New Year’s resolutions are kind of a cliche and most people either do it for the meme or just from the New Year enthusiasm, and then they die out in a couple of weeks. But, I do think they can be used as a tool for good changes and fun experiments so here are my experiences with them.
My previous experiences
I have two types of experiences with New Year’s resolutions and neither is the classic one you think of when you talk about this subject. Normally you have a decision that you want to improve something in your life and that’s about it. For example “I will get fit this year!” 1
The first type of resolutions I kept is Challenge. This is where I set a year-long challenge for myself and as it happens, the start of a year is a good time for something like that. 2
The second type is similar to OKRs. For those not in the business world, OKRs are a common goal-setting framework companies use. The acronym stands for “Objectives and Key Results”. There is a lot that can be said about them, but I’ll try to keep it simple. You have an objective and there are key results by which you measure if you’ve succeeded in your objective.
Over the years, I’ve successfully completed three year-long challenges that started on January 1st and lasted for a whole year. You could say that they are three successful New Year’s resolutions.
52 – Cincuenta y dos
This is the first challenge I did. I was really into photography at that time and I found out about the 365 challenge where the goal is to take a photo every single day for a year. This sounded too demanding for me at the time so I adjusted it to my own needs and made the 52 challenge. As you can probably guess, the goal here is to take one photo every week for a year. This can be a first lesson here – don’t just blindly take what somebody else gives you, adjust it to your own needs, make it your own.
Well, I gave away what is this one, haven’t I? After finishing the 52, I realized it wasn’t that difficult and maybe I’m ready for the big one. But, yet again, I did make it my own. In the previous challenge, I realized it can be hard wandering around and taking random photos, so it might be easier to have a theme, something to guide me and make my life easier. So, I decided that every month will have its own theme. 3 This was a big help, but I realized something else too during this project. Doing something every day for a whole year is hard. It is really demanding. Sometimes you just don’t have inspiration, or you feel down and don’t want to go out and take some random photos just because you have to. And a year is a really, really long time, so when it becomes difficult 4 months in, it’s hard to bounce back knowing that you have to do it for 8 more months.
This is how this blog started, it was the second project of the challenge and a way to track the challenge itself. This one was a making challenge – the goal was to make something every week for a whole year. As you can see, I’ve learned from the previous challenge that every day is too much for me. Another key thing from this one is preparation. If you want to do something big, it’s hard to go into it without preparation. That’s why when I conceived the idea for this challenge (6 months before I started), I immediately started gathering ideas for what can I make for it. So when I finally started, I already had a list of around 50 ideas and a solid plan for the first couple of weeks.
As I’ve said, OKRs are something companies use, and I haven’t intentionally set my goals in this manner, but after the fact, I realized they have some similarities. And with that in mind, these don’t follow all the rules about OKRs so hold your horses if you wanted to nag about that.
In OKR framework, objectives should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). Also, people often say that they should be ambitious, but within reach, if you put some hard work into them. And ideally, they should be inspirational. I think this is especially important when setting your personal goals, because what’s the point of them if even you don’t find them inspiring?
The Year of Twelves
I dubbed my last year’s goals “The Year of Twelves” because I realized that all my goals were to do stuff once per month (on average). As you can see, this is even less than my last challenge. This time, these were more like themes to guide me during the year rather than specific challenges I had to achieve. Also, as opposed to the previous challenges, these weren’t public and only a couple of people even knew about them, and I didn’t have a strict schedule for them – that way, I eliminated all the outside pressure from the whole concept.
As you will see, all these objectives are key results in themselves. But I don’t mind that, the important part is that I understood them and I had goals that were specific enough.
1. Read one book per month
For this one, my actual goal was to read every day. 4 But I also realized that my tempo will be about 1 book per month and it fits really well with the other objectives so the goal was set to 12 books for a year. I’m happy to say that I have read every single day of the past year and that the total book count is 18. This probably doesn’t sound like much to avid readers, but I am proud of this number. And anyway, it was never about quantity for me, it’s just about the process, learning new things and enjoying wonderful stories.
2. Have guests once per month and cook for them
This is something my girlfriend and I enjoy doing, but things like this can easily slip out of your mind when you’re busy with life, so I decided to set it as a goal so it can keep us in check. In the end, we had 10 dinners in total that completely fulfilled these criteria, but if we also count a couple of times we’ve cooked for people that weren’t our guests, we can put this total at 12. But, more importantly, the end result was a lot of nice food and having fun with friends.
3. Visit 12 countries
I like to travel, that’s all there is to it. The quantity doesn’t really matter to me, but this seemed like a fun goal. Also, it allowed some creativity in how to get more countries for less money. 5 If we count Serbia, in the end, I was in 10 countries last year. And I came really close to 12. I was 5 minutes from the border with Italy, alongside the border with Bosnia, and originally planned to visit Portugal during my summer holiday in Spain. But, I can’t complain, 10 countries isn’t bad at all. Again, it wasn’t really about number, it was about doing something I love, numbers were just there to motivate me a bit more.
4. Write a blog post once per month
During the Jack of all trades challenge, I realized that I like writing this blog, so I wanted to continue. However, I realized it is much harder to do so without deadlines every week. I found it very difficult to finish blog posts, but also to start them, which is not good if you want to write 12 of them. In the end, I published only five blog posts. But, I do have three of them in the drafts, and another two that I know what I want to write about, but just didn’t get around to it. So the goal itself wasn’t that far away, but the underlying problem wasn’t solved, and it wouldn’t have been solved even if I got to my magic number. This is a great example why numbers alone aren’t great goals. Think hard about what is it that you really want out of your goals.
The Year of Twelves – conclusion
There is one final thing I haven’t told anyone about and it is another part of the OKR framework. And that is the scoring of OKRs. You see, usually, you score OKRs based on the percentage of key results you have realized. And anything above 70% is a passing grade. If we count this in, I have failed only one of my goals, and not by as much as it seemed at first. I will call this an overall success. And not just because of percentages, but more so because I am satisfied with what I accomplished last year.
What worked for me
During these 4 years, I found some things that worked well, some things that didn’t, and some that worked well up until a certain point where they became counterproductive. Here are the good ones:
This probably isn’t for everyone, but I found it to be an excellent motivator. For me, accountability was mostly achieved through the audience of my challenges. And it’s not like it was a huge amount of people demanding results from me, but the act of publishing my results in public made me feel obligated to do them.
Once per day, once per week, once per month. Every time, I had a clear timeline to follow and a clear result I had to achieve. Success was clearly defined. If you have vague goals and vague rules, you won’t know what you are doing and it will be easy for you to forget about them.
Clearly set goals
My goals weren’t vague, such as “Exercise more”, for example. That doesn’t mean anything. How often, when, why… Those are all important questions to be answered. And don’t take this too literally, you can have a goal like “Get fit”, but then after that define how will you know you succeeded in that and how will you get there.
A year is really long. Keep it interesting, mix it up, and don’t let it become boring and a chore.
As I’ve said, the goals you set for yourself have to inspire you. You need to be passionate about them. This will also help in times where you don’t have strength to work on them, you can always remember why are you doing it in the first place.
Setting low bars
If you want to have a chance to successfully do something for a whole year you need to have a low bar for a minimum you need to achieve to call it a success. This is mostly for things that are supposed to happen every day, but parts of it apply to other things as well. And I don’t mean that you should just be doing the bear minimum for a whole year. But, there will be days when you don’t feel like anything, when life happens and you just don’t have it in you to do the task, or even just don’t have the time for it. In those moments, as I see it, you have two options. One is to have a low bar, to just do something which will count. I certainly had awful photos in my challenges and awful projects in Jack of all trades. 6. There were days when I read just the title of the chapter, or a single paragraph in a day. But it wasn’t about the quantity. It was about the process, about the habit, about being consistent, so it didn’t matter at all. The other way is to forgive yourself (this is needed in the first option too). It is okay to fail sometimes. It is even expected. So when it happens, forgive yourself and continue working on it. It is not over just because you failed once.
What didn’t work for me
Until now, it sounded like everything is easy and perfect and I was killing it. Well, I wish it was like that, but alas, here are the things that weren’t so peachy.
Too long stretches of time
I think this is the most deficient thing when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. You’re expected to set a goal and follow through with it for a whole year. That is way too long. Especially if you make it something you need to do daily. The more demanding the goal is, the shorter the time period for it should be.
This is the flip side of the coin for accountability and audience. When you have those systems in place and you’re not achieving your goals it feels awful. You feel a lot of pressure to perform and it just makes things even worse.
Doing stuff just because you have to
This follows the previous two perfectly. First, you have a too long period of time, then you get burnt out, but you feel the pressure to publish stuff so you just keep doing it. You stop doing it for the original purpose and because it made you happy, and you end up doing it to chase some invisible goals and become miserable doing so. In this situation, I think it would be smarter to take a break, or just quit the goal completely. But, who am I to say, it happened to me twice so far, and neither time did I do as I preach. I persevered and finished my challenges, but in the end, there is a question. Was it worth it? And I’m not sure if it was. They are nice accomplishments, and I am proud of them, but they caused me a lot of hardship.
Setting too-ambitious goals
Be aware of what can you realistically do. Count in the stuff life will throw at you. You’ll never have the perfect conditions and it will never all go as perfectly as planned and you’ll have ups and downs.
Is there a better way?
I don’t know… Probably… In this blog post I wrote about a lot of ways to succeed in setting and keeping New Year’s resolutions, but I would say you shouldn’t set them as such. Mostly they are meaningless, not conceived well, and they can even make you feel worse. Challenges are fun, but be mindful and careful with them. They can also backfire. Setting goals probably works the best, but all the other caveats apply here too. Make the time period appropriate for them. It doesn’t have to be a whole year. It’s probably even better if it isn’t, especially if you don’t have experience with these challenges. Try something smaller so you can see how it works.
And the most important thing – you don’t have to make them on January 1st. You can start something new any and every day of the year. There is no reason to wait. If I wanted this to be a guide only for New Year, I would’ve published it couple days before New Year, not a couple days after, so use this to your advantage. If you want to do something do better your life, do it now!
What are my New Year’s resolutions for this year?
I don’t have any. But I am trying something new close to this subject. Inspired by CGP Grey’s Theme System, I’m setting themes for the first three months of this year. This is quite similar to the OKR way of doing things, but there are differences. I will let Grey explain it because I couldn’t dream of explaining something better than him. What I’m trying with this is to have some guiding principles that will nudge me in the direction I want to go in. So far I tried and, you could even say, succeeded in more classical New Year’s resolutions. What you have after that are accomplished projects or finished things. I like the idea of going somewhere without a specific finish in mind.
So what are my themes?
This comes naturally with the theme system, considering I bought the theme system journal. But, I am genuinely curious about this practice. Over the years I’ve heard good things about it, and I’ve experienced them occasionally writing down some thoughts, so I think it’s high time I gave it a decent try. My goal is to journal every day for the next three months. We’ll see where will this lead me.
There are three things I’m awful at but wish I was good, or at least decent at. Music (playing instruments or producing), singing, and drawing. As a man whose hobby is to collect different skills, I am aware that these are just that – skills, and they can be learned. But this is where talent comes into play. I was never talented in them, so learning them comes really hard for me and I don’t even know where to start. However, you can only passively wish for something for so long. It finally came time for me to do something about them. The first problem I have with this is that it is a vague goal. I want to learn how to draw. But I don’t know how to get there, I don’t have a plan. Am I going to take classes? If so, from whom, and how often? How often am I going to practice? A lot of questions, and not a lot of answers, but I will let future Goran worry about those.
Happy New Year, and good luck with any resolutions, challenges, goals, or themes if you have any!
Or “I will go to the gym this year”. This theme is frequent and has different forms, but they all have the same point.↩
Technically, any time is good for that, but the start feels tidy.↩
Random January, Black and White February, Creative self-portraits March…↩
There’s a blog post about this in the drafts. Hopefully, I will finish it one day.↩
For example, I visited Basel, which is on the border of three countries: Switzerland, France and Germany. One trip – tree countries.↩