Every year many of us make New Year’s Resolutions.  We’ve had the gluttony and sloth of the holiday season and with our brand-new calendars, we are eager to make resolutions for change.  I think that New Year’s Resolutions can be great, if the resolutions are appropriately challenging (but not ridiculous), reasonable, and trackable.  I thought I’d write down my advice for setting annual goals, not because I always accomplish mine, but because I accomplish a LOT of what I set out to do as I make goals throughout the year.

One Personal, Two Role-oriented

First you should choose one personal goal.  We all struggle with something: attention to detail, weight, regular exercise, nail-biting, too much texting, … there’s something that you want to work on just for you and you alone.  Here’s the catch.  You can only work on one of these.  No cheating.  You can’t have a goal to lose weight and exercise.  Either focus on healthy eating or focus on daily exercise.  Two personal goals is more than most of us can take on with any degree of success.

We each have multiple roles in life.  I am an employee.  I am a spouse.  I am a parent (to four animals).  I am a learner.  I am a writer.  I am a speaker.  You can’t choose a resolution for all these roles, but you can focus on two of them, with a resolution for each role.   Where are your weaknesses?  Where will growth get you the most bang for your buck?

This year, my three goal areas are: Personal, Professional, and Family.  I have one resolution in each area.

Are Your Resolutions Reasonable?

Resolutions need to be reasonable.  Think about actions you already do sometimes that you would like to do more.  Don’t try to set a resolution for something that you’ve never done before or you only do rarely.  For example, if you never walk 10,000 steps in a day, then don’t make a resolution to walk 10,000 steps in a day. Instead, make a resolution to walk 5,000 steps in a day (there’s always next year to hit the 10,000 steps goal if you find that you naturally hit 10,000 steps sometimes).

Chart showing how many steps I've taken every day (I never hit 10,000)

How likely do you think I’d be to walk 10,000 steps a day in 2011?

Here’s another example.  Don’t make a resolution to write a blog post every day if you’ve never blogged at all, instead make a goal to learn about some topic by blogging at least once a week on this topic.  You probably already learn as a natural activity.  Now you’re enhancing something you already do, with the accountability (blogging) as the new activity.  If you want to start tweeting, don’t just make a goal to tweet every day.  Again, choose a more reasonable focus … learn about ______ and share what I’ve learned through twitter.  Success might be 10 tweets a week on this topic.

Resolutions Should be Measurable

Your resolutions should be set up so that they can be measured on a daily or weekly basis.  For example, suppose one of your goals is to learn you can about game design.  During the week you might tweet all the interesting articles, blog posts, games, and books that you find.  On Sundays, you could collect all the tweets, articles, books, and general insights into a blog post.  Measure progress by whether you made that Sunday post every week.  If you made the post, you’ve made progress for that week.  If you didn’t make the post, you’re falling behind your resolution.

Daily progress is difficult to remember to track, so I’ll advocate for some kind of weekly tracking, even if the goal is daily.  For example, if your goal is to take 10,000 steps a day, you can probably keep track of about 7 days of yes/no data (did I make the goal today).  At the end of the week, write down how many days during the week you met your goal.

One of my goals for the last two years has been to complete my dissertation.  This, however, is not a goal you can easily track in small steps.  So I made a different goal: For every hour I spend working on my dissertation, I would tweet what I accomplished, learned, or struggled with during that hour.  This allowed me to measure (realistically) whether I was putting in the time that would eventually lead to a completed dissertation (and I just turned the last chapter in to my advisor after the 474th hour).  The log of hours reminded me of all the time I had invested and gave me a realistic expectation of how long it would take to complete steps along the way.  I would make 10-hour mini-goals and instead of “finish the dissertation” I only aimed for “10 more hours” or “40 hours this week” if I could really have a focused dissertation work-week.

10 hours of hourly dissertation postings

Aim for 90%

If your goal is to avoid sweets every day, then your resolution is over the first day you have a slice of cake. On this day the “streak” stops, and very likely, your attempt to accomplish the goal ends.  Consider instead making the resolution goal 90%.  This resolution could become: Avoid eating sweets on 90% of the days in 2011.  This gives you 36 days to screw up and still meet your goal.  That might sound like a lot, but if you’re eating sweets every other day now, then you still have to cut back from eating sweets 182 days a year to 36 days a year.  That would still be a major accomplishment!

Keep Your Resolutions a Secret

Derek Sivers spoke about why you shouldn’t tell anyone your goals in this short (3-minute) TED Talk from 2010 called Keep Your Goals to Yourself.

Now, while you should keep your goals a secret, you should also write them down some place where you will see them regularly.  Consider writing them where your Things To Do list is, or writing them on a slip of paper you’ll see whenever you pull out a credit card.

Track Success in a Visible Spot

Without explicitly stating what the goals are, you can track your success (and thus remind yourself that you are trying to meet goals) in a place you will see everyday.  I’ll have to recommend that the ideal place is on the wall of your bathroom (a place you are unlikely to avoid).  If you travel, you might want a duplicate copy in your suitcase!  I’ve made a public google spreadsheet that you can personalize, print, and use to track your goals for the year (save a copy for yourself first).  All you have to do is use tick marks to count days/weeks of successes or misses.

Well, we’re to the end.  That’s all the advice I have to give. Given the focus of this blog, I hope you’ll consider learning something as a focus for one of your goals for 2011.