Monday, January 12, 2009

January 2008: Be it Resolved

As I write this, we are already twenty days into the New Year. There is an internet consensus that about half of Americans make resolutions. One website, last updated in 2005, claimed this is down from 88%.

I expected to find some good statistics. But they were not to be found. What are the most popular resolutions? What percentage of people stick to their resolutions and for how long? How many make it through a week? Two week? A month? These statistics vary.

The consensus of the sites I looked at confirmed the following. The most popular resolutions are, as you might suspect, quitting smoking, losing weight, getting fit, getting control of one’s finances, spending more time with ones family/loved ones, and reducing stress. The big three are definitely smoking, weight and fitness.

I did find out that FranklinCovey, a company specializing in planning and organization tools and methods, has just completed their third annual New Year’s resolution survey. Their top ten resolutions according to this survey for this year were:

1. Get out of debt or save money
2. Lose weight
3. Develop a healthy habit (e.g., exercise or healthy eating)
4. Get organized
5. Develop a new skill or talent
6. Spend more time with family and friends
7. Other
8. Work less, play more
9. Break an unhealthy habit (e.g., smoking, alcohol, overeating)
10. Change employment

Regarding how long people stuck with their resolutions, the information was a little fuzzy. Some websites claimed that 25% of people had abandoned their resolutions after one week. The number that abandoned their resolutions after two weeks jumped to almost 40%.

The FranklinCovey survey found that 35% of their respondents give up on their resolutions by the end of January. Eventually, 77% abandon the resolutions. The reasons given for abandonment are too many other things to do (40%) or never fully being committed to them (33%).

FranklinCovey customers buy and presumably use organizers. They tend to make to-do lists and try to execute them. We could arguably say that they are more organized then the general population. To me, the statistic that 77% of FranklinCovey customers abandon their resolutions is daunting.

There was one website that was advocating an alternative, more new age or spiritual set of resolutions:

1. Accept your own mortality
2. Remember that not everyone worships the same god, and respect that.
3. Remember that the world seemed simpler because you knew less about it.
4. Cultivate a garden
5. Wear comfortable clothing
6. Spend time thinking
7. Insist on formality
8. Eat something strange
9. Remove your shoes
10. Have a day in bed

I don’t necessarily advocate this list, but I think it is a worthwhile exercise to review the list and think how you might revise them to fit your own life. A “be nicer to everyone” resolution has a certain intrigue. It may be easier to quit smoking or lose weight than to “be nicer to everyone.”

One thing is probably certain. Setting goals, setting resolutions, does indicate that one has a desire to change something or to improve oneself. If goals are not set, there is little likelihood there will be much change or improvement. There is an old quality management adage that if you do not establish measures, you will not know what to improve. If you then do not keep track of the measures over time you will never know if you have improved or if anything you have implemented actually had any impact.

So, establishing a resolution indicates that you have thought about changing or improving something. It means you have thought about you life and aspirations. You have thought about change and betterment.

Wanting to change, wanting to improve is the first step. It is like another old adage, this one about addictions. Admitting one has a problem is the first step towards overcoming the problem and changing for the better. This, like setting a resolution, is first step toward changing and improving.

Unfortunately, this first step is the easiest. No matter what the motivation, desire, or fear of continuing on the current path, setting the objective, writing the resolution is simple to do. It requires a little brainpower, interest in changing, and some language skills. For example:

I resolve to:

· Lose 25 pounds
· Drive the speed limit
· Stick to my New Year’s Resolutions this year
· Be nicer to others
· Watch less TV
· Avoid idle gossip
· Never kill another insect even the creepiest scariest one that has no business
being in my house.
· Return all business e-mails the same day and all personal e-mails by the
next day
· Write a monthly e-letter to friends and family
· Learn to play a well tempered clavier
· Call my parents every day
· Complete my to-do list everyday.
· Become self-actualized
· Dis-associate myself with anyone who uses the term “self-actualized”

Feeble attempts at humor aside, there are guidelines for setting resolutions. One method is to use the SMART principle to set resolutions. SMART is a set of principles to set resolutions or objectives properly. These guidelines are very popular in business. SMART is an acronym for:

Specific: Vague goals are hard to achieve. Be specific in what you want to do. “I resolve to be better” is not real helpful. “I resolve to be a better leader” is better but could still be improved upon.

Measurable: How will you know if you achieve your goal without a measure. “I resolve to lose 25 pounds and keep it off” is measurable. You know when you hit the first part of the goal, and you can continue monitoring it.

Achievable: “I resolve to run the 100 meter dash in the Olympic Games” while being Specific and Measurable is unachievable for someone this side of fifty. “I resolve to run the 100 meter dash in an AARP Olympics” is specific, measurable, and achievable… though it just doesn’t sound as

Revisable: Maybe losing 25 pounds by the end of the year is too much. Maybe after six months, it may make sense to lose 15 pounds and then 10 more the next year. There is nothing wrong with this. You would still be making progress.

