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New Year's resolutions: Don't throw the baby out with the bath water

"Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years." - Bill Gates



Today marks the first day of 2024. Today is also the day that many people will be crafting their goals for the year ahead. Statistically speaking, many of the goals crafted and initiated on January 1st will fail – one study showed that 81% of people will fail to achieve their New Year's resolutions, and most fail within the first week of trying. As a result of the publicizing of studies such as these highlighting the failure of goals set at the New Year, the concept of the New Year's resolution has developed a negative reputation over time.


However, I, for one, am not on the anti-New Year's resolution bandwagon. In highlighting the failure of goals committed to at the passing of the New Year, we are effectively throwing the baby out with the bath water. Goal setting, inherently, is not the problem.


My personal view is that New Year's resolutions can be enormously helpful, and I’ll outline two reasons why I believe that to be true.


Benefits of New Year's resolutions


The first benefit is that there is something special about the calendar year. As humans, we have developed systems for managing and marking the passing of time. We mark days by the seconds, minutes, and hours that pass. We mark years by the days and months that make them up. And we mark decades by the accumulation of years within. At the passing of each calendar year, a sufficient period of time has passed that we can look back and forward with a sufficiently wide perspective. I believe that it is only in zooming out that we can truly appreciate our achievements and forward momentum.


The second benefit is that the New Year holiday provides us with the space to meaningfully step back from our normal, busy lives and reflect on both the year that was and the year to come in a way that is significantly more productive than if we were to attempt to do so without having crafted that space intentionally. For me personally, some of the most powerful personal breakthroughs in my life have come about from purposefully pulling myself away from my day-to-day life to manufacture the space that is needed for clear, introspective thought.


It is in that space that I have gained the proper perspective needed to evaluate my current direction and determine any modifications to that path. Bill Gates would famously take week-long retreats such as this while building Microsoft, and it was on these retreats that ideas like Internet Explorer were born. Space allows for thought that is not distracted by the burdens of our day-to-day lives, and for this reason the New Year holiday can be a powerful foundation for setting meaningful goals.


A cabin in the woods

Sometimes, we need to escape to find ourselves


How I craft my New Year's goals


Clearly, goal setting and goal fulfillment are two separate things entirely. There are plenty of good articles around how to make your goals stick – this is not one of them (I would recommend the writings of James Clear for building habits to achieve your goals). I will, however, share with you how I like to go about crafting my New Year's goals, and hopefully this will be helpful to you.


Firstly, I start with a reflection of the year that was. What worked well, what could be improved, and what were the key lessons that I took away? Generally, I will group this reflection into key themes. This reflective exercise is extremely important, and it helps me to understand how I tracked against the goals that I set at the beginning of the prior year.


Secondly, I reinforce my high-level vision of who I want to become and tweak this vision if necessary. If I don’t have a clear direction up front, the goals that follow will lack coherence. A high-level vision allows for the compounded benefit that comes from consistent effort towards a targeted direction across multiple years (if not decades).


Thirdly, I define the key themes – what I like to call the big rocks – that follow from the high-level vision. The key here is focus. I would recommend having no more than three or four big rocks. Any more than this, and I personally find that my time and energy, my most valuable resources, are too thinly stretched to achieve meaningful movement in any single direction.


Finally, once I have reinforced my high-level vision and defined the key themes that sit within this, I craft the specific goals that will help to bring the vision into reality. I would recommend a level of specificity to propel forward the achievement of the goals outlined, while building in blue sky to allow for serendipity. The goals we craft should not limit us, but rather act as signposts in walking the path that has been set.


I will give you an example of this from my 2024 goal setting exercise. I believe that the highest vision of myself is to make a meaningful, positive impact on the world and inspire millions of people around the world to do the same. As of 2024, my vehicle to achieve this vision is by being an adventure athlete, writer, and speaker. These are my big rocks. I realised through my reflection of 2023 that I did not live up to my own aspirations as a writer. In line with this big rock, I have committed to a goal to publish one blog post on this website every fortnight in 2024. You can see in this example how a high-level, conceptual vision cascades down into a tangible goal with measurable outputs.


I hope this has been of value to you, and I wish you all the best as you go about setting and fulfilling your New Year's resolutions in 2024. It could just be your best year yet.

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