Friday, December 30, 2016

New Year’s Resolutions, and Why We Need Them

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the importance of the personal year-end reflection. The next step, of course, is the New Year’s resolution—or rather, one’s list of New Year’s resolutions.

Let’s begin with the disclaimer that yes, a year is an arbitrary human construct. I happen to have a cousin who was born on January 1st, 2000; but serendipity of that degree is highly unusual. Most of us began our lives at odd points during the year, and we’ll end them at odd points, too. I was born on August 9th, 1968. My approximate checkout time is 2053, assuming that I live to the age of 85. (Why not be optimistic?) I’ll probably check out on April 3rd or October 12th, or whenever. I almost certainly won’t die at 11:59 p.m., December 31st.

So in the beginning, and at the very end, the arbitrary construct of the year doesn't matter much. But in between, during the decades when we’re active and reasonably vibrant, the 12-month, 365-day year is a convenient way of measuring progress. 

And whatever you’re doing—whether it’s writing poems, selling insurance, or running a restaurant—you do need to measure your progress. There’s an old saying, “What gets measured, gets done.” January 1st is a convenient time for beginning your measurements anew.

You could, theoretically, use your birthday as the switchover date for your personal New Year. I would advise against this. I’m a curmudgeonly individualist with a knee-jerk distrust of the crowd; but even I acknowledge that there are times when it makes sense to utilize the momentum of the wider culture to your advantage.

New Year’s Day is one of those times. Throughout December, with the shortening days, the chilly weather, and the slack time of the holidays, there is a pervasive feeling that things are winding down. Likewise, there is a sense of things starting back up again, with a new face on them, after January 1st. While January 1st is not the only time you could launch areas of your life in new directions, it is the most convenient time. 

Here is how I manage my New Year’s resolutions: 

I begin by reviewing the current year. Throughout each year, I maintain a simple journal. This isn't a formal, long-form diary. My yearly journal is a simple calendar or day planner that I use to record my major milestones and memorable events.

This minimalist journal doesn't take long to maintain, and it greatly facilitates the year-end review process. I’ve kept such journals since 1995, so I now have a drawer full of them. (I also use my journals for midyear reviews, and for looking back on previous years.) 

While reviewing the expiring year, I ask myself two questions: a.) What did I do well? and b.) What did I do poorly? I seldom have a year in which I screw everything up; but I usually do at least a few things right. 

I then set a series of resolutions designed to make the next year more productive. At this stage of my life, my resolutions fall under the categories of financial, professional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Depending on your situation, you might want more categories. A parent would probably need a parental category. A young person might want an educational category, and possibly a social category. 

Make your resolutions measurable and (important) attainable. 

Don’t set yourself the resolution of getting accepted at Harvard, as this depends on many factors beyond your control. But you can assign yourself the resolution of studying x hours per day, filling out x number of college applications, etc. 

Likewise, if you’re a young guy who wants a girlfriend in 2017, don’t give yourself the resolution of dating Taylor Swift, as that isn't going to happen. Don’t even set yourself the resolution of “finding a girlfriend”—as that will ultimately depend on someone agreeing to be your girlfriend. Focus on resolutions you can independently fulfill, which will make the “finding a girlfriend” outcome far more likely. These might include a.) joining a gym and working out regularly, and b.) chatting up two new romantic prospects each week. 

My focus, at this stage of my life, is writing and storytelling. I won’t set myself the goal of surpassing Stephen King and J.K. Rowling in sales in 2017. That (highly) unlikely outcome would depend on many factors I can’t control. But I can make concrete goals for my story output and marketing efforts. These are variables that fall under my immediate control.  

Since 1993, I’ve been setting concrete annual goals, otherwise known as New Year’s resolutions. I have derived consistent benefit from starting afresh each January 1st, but starting with a deliberate, consciously prepared plan in mind—a plan that is based on a thoughtful analysis of the prior year. 

I’ve never achieved every New Year’s resolution, but I’ve always achieved at least one or two of them—so New Year’s resolutions have always made my life better. 

I therefore plan to keep making them, until at least 2053 or my death, whichever comes sooner.