New Year’s Resolutions and Reality Checks

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The ancient Babylonians were probably the first people to make something like New Year’s resolutions, around 4,000 years ago. In their case, the resolutions were promises to the gods to do something specific, like repay a debt. Today, New Year’s resolutions don’t have much to do with anything religious. Instead, they’re promises we make to ourselves to change our behavior. And most of the time, they don’t take.

I followed the normal pattern for most of my life. Sometime around the New Year, I sat down and figured out how I wanted things to be different in the year to come. Then I made some resolutions. I didn’t do much better at keeping them than most people do.

A couple of decades ago, I stepped up my game. Instead of resolutions, I set goals. I learned to set SMART goals and couple them with plans. That was better, but there was still one problem. I was always setting a goal for the year ahead. That was OK some of the time. Other times, though, I set goal that I could achieve in three or four months. Sometimes, I ran out of year long before I accomplished my goal. That’s when I quit making annual goals.

It seems like a natural and human thing to give a special emphasis to beginnings and endings, like the new year. That seems like a natural time for reflecting on your life and thinking about how you might want things to be different. But there’s really no rule that says that you must plan only in year-long increments.

BHAGs Are Better

I love the concept of what Jerry Porras and Jim Collins called “A Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal,” or BHAG in their book, Built to Last. It should be something that’s really important and will make a difference in your life or business. It should also be something that you can’t see a clear path to right now.

I call my version of a BHAG, my “Mount Shasta Goal.” When you drive up Interstate 5 in California and get north of Sacramento, you become aware of Mount Shasta in the distance. It’s a dominating terrain feature, and no matter which way you turn or orient yourself, you’re constantly aware of it.

Your BHAG should be like that. It should be off in the distance, but big, something you’re constantly aware of. It should be something so important that you don’t want to lose sight of it.

The Next Step

Every week I concentrate on identifying a clear step that will get me closer to my Mount Shasta Goal. I determine what actions I need to take to make that step happen, and then I track my behavior. Some weeks I get there and some weeks I don’t. The next week I do it again.

The Danger of Concentrating on Little Steps

It feels good to make progress every week, but there’s a danger. It’s easy to go off course. If you’re serious about hitting your version of my Mount Shasta Goal, you need to check from time to time to evaluate how you’re doing. I do that every quarter.

It’s a concept that I learned from my friend Stephen Lynch. He calls what I do “Rolling Reality Checks” in his book, Business Execution for RESULTS. Every quarter, I stop worrying about making headway for two weeks and assess my goals and my progress.

  • Is my BHAG still a big deal?
  • Is it still the best goal to have out there in the future?
  • Am I making progress in getting there?
  • What should I do next to make progress toward it?

When I’ve figured out if everything’s okay or what changes I need to make, I get back to work. For the next eleven weeks of the quarter, I concentrate on making progress in small steps toward my Mount Shasta Goal.

Bottom Line

While other people are making resolutions or goals for the next year, I’m doing a rolling reality check. I put time in to assess my goal, my progress, and the state of the world. That’s just enough planning and it sets me up for eleven weeks of progress in small steps.

Reading Suggestions

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson is the best book I’ve ever read on setting and achieving goals.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker includes a fascinating discussion goal setting and how you can make that part of turning work into a game. It also has the best short introduction to using principles of gaming at work that I’ve read so far.

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg has an excellent discussion of the benefits and dangers of SMART goals and “stretch” goals.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling is an entire book about the execution side of goal setting.

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