know that it’s a little late into 2015 to be talking resolutions. Still, there is a reason why we make resolutions on the new year, and there is a reason why around New Year’s Day there are thousands of memes going around joking about how nobody ever keeps their resolutions.

The reason we make resolutions is simple. The new year is at once an end and a beginning all in itself; it’s an occasion to tell ourselves we can let go of bad habits and start new, better ones. Working toward a goal is inspiring and exciting. It feels, and justly so, that we are taking steps to put ourselves back in the driver’s seat of our destiny, and that we are this much closer to something we desire just by making the decision to do something to get it.

That is, of course, all true. But, unfortunately, most resolutions get tossed out the window about this time of year. We look up from what we’re doing, realize we haven’t done anything toward keeping our promises to ourselves, and shrug it off, telling ourselves, that next time, it’ll be better. Next time, we’ll keep those resolutions. Because it’s all a matter of discipline, isn’t it?

Well, I have to say there’s a part of it that’s definitely discipline. But by itself, discipline isn’t going to get you very far at all. It’ll make you feel better and more resolute, and maybe you’ll work a week toward your resolution, maybe two. But real resolve, the kind leading to us effecting real change in our lives, can seem completely out of reach. It’s really not. There’s a lot more to it than changing calendars and coming armed with good intentions.

new-years-resolution-listThe thing with most people is not that they are not able or willing to hold those resolutions. It’s that they don’t have the tools to make it work. All the willpower, all the discipline in the world will never make any difference if you don’t have the tools to make it happen. After all, you can be perfectly willing to hang a frame on the wall; but without a nail or a hammer, you’re not going to get really far.

There are a few really basic steps you can take to ensure you keep those resolutions. Or achieve any goal you like, really. If you get into the habit of doing this for every goal you have, you can become unstoppable.

Write it out

It can be in a journal, a day planner, a post-it on the wall, an email to yourself… but the most important thing is to actually write down exactly what it is you want to do. Very often, what happens is that in our minds, the goal feels very specific and well-defined, but is actually vague and abstract. For example, I’ve heard a lot “this year I intend to write more!” well, that can feel really specific… until you write it down. Write what? How much? “Write more” is incredibly vague and relative, and it’s incredibly easy to feel confused and overwhelmed every time we attempt to fulfill our goal.

There needs to be a clear quantifier and qualifier that permits us to measure and evaluate whether the goal has been fulfilled. “Write more” could mean so many different things that basically making a grocery list could count; but writing 3,000 words might also leave us dissatisfied and unclear as to whether the goal is reached. Whereas “write 1,000 words a day” or “write one short story per week” is a clear, quantifiable goal. You can objectively measure whether or not you have done it.

Break it down

I think we’ve all heard the saying before: “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.” The lesson is clear. No matter how impossible the task might seem, if you break it down into manageable bits, it becomes something you can envision doing without too much of a problem. This is the very reason behind a daily word count. “Write a novel” is a bit vague, and can even be unrealistic. There’s no way anyone can do “write a novel” in a day, and so, it becomes the kind of huge mountain that we put off to the next day constantly, because we don’t know what the very first thing would be to do that.

eatanelephantBut by breaking it in a daily word count, we make it something that becomes small, and much more manageable. Writing a whole novel? That’s hard. Writing a thousand words a day? That works. That’s doable. It’s not only doable, but it’s so close, day-to-day and within reach that it almost feels like a copout NOT to do it.

So that’s how you tackle a big task; if you can break it down to its smallest, most bite-size, manageable fraction, then it won’t feel like a big thing at all.

Fit it in

“But I just don’t have time to do that!” I hear that one a lot. The thing is, everyone has the same amount of hours, minutes, seconds, exactly the same, in a day. Yes, some of us have children (myself included) and some of us have jobs (as do I) and some of us even run businesses on the side (like myself). But some people get a lot done, and some people don’t. Surely, it can’t be a matter of “having” the time or not; it’s about establishing priorities and managing your time efficiently. Since I wrote a bunch of posts about these two things, I’m not going to be repeating any of it here; rather, just go and read this post about time management and this one about priorities. It’s an important part of goal-setting to be able to actually fit our goal into our schedule.

Make a commitment

The steps before are all you really need, logistically, to make things happen. But that’s not all it takes. In order to do these things, such as making the time, breaking it down, and actually writing it out, you first need to decide that this goal is important to you, that you are going to make it a priority in your life. This might seem obvious, but it’s really not. I mean, you decide you want to learn tap-dancing? Awesome. And tap-dancing is probably not as important as going out with friends, or cleaning out the garage. But goals aren’t objective, they’re subjective. They’re important because we decide they are. So decide that you are going to see it through, that this is going to be a priority in your life.

Give yourself incentive

Is there something you want to get? Or do? Why not promise it to yourself as a reward? Then, instead of a distraction from your task, it becomes a powerful motivator. Want to go see that movie in the theater? Better make sure your task is done before it stops playing. Want to play that new video game you’ve been dying to play? Why not make its release date your deadline?

What goals do you want to accomplish this year, and what steps are you taking to accomplish them?

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