Timely: There must be a horizon over which you want to achieve the goal. The beauty of New Year’s resolutions is that the time period is, by default, a year.
A resolution, thus, is nothing more than an objective or goal. Normally, we only use the word resolution for objective and goals we make at the beginning of the year. If we decide to quit smoking on August 12th, it would not be called a resolution. We would just say “I quit smoking today” or “I decided to quit smoking.”

But resolution is a good word. We resolve to do this or that. It sounds so much stronger than simply deciding to do something. We decide to watch a football game. We decide to have steak and decide to have it prepared medium rare. We decide to buy the Honda Civic instead of the Ferrari we really want.

But, when we resolve, it implies that we have really mulled the decision over and given it great consideration. Resolutions have more of a ring of commitment than mere decisions. No one resolves to buy a Honda Civic, but people do resolve to consume less energy and “that is why I decided to buy the Honda Civic that gets 35 miles per gallon.” No one resolves to have a decaf coffee, but people resolve to cut caffeine out of their diet and that is why “I am ordering the decaf latte.”

Setting the resolution is easy, living the resolution is the challenge. Most of the resolutions we set require habitual change. It is not something easily done but requires dedication and constancy of purpose (yes, like Dr. Deming’s famous 1st point). We are talking about quitting smoking, losing weight, getting fit, improving one’s blood chemistry, or as I have kind of sort of quasi-resolved this year, getting organized. These kinds of resolutions require changing ones behaviors that have been deeply set over a period of years.

Mark Twain said, "Quitting smoking is easy. I've done it a thousand times." This is a great quote and is cited all over the internet. In his humorous way, Mark Twain captured the essence and difficulty in these kinds of behavior modifications. It requires constant vigilance and effort. It involves avoiding temptation that often results in backsliding and maybe even abandoning the resolution.

There is plenty of advice for sticking to ones objectives. Most are in news articles that were prevalent the first few weeks of the New Year. The advice is varied and not every bit appeals to everyone. One should pick and choose what will work best for them. The lists overlap a quite a bit. I will use the list of Dr. Judith Orloff, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of the book, Positive Energy as found on (her points, my words).
Keep a positive attitude: This is key. As soon as you start looking at this as a burden or a chore, you will suffer and struggle. The path of least resistance is to give up. There will be tough spots. A positive attitude will carry you

Avoid energy vampires: People you routinely interface with often tend to enable and are used to the behavior you are trying to change. They may try to lure you back to those habits, contrary to your resolution, because they enjoy the old you they are used to. They may simply be jealous of your efforts to change and want to see you fail. Rather than avoid people you might really like, I would say the goal is to manage energy vampires.

Practice self-compassion: A slip up, a back-slide, does not have cause collapse and giving-up on the resolution. Cut yourself a break for an occasional slip-up and resume your quest. This particular bit of advice for me is a slippery slope. This compassion thing sounded so good, I tried it one during one of my weight loss attempts. I got so good at being compassionate with myself, the frequency of slip-ups became hardly occasional and I actually gained weight.

Set realistic goals: We covered this in the SMART objective discussion above.

Don’t compare yourself to others: The resolution is about you. It is about your improvement and betterment. It is doing your personal best. I could use Lance Armstrong as a cycling inspiration but comparing myself to him… that could easily dampen my positive attitude.

Celebrate your successes: Set interim shorter term goals, maybe weekly, maybe monthly. If you achieve them, then celebrate… a little. The celebration should not be a slip-up requiring you to invoke self-compassion.
Then, of course, there is Mark Twain method. If you fail, keep trying. Never give up, eventually you will make it.

What is my resolution for this year? As mentioned earlier, it is to be more organized. I am not good at organizing things either in files or in my laptop, though I am better on the laptop. In the physical world, I tend to keep things in desktop piles. I should organize and desktop file papers requiring action. One acted on, the papers should be filed in an appropriate hanging file. After a year, tax related documents should be saved in that year’s tax file and the rest discarded.

Furthermore, I want to organize my calendar and to-do lists so that I do not miss meetings or deadlines. I want to prioritize that which must be done more effectively.

I know what to do, I just don’t do it. Being organized is one of those things I have to a little bit everyday. Why are these kinds of things so hard? For me, this is a clear case of “Knowing Never equals Doing.”

How am I doing so far? Ehhhh… I am at risk of being part of that 77% in the FranklinCovey survey. But I am not giving up. I am keeping a positive attitude and I am practicing a lot of self-compassion.

Some Random Quotes:

Don't let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.
- John Wooden

What is not worth doing is not worth doing well.
- Abraham Maslow

Goals are dreams with deadlines
- Diana Scharf Hunt, a time-management expert I never heard of but seems best known for this quote.

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