I love New Year’s resolutions, and at the end of every year I love looking at my goals, seeing if I’ve met them (my personal record is accomplishing 6 goals out of 10), and writing new ones for the year ahead. And I’m not alone in my love of them, or in my inability to deliver. As Stephanie Vozza wrote in a previous Fast Company article, just 8% of goal-setters are successful.
Of course, not meeting New Year’s resolutions can mean anything from making no progress on your goals, to just being short of your target. When I looked at my 2018 goals and reflected on what I had achieved, I realized that I was just short of meeting some of my goals, but I happily achieved things that weren’t technically my New Year’s resolutions.
Focusing on the outcome
In 2018, I set one or two goals for various aspects of my life: professional, physical health, mental health, personal/relationships, and financial. As of writing this article, I accomplished the following: ran a marathon, received a promotion at work, and saved 20% of my income. The funny thing is, none of those outcomes were part of my resolutions. I’d committed to following a full-marathon training plan, vowed to dedicate more time to career development and longer-term strategic projects–and I wanted to pick up one or two positive financial habits, like building a solid emergency fund by setting aside a portion of my income every month.
In other words, they were things that I had control over–they were habit goals, which focused on the process, rather than achievement goals, which rests on the outcome. The two “achievement” goals I set I failed to meet because of unexpected circumstances that popped up. I didn’t complete an obstacle race because I couldn’t make the timing work, and I didn’t meet my other financial goal–which was to set an additional amount to put toward long-term investments, due to unplanned financial expenses.
Building new habits and setting up a system
Here’s what I found with habit goals–it was a lot easier to set up (and follow) a solid system. I knew exactly what I needed to do each week, and I simply made that a priority. For my financial goal of building an emergency fund, I simply set up an automated payment at the end of each month so that 20% of my paycheck will go to my savings account. For my marathon training, I picked a plan that was suitable for my fitness level and time commitment, and I followed it as much as I could for 12 weeks leading up to the race. As for doing long-term projects at work, well, I pitched a story where I’d be forced to try and finish most of my work on Thursdays, in order to free up time to do deep work on Fridays. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it gave me a good structure to work from.
From there, I simply structured my life around the system. If I was supposed to go for a long run during a weekday, I’d make sure to get ahead on my to-do list the day before because I might have to leave the office a little earlier or come in a little later. If I had major expenses coming up, I’d make sure to cut back on my spending for however long I needed, so that I didn’t need to dip into my savings. If I had a particularly busy week, I’d make sure to at least dedicate an hour or two on Friday so that I wasn’t completely abandoning my long-term work. At the time, these efforts felt very small, but that was precisely the reason why I was able to be consistent.
What I was inadvertently doing was relying on structure and consistency, rather than effort. I didn’t always achieve a lot on “deep work” Fridays, but I committed to it every week. I made impulse emotional purchases, but only when that didn’t involve transferring extra money from my savings account. There were days when I couldn’t complete a two- to three-hour run (as I was supposed to), but I still managed to run between an hour to 90 minutes.
Leadership coach Tony Stubblebine told Drake Baer in a previous Fast Company article, “Everything we see about success rate says that the most important thing is to structure your goals so you can be consistent.” Had I relied solely on my willpower, I probably would have been quicker to let external excuses prevent me from continuing with my plan.
The necessity of regular reflection
This year, I also started adopting the systems set out in the full-focus planner, which required me to set no more than three “focus areas” every quarter, broken down into months, weeks, and days. At the end of each week, there were several prompts for reflection. How much progress had I made on my big three? What lessons did I learn? What can I do differently or better? How did I plan to adjust my behavior going forward? What would it take for me to achieve next week’s “big three”?
I admit, it was a habit that I found difficult at first. I had always seen reflection as something I wanted to do when I felt like it, not something I wanted to be forced to do. But as it became more of a routine, I realized just how much I’d been missing out by not doing this exercise. When I regularly reflect on my progress, I’m forced to acknowledge whether or not I’m spending my time productively, and, if not, what changes I needed to make. If I wasn’t consistently meeting my goals, I had no choice but to think whether it was a goal I should continue to pursue.
Most importantly, this kind of structured reflection provided me the space to deal with setbacks and struggles. For example, while training to run the marathon, there were weeks when I was hit with an unexpected illness or didn’t manage my workload or diet as well as I should. In the past, when something like this happened, I relied on sheer effort and discipline to get back on track–which never really worked. When I was forced to change my environment, it became easier to bounce back from whatever it was I was struggling from.
Looking ahead to 2019, I know that I’ll be framing my “achievement” goals into “habit” goals. Yes, for some people, focusing on that single outcome is what drives them to deliver day after day. But for me, my key to consistency is to find a system that works. That way, when my motivation fails me, I don’t have to rely solely on my willpower to get me to the finish line.