The sun has already set on the first day of the new year and I have yet to get out of my pajamas. Thankfully, tomorrow is a new day and a day off.
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I’ve always been a sucker for a fresh start. As a student, the blank, smooth pages of a new homework journal made my heart race. “This is the semester I will write down all my assignments! I will do all my homework, ace all my classes, and come home to proud parents in the arms of adoring classmates!” I once got disproportionately excited about the life-transforming potential of a new toothbrush. Birthdays were also opportunities to recreate myself, and better still, mine is in the summer. That meant I could cocoon myself away from my peers for three months and return as someone shiny and new in the fall.
Of course, then, I’ve always loved making New Year’s resolutions and drafting long, important lists about the fantastic changes I am going to make in my life. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology, however, to realize that loving the opportunity for a fresh start and wanting to make positive changes in your life aren’t guarantees that you’ll see them through. Making decisions is easy enough. Making things happen is very much like work.
But, I’m 30 now, not 12, and in the years in between, I’ve learned a few things about getting stuff done. Here are the things that I keep in mind now when I want to make and reach a goal. I’ll use one of my own New Year’s resolutions as an example:
1. Keep it positive!
“Run more often” is a much nicer thing to say to your delicate self than “Stop going to happy hour.”
2. Set SMART goals.
At work, our HR people force us to watch PowerPoint presentations about setting SMART goals, or specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely goals. Boooor-ing. But, the thing is, it works (it’s the PowerPoint presentations that are tedious and irrelevant). “Running more often” is nice, but at some point, your intelligent self is going to wonder just why the hell you are out there in the dark and cold while everyone else is watching The Big Bang Theory. I found out about a half-marathon in April and I know I’ll have to run through the winter to get ready for it. I know I’ll have to run 13.1 miles and I think about 10 minutes a mile is a good time for me. I know I can fit about three long runs a week into my schedule. So instead of “running more often”, I know I have to “run three times a week, at least seven miles each time, at a pace of at least 10 minutes per mile in order to run the entirety of a half-marathon at the end of April.” Boom. Now you’re going places.
3. Do it with other people.
What isn’t more fun with a friend? I’ve corralled at least three people into participating in this race in April. It’s motivating to know that on the big day, I’ll be running alongside friends. Also, I really don’t want to embarrass myself in front of people I respect.
4. Incentivize it!
For me, bragging rights are the ultimate form of motivation. On days when it’s cold and I don’t want to run, I imagine those few slack minutes before the meeting starts, when someone casually asks me, “What did you this weekend?” And I get to say, “I, uh, ran a half-marathon” and shyly study my shoes. And then she asks me a dozen questions about it and she tells me how she always wanted to do that, but it was too difficult, and I shrug like it was no big deal and try to change the topic, but not before two or three other people have overheard and are now maneuvering to sit closer to me, just to bask in the glow of my ambition and determination. I am fierce and they will know it. But maybe that’s just me. You might just want a new scarf or an indulgent bubble bath. The most important thing is making sure that it doesn’t undermine your other goals: for example, don’t give yourself something pricey as a reward for saving money.
5. Break it down as small as you need to.
Have you ever gotten completely overwhelmed at the thought of cleaning your entire house? You know those times when it seems like it’s going to be such an awful and arduous task that you just don’t start? I used to get myself so worked up about giant research papers and strenuous workout plans that I felt hobbled before I even took the first step. I would wait until I had hours and hours free on my schedule before starting on a big project only to find out that I needed hours more just to prepare to get it done. I finally realized that I got a lot more done doing 15 minutes of work when I had 15 minutes free, or if I told myself I had to write just one page before I went out, than if I tried to finish it all in one go. It’s something like the difference between tackling an NFL linebacker and tackling Bambi when he was just a little fawn and couldn’t walk very well.
These are the tips, tricks and techniques I’ve acquired over the past 30 years to help me check things off my to-do lists. Making goals you can meet, then meeting them, then developing a taste for that sense of accomplishment are really satisfying.
Good luck to all of us who have bravely entered 2012 with a calculated list of things we want to expect from ourselves over the next 365 days!