Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before
It’s that time of year again. Time for New Year’s resolutions – to lose weight, drink less, exercise more, keep in touch with friends better. Or in the workplace – time for a new big push for the MDGs – this year we will make it happen, or perhaps we will eradicate polio, or maybe even just get our travel planning system in order or get all our donor reports in on time.
But wait a minute, didn’t we say all that this time last year? What’s so special about a new year that means we think we can start anew and do all the things we have been meaning to do before – and why if that’s the case didn’t we get them done last year.
It’s a nice conceit to use a specific day or time of year to reflect on what we have done, and what we would like to do differently, and to take a fixed moment in time to resolve to do things differently. After all, we all have things we know we ought to do better or differently in all spheres of our lives. The track record of New Year’s resolutions isn’t very good though – and we all know it deep down. After several years of broken promises to ourselves it’s easy to get disheartened, we might even start to believe its not possible to make any positive changes at all, or not be willing to take the risk or put in the effort.
If you really want to do something different, I think the key is not to resolve to do it at the beginning of the year, but to make that same resolution again every day. One year won’t eradicate polio, or find a vaccine for AIDS – it might happen this year or it might not. One month of regular exercise won’t make you lose weight and keep it off. This year might be the year of some big personal or professional breakthrough – and on the other hand it might not. But it’s continually making the effort throughout the year and across the years that leads to the payoff in the end.
Other things that might make those resolutions and goals easier to keep to:
1. Set realistic, measurable goals so that you have a chance to be able to keep to them, and to be able to see progress. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fuzzy, ambitious long term goals – but that if you want to get there you also need shorter term specific goals to get you started and allow you to show and feel good about the progress you make.
2. Do them with a buddy – find another person (or organization) to work with on the same goals so that you can help each other, advise each other and provide moral support for one another, as well as to stir up a little bit of friendly competition about who can do better.
3. Find a critical friend to keep you honest, remind you, cajole you, criticise you and encourage you. Key to this is honesty, transparency and trust. You need to be honest to your friend about your progress and setbacks, they need to be honest with you about how well you are doing. You need to trust them as they should be critical but also supportive. At an organizational level this translates into being honest with your board, your donors and beneficiaries and seeking their critical support in improving your performance.
4. Raise the stakes. People respond to incentives, so give yourself some positive incentives (rewards) and negative ones to help keep you on track. Tim Harford had a great piece on this a couple of years ago in which he featured Stickk.com a website where you can set yourself a target, get an independent referee to monitor your progress, and if you don’t fulfil your commitment you donate a pre-determined sum of money to your favourite charity. This makes use of peer pressure and economic incentives to keep you on track. Cash on delivery aid anyone?
As for me, my resolution is to update my blog on a regular basis. Anyone care to take a bet against me?
Happy New Year to you all, here’s wishing that in 2011 all your realistic, well defined goals come true.