The trouble with New Year’s resolutions

Blog Jeju 61


On Friday, 2nd January, I stepped into the office for the first time since Christmas.  I had a small list of priorities, including clearing my desk ready to start the year, some scheduled phone calls and preparing to write this blog.

It seemed to be a good time to reflect on the year just gone and the year ahead.  What did I achieve last year?  What do I want to achieve in the year that has just begun?

If New Year’s resolutions are working for you, there’s probably nothing I can add on this topic.

More often, though, they don’t.

For this reason, I decided to explore the topic in my first blog of 2015.

Does your heart sink at the thought of setting New Year’s resolutions?

Whether you are contemplating making New Year’s resolutions for yourself or setting new goals for your team, you’re probably acutely aware that for many people, the habit of setting New Year’s resolutions can be laced with cynicism and disappointment before the year has even begun.

Maybe you know you need to lose weight or to increase sales across your business.  You said it last year.  You said it the year before.  Saying that you wanted to achieve it did not, though, make it happen.

Perhaps you feel the pressure to come up with new goals.  Maybe you are under pressure to deliver against somebody else’s new goals.  But past experience tells you that knowing the pressure is there has made no difference in practice to the results you and your team have achieved.

To cap it all, the more you focus on what you should be achieving that’s different, the more your heart sinks as you reflect on past failures.

SMART goals – are they any better?

The acronym SMART has become a byword for goal-setting in organisations in recent years.  It didn’t, though, stop one client from complaining about the impossible challenge of setting and achieving team goals.

John (let’s call him John) had been struggling with one particular goal for two years in a row and the need to achieve it was becoming increasingly pressing.  He had checked it for “SMART” and it ticked all the boxes.

Still, they had failed to achieve the goals as agreed in year one.

They had failed to achieve the goals in year two.

Failing to achieve it in year three didn’t seem to be an option.

It seemed to me that we needed to understand why John and his team were failing to achieve their goal before he could make the adjustments that would make the difference.

Two reasons why we fail to turn New Year’s resolutions (and SMART goals) into practice

Let me turn away from John and his team for a moment.  Why, in practice, do we fail to achieve our goals?  I am thinking about our personal goals as well as the goals we set with and for our team.

Reflecting on my own and others’ failures, I notice two key reasons why people don’t achieve their goals or fulfil their New Year’s resolutions.  Firstly, at times, we simply set the wrong goal.  Sometimes, for example, we set a goal for our career and yet fail to take steps to achieve it.  Perhaps it’s a goal that honours the wishes of our family but fails to gladden our heart, for example.  (And yes, many achieve such goals and turn up years later in coaching or therapy clinics, dissatisfied and wondering where to go next).  Perhaps we set a goal for our team which fails to get to the heart of what’s needed or to take account of what’s going on in the marketplace.  (One person I interviewed years ago was charged with a sales goals which was a percentage increase of current sales of a product that was about to become obsolete.  It was clear he wouldn’t achieve his goal and still, he had to fight a hard political battle in his organisation to gain wider recognition of the implications of this change in technology.)

There’s a second reason why we fail to fulfil our New Year’s resolutions or to succeed in meeting a business goal.  Quite simply, we underestimate what it takes to achieve them.  If we know from the beginning what it takes to achieve our goals, we’re probably playing too small a game.  This applies in our personal lives as much as it does in our businesses and organisations.  When I jotted down some of the reasons people don’t fulfil their New Year’s resolutions or their business goals some very human things came up:

  • Lack of commitment:  Have you ever said yes to doing something, only to find that you didn’t, well… do it?  Sometimes we don’t get off the starting blocks because we haven’t really tested for commitment.  This is true when the goal is a personal one – one part of us wants to achieve X, for example, but another part is concerned about the implications.  Across our teams this inner conflict may be replicated many times.
  • Failing to acknowledge the benefits of our current behaviours:  If you want to lose weight and you’re still eating all the foods (or drinking all the drinks) you know you need to give up, it’s because you get something you want from your current habits.  Psychologists call these hidden benefits “secondary gains”.  You may know intellectually that you have some bad habits you want to ditch and still, some part of you is clinging on tight to the same bad habits.  And yes, the same is true across whole organisations.  One organisation I know has repeatedly expressed the aspiration of creating truly equal “win, win” partnerships with suppliers.  At the same time, this organisation has benefited for a long time from seeing itself as stronger and superior to people outside the organisation.  There may be some element of illusion in this aspect of the organisation’s culture and still, it fuels a certain confidence in the marketplace.
  • Failing to identify and overcome barriers to progress:  It’s remarkable how many organisations turn a blind eye to key barriers to progress.  This can extend to using labels (“naysayer”, whinger” etc.) to describe anyone who raises a concern.  At the same time, the self same “naysayers” can be invaluable in highlighting issues that need to be overcome in order to meet a personal or organisational goal.  This failure to face the key challenges involved in achieving a goal can, in turn, lead to another issue which prevents us from achieving our goals;
  • Making too many changes in direction:  Have you ever noticed how team members can greet the goals of the new boss with a quiet resistance?  Conversations round the kettle suggest that he or she will calm down soon and nothing will get done, because who has ever followed through to achieve their goals?  At the same time, I’ve seen organisations invest significant amounts of time and money in a new idea, only to abandon it when it doesn’t go strictly to plan.  It can be painful to face mistakes and to correct them.  Sometimes it’s easier to abandon an idea completely and save face by saying it was a mistake to attempt something in the first place.  Changes in bosses can bring changes in direction.  Even without new people at the top, there can be unhelpful changes in direction before goals are ever met;
  • Timing, timing, timing…  Any number of failed goals are down to timing.  Was it timely to address this goal, or did it need to wait until you’ve addressed something else first?  Were you, your team, your senior colleagues willing to discover just how long it might take to achieve a goal?  Did they value the goal enough to persevere over time?

The reason behind the reason

In his exploration of the reasons he and his team had failed to achieve their main goal, John and his team identified a number of reasons which were both hidden from view and obvious once they had been identified.  It was a painful process for John and for a number of members of his team.

I could stop here.

After all, having identified why they were stuck, he and his team were able to revise their plans to address the key issues and, suddenly, the speed at which they made progress towards the goal they had identified two years early accelerated dramatically.

What had seemed hard suddenly seemed terribly easy.

But one question hit hard as John reflected on this sudden change of pace.  Why was it that such obvious reasons for delays had remained out of view?  And what was it that had suddenly made it possible to identify and discuss – address, even –  the barriers to progress across the team?

John was humble in his response:

“It was so clear that this goal was well within our grasp that every time we met a barrier I felt frustrated with myself or with members of my team.  Why wasn’t one team member doing the things he had promised week after week after week?  Sometimes, frustrated with my own role in the delays, I would give staff a ‘talking to’ and let them know how disappointed I was with them.  I always felt better for doing this, as if I was doing what I should do in my role as leader.  At the same time, I could see heads droop and motivation flounder.  All the frustration in the world, the self-blame, the criticism of my staff… it seemed right and logical but it didn’t make one bit of difference.”

So what did make the difference?

“When we talked about this goal in our coaching, I noticed something about the way you responded.  There was a quality you brought to our discussion which was entirely absent until that point – compassion.  I had been really beating myself up in the days preceding our session.  I was getting ready to do the same with my staff.

“This quality of compassion allowed me to recognise that delays and challenges are perfectly normal.  It also allowed me and my team to explore what was really getting in the way of progress.  It was as if, by taking blame out of the equation, we all became more willing to share our perceptions and to hear each other fully.  Initially, I felt vulnerable doing this and then, because of the lack of blame, I felt safe hearing staff tell me about the issues I had overlooked and about the impact of my approach.”

One afterthought on John’s part particularly struck me:

“I used to think that compassion was the opposite of accountability – a sign of weakness on my part as a leader.  This process has taught me that the opposite is true.  The greater the compassion, the easier it becomes to hold myself and others to account, because we’re not confusing the issues involved with who we are and what we can bring.”IMG_3752

Looking forward with compassion to 2015

Personally, I have a confession to make.

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions this year.

My goals – both personal and business – are anything but SMART.

At the moment, I am feeling my way through a period of considerable personal and professional change.

I have though, like John, learnt the value of compassion.  I have learnt how much more self aware I am when I can explore my desires with compassion.  I have learnt how much I can learn from my own inner resistance and from those who doubt when I can bring compassion to the conversation, for myself and others.  I have learnt how compassion can carry me through times of fear and uncertainty, or lift me up when something goes wrong.

In this moment I am accepting with compassion that I am publishing my first blog posting of 2015 almost a week after I started to write it.  Worse still, I am realising that although I scheduled this posting for 8th January, some glitch means that I’ve discovered, well into the month, that it hasn’t yet been published.

I am also looking back to see what progress I have made in my business and personal life despite the many moments in which I have felt anxious when things have not happened as quickly as