I’ve never been great at keeping New Year’s resolutions.
Making them was easy. Doing yearly reviews, hatching grand plans, setting major goals at the end of every year was something I could do. Following through? Not so much. I might start the year with a dash of energy and optimism, but break somewhere in the first quarter of the year.
2015 was different, because I managed to meet half of the goals I laid out for the year. 50% isn’t a high hit-rate, but when compared to zero, I’ll take it.
(I’m not going to go into how to set goals for the new year, as that’s covered all over the internet. Chris Guillebeau’s post is a good place to start.)
Getting Real with Regular Reality Checks
What I did differently in 2015 was to schedule regular reality checks for my New Year’s resolutions.
I’m a big fan of the idea of a ‘trusted system,’ which comes from the Getting Things Done (GTD) method created by David Allen. In GTD, a trusted system is a collection tool, where you keep important to-dos, commitments and schedules.
The key to making a trusted system trustworthy is regular reviews. Reviewing makes sure that your system is current, and that your commitments are kept fresh in your mind.
The latter was why I failed with earlier New Year’s resolutions. My goals were fresh in my mind when I made them, and in the early months of the year. But then life and habits took over, and without regular reviews, my goals faded into the background.
In 2015, I created a repeating task to review my goals for the year, which repeated itself every three months. To make myself even more accountable, the exact task was to review my goals with my wife, since we’d set our goals for the year together.
Over the year, my repeating reminders helped us to review where we were with our goals, and what we needed to do to move them forwards. If we hadn’t had those conversations, I doubt we would have created our personal portfolio websites, started our side businesses, gotten her new job, or traveled to Vietnam and Hong Kong.
When reviewing, you’re not just glancing through your goals, but really asking yourself a series of questions:
- Is this goal moving forwards?
- If not, why not?
- Is this goal still current, or does it need updating?
- Is this goal still important, or are there other goals that are more important?
- If this goal is still current and important, but not moving forwards, what can I do to achieve it?
My trusted system of choice is OmniFocus for iOS and OS X, but you don’t need fancy software to do the same thing. You can schedule regular reality checks with the Calendar app that comes with your smartphone, or with any number of free to-do apps.
3 Keys for Successful Reality Checks
Even regular reality checks can fail. Here’s how to increase your odds of success.
The key is to schedule all your reality checks for the year now. Don’t wait to schedule the one after when the next check comes, because you might forget or falter.
Another key is that the reminders must be front and center. If your reminders are tucked away in an app you hardly check, then it’s not going to work. Turn on notifications for these checks, so that your smartphone will ping you when it’s time.
You don’t even have to use an app, if you have a physical calendar you check regularly, you can put it up there as well. The key is to put your reminders in a trusted system that you’ll review regularly.
How often should you do your reality checks? That’s up to you. I scheduled mine for every three months, but I also created a list of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 in OmniFocus, which I would quickly read through myself every week.
While this weekly review helped me keep my goals fresh in my mind, it was the reality checks I had with my wife which were more honest and helpful.
It’s not completely necessary, but having people hold you accountable adds a powerful component to the reality checks.
When I talked about our 2015 goals with my wife, I couldn’t make excuses or lie to myself, the way I could if I were doing the review alone. She was my bullshit detector, and I was hers.
If your partner is open to it, you can schedule the same reality checks together, so that at least one person will bring it up. If you don’t have a partner but have like-minded friends, you can consider doing that with them.
Become a Definite Optimist in 2016
If doing a yearly review, setting goals for the year, and then regularly reviewing your progress sounds like a lot of work to you — yes, it is a lot of work to do up front.
But to me, it’s like preparing for a major trip overseas. It’s a lot of work to plan, prepare and pack, but once you’re on the trip, your preparation beforehand makes the journey smoother, and more fruitful, than if you’d just showed up and hoped for the best.
It doesn’t mean you don’t meet bumps along the way, but at least you’re not caught completely off guard. Instead of swinging whichever way the wind turns, you’re aware of the general direction you’re headed towards.
To me, this is one of the best ways to define optimism, which I learned from the book Zero to One by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters:
To a definite optimist, the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better.
In other words, don’t rest your optimism just on a belief that things will turn out well, but anchor your optimism on your willingness to plan and work towards a better future.
2016 is going to take some work, and it’s waiting for us. Let’s all become definite optimists in the year ahead.
Happy new year!
Featured image by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.