When I was in Scouts, we did an orienteering exercise where we had to hike out across the Red Desert of southwestern Wyoming, away from Boar’s Tusk for some number of miles. It was surprisingly difficult.
We set out, weaving our way through the sagebrush-strewn floodplain with the monolith at our backs. Every now and then, we’d slide down in to a dry creekbed and scramble up the other side. This was a good time for us to check our sixes and make sure the ancient volcanic core was still behind us. It usually wasn’t. We kept veering off course.
When you’re heading towards a landmark, you naturally course-correct along the way. It’s always in sight. You go around an obstacle and start heading towards it again. Easy.
To make any reasonable progress, we finally had to pick a point on the horizon that was in the right direction, and start heading towards that. Once we stopped trying to focus on what was behind us, and paid attention to what lay ahead, the hike got a lot easier.
It’s a good lesson to keep in mind every January 1.
You and I are about to embark on an annual ritual. On January 1, we set out on a trek to improve ourselves and be better by the end of the year. By January 8, one in four of us will have given up. By July 1, more than half of us will have given up.
There’s something about the holidays that inspires us. They’re a great time to reflect and reconnect with what matters most to us. We can see at little more clearly who we want to be, and identify areas of our lives that we want to change. We make New Year’s resolutions. We set goals. (For now, I’m going to lump the two together.)
For many of us, New Year’s resolutions are like pie crust promises—easily made, and easily broken. It takes grit and determination to see things through and actually change because of what we’ve felt at the holidays.
Want to set a goal that will stick? Make sure you’re working towards something, not away from it.
I was listening to Erik Fisher’s Beyond the To-Do List podcast episode on goals, and he had a good insight: most of the resolutions that we set come from a sense of regret over the excess of the holidays. Consider the common themes of New Year’s resolutions:
- “I want to lose weight.” How many parties do you attend the last six weeks of the year? How many surplus baked goods were shared in the break room? At how many meals did you eat too much, then make room for pie?
- “I want to save more money.” Or get out of debt. Or get on a budget. Between the gifts, the cards, the Secret Santa at the office, the compulsive purchases on Black Friday/Cyber Monday, and the uptick in charitable giving, it’s no wonder we want personal financial reform in the coming year!
- “I want to spend more time with my family.” The extra time with family is wonderful, but it reminds us of how much work tends to compete with the other areas of our lives. We finally—briefly—feel a bit of balance, and we want to hang on to it.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, eat healthier, have a written budget, or spend more time with family. Those are all admirable intentions and make wonderful goals.
The problem is when we make a resolution as an impulsive reaction to the excess of the holidays. That’s setting a negative goal—“I don’t want X”.
Negative goals don’t work. For one thing, our subconscious mind has a way of stripping out negatives, so we run the risk of just reinforcing the behavior.
More importantly, goal-setting is about arriving at a destination. The fact that you’re leaving your current location is implied.
Imagine getting into a taxi and telling the driver, “oh, just drive around—I don’t know where I’m going, but I want to leave here”. Sounds ridiculous, right? You’re obviously wasting your time and money. But many people set goals that way.
Over the holidays, I hope you have plenty of time to reconnect with what matters most to you. Spend time picturing your ideal life, and develop a plan for how to get there.
Be as specific as you can about where you’re going, and when you’ll get there. Write down everything you can about why. You’ll need it to stay motivated and keep going in a few months.
As you are pondering the year ahead and the goals you want to set, pay attention to why you want a specific change. Turn any negative goals into positive goals. You’re more likely to be a different person at the end of the year if you do.