Goal setting that works

Making New Year’s resolutions work is legendarily difficult. For me at least they had always been gestated on the spur of a desperate moment, often through a haze of alcohol.

On the other hand, just using a daily todo list was a disaster in slow motion. The problem? I was always really busy, but I never did anything important.

Now it has taken me a while to find a solution, and it might not work for you, but on the off chance it does, here it is. Caveat: It wasn’t what I was expecting.

The idea behind New Year’s resolutions is a good one: they’re meant to strategically shape the coming 12 months. The problem is not the intention, but the execution. They just don’t work. So I’ve borrowed a lesson from agile software development. When something hurts, do it more often.

Leaning into the pain

Leaning into the pain

I’ve been setting 6 monthly resolutions now for 2 years now and straight away there’s the first advantage. I’ve had a chance to achieve twice as many “New Year’s resolutions”. Because the sneaky problem with most 12 month goals is that they don’t take 12 month’s to achieve.

What’s more, these resolutions don’t become so stale (and if they ever are then I change them). A lesson learned walking through the Cairngorms: take compass bearings often, it means a much faster walk to my destination.

Where's that path again?

Where’s that path again?

When I set my half-yearly goals I also make sure to step back and decide what I am not going to do. I am both blessed and cursed with an interest in everything, so this list tends to be long and painful to write.

But it is worth it. Items on that list are not discarded for ever. In fact they often make it in to the next half year’s resolutions. Knowing that I can come back to them any time gives me permission to focus just on the goals that I have set. The result? More and better. Focus is a virtue I am working hard to cultivate.

Of course, all of this begs the question: if setting resolutions once every 6 months works even better than once a year, why not do it more often? Once a month? Once a day? In fact, what was wrong with just setting daily goals again?

And that’s the key that makes it really work for me. By setting half yearly goals and daily goals and connecting them with monthly goals the whole system supports itself.

The half-yearly goals tend to be pretty strategic, but I make sure that even if the outcome is not clear how I will get to it is. The monthly goals are usually outcomes that contribute to the half-yearly goals. The daily goals are always outcomes, often super-tactical and they often contribute to the monthly goals. But sometimes not, and that’s OK, because life.

So let’s make this a bit more real. In the second half of 2014, my goals are as follows:

  • Use CBT on myself so that I don’t worry so much or get frustrated so easily (why use self-help books when you can use science for self-improvement?)
  • Use “The Credibility Code” to improve my presentation skills
  • Take Max swimming and introduce him to a foreign language
  • Have a weekly date night with my wonderful wife, Katie
  • Clarify my long term life plan

This is an interesting set, different to all previous half years. In short, I’m taking a step back and seriously re-evaluating how I approach life and where I want to go.

I also have a number of activities I commit to doing regularly: meditation, sleeping more, learning the guitar, caring for Ben. And that painfully crafted list of things I won’t do: study Chinese myself, drawing, sailing, exercise, write fiction (that last one looks like it might fall by the wayside).

2013-03-24 16.14.23

Ben (green and on the right)

My monthly goals are much more outcome oriented.

  • Do the next chapter of “Mind over Mood
  • Do the Khan Academy course on statistics
  • Take Max swimming three times
  • Take Max to Mandarin nursery three times
  • Build an awesome SABRE model for Zorro, a customer
  • Complete the RFP for another customer
  • Three guitar lessons
  • One date night with Katie
  • Complete the grunt-version-file plugin and blog about it
  • Write four other blog posts

This list is pretty typical. About half of them relate to the half-yearly goals, others are more tactical. I’m gutted I haven’t seen as much of Katie as I would like and have had to scale back the date nights to about one a month. My job is the explanation, but not an excuse.

Todo this month

Todo this month

And today’s daily goals? Tactical all the way through.

  • SABRE – analyse tests, confirm the new golden model is 1q13to4q13/fset64
  • SABRE – impl b2 features, train and test for next golden model
  • Sync by email with Anne on office connective tissue
  • Complete Khan variance lecturers, why is sample variance n – *1*?
  • Write in my journal
  • Write this blog post

I also have automatic reminders and use Evernote for recording info too, but the day-month-half year interplay is what really makes it work. So that’s the solution. It works for me.

And I’m surprised. If New Year’s resolutions didn’t work, and neither did daily goals, who would have thought that doing both and more would? Agile is anything if counter intuitive!

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3 thoughts on “Goal setting that works

    • Not quite – I decided to deliberately not commit to doing deliberate exercise. I guess that’s a nuance, but it feels like an important one.

      If I had more time (energy, capacity), I would definitely like to be able to touch my toes without bending my legs again, and some cardio and bodyweight wouldn’t go amiss either, but other things are more important right now. If I wasn’t walking 30 minutes to and from the office I might have to prioritise differently 🙂

      • Walking 30 minutes a day sounds like regular exercise to me! But sure, I guess it is more of a commitment not to spend time purely exercising that could be spent doing something else.

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