Most new year’s resolutions fail because the minute someone takes a single misstep on the path toward their goal, their resolve is shot.
Ask anyone you know who makes resolutions how often they actually reach them – or if they can even remember what they resolved to do beyond the most obvious weight and quit-bad-habits pledges – and you’ll see it’s true.
That’s why I gave up on resolutions back in the 1980s and instead started setting annual goals. I didn’t want a single mistake to sideswipe a long-term pledge, so I started drawing up a wide-ranging list of personal targets covering everything from the family to the financial. I would write down my goals, put them in a sealed envelope and send them back to me, with the envelope tacked unopened on my office bulletin board as a subtle-but-constant reminder that I had promises to keep.
That quirky system worked pretty well for me – and for a number of readers who adopted it in the 15-plus years I wrote about it when I opened the envelope as the New Year approached – until 2010. That’s the year I lost my brother to a rare disease and suffered my own heart attack in the fall; when December rolled around — for the first time in all those years of goal-setting — I had no clue of what was on the paper in the envelope. It was practically like opening a note from a stranger. ( See A brother’s prognosis puts life in focus . And read about my heart attack.)
No more sealed envelopes, no more forgotten promises. If the goals were important enough for me to make them a priority, I wanted them visible every day, front and center, where I might revisit them on any given day but where my family or anyone in my office could see them and ask after them, pushing and cajoling me to get them done.
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It’s almost more of an annual to-do list; this week, as the clock on 2012 has been counting down, I have been working on a few chores that I promised to get done this year. While a resolution might have been forgotten, my sign hung as a reminder to get it done.
One new quirk of this goal-setting system: I don’t set my targets until the first weekend of 2013. I’m not reminding myself about lifetime goals because they’re new; the calendar is just a convenient frame for measuring progress (and a slow time of year, when I can ruminate on what I want to achieve).
Years of setting goals has taught me that my targets should not be too easy, or too vague. You can “save more” by setting aside an extra dollar, but you can’t really impact your life that way. I’d rather strive for something big – like increasing my retirement set-asides by a few percentage points — and take steps towards it than be falsely proud about clearing low hurdles.
There are plenty of goals that seem to have no link to work or tie to finances, the truth is that most efforts impact work life and finances to some degree. For example, reaching my health goals since my heart attack has required that I change the way I worked so that there would be time to get to the gym.
My 2013 goals won’t be changed much from the current year, though some goals – like my weight or my savings set-asides – will be updated so that they encourage further progress. I wholly encourage you to come up with your own targets — or to go with resolutions or my old envelope system if they work for you — but if you want to share in my priorities for the coming year, you might include the following on your list of goals:
Handle the financial chores: This isn’t about making money, so much as protecting what you’ve got. What’s more, the resolution of the fiscal cliff and other headline concerns could have a direct impact on your tax situation, estate-planning, insurance protection and more.
You don’t need to update your will/estate plan, your insurance needs/coverage, or your financial plan every year, but if you can’t remember the last time you did it, you’re way overdue. You also want to make sure that all of your beneficiary designations are current, and you may want to consolidate your accounts – particularly retirement savings plans from old jobs that can be moved into self-directed accounts.
Take care of yourself first: Cardiac rehab taught me just how tough it is for most people to balance their own well-being with family and work obligations. Now more than two years removed from my health issues, I’m fighting against falling into old, bad habits.
In trying to do right by the various forces pulling me in different directions, I didn’t do what was good for me. It’s hard to be good for anybody if you haven’t first done what’s good for you.
Reduce financial stress: Sure, it sounds vague, but it’s virtually impossible to live in the modern economy without some measure of financial stress. Maybe it’s poor returns on the stock market, bills coming due or the threat of a problem in the job market.
Reducing stress often is about the little things. It’s saving more here or there to reduce debt or fund an emergency plan, finding a way to sell something you don’t need any more, changing some expensive telephone or Internet plan, canceling some subscription you no longer read, or not looking at how your portfolio did on a day when the headlines might somehow convince you to blow up a lifetime strategy for the news of the last hour.
What’s neat about this is that it is an easy goal to work towards on any given day. By keeping it as a focus and always moving towards it, it’s remarkable that the big financial worries don’t loom quite as large.
Focus on your “best outcome”: Moving forward isn’t enough, you need to be moving in the direction of the outcomes you truly want. That said, most people don’t make progress toward those goals because they don’t believe they can accomplish the mission now.
Maybe it’s the plan you’ve got for the twilight of your career, or the job change you’ve always dreamed of, or perhaps it’s as simple as being able to retire to a certain lifestyle.
Whatever it is, start to make it a concrete picture, taking steps to move it from a dream towards a reality.
If you want something to be more than a wish or a hope, you have to work towards it; that’s true whether you are making resolutions, goals or plans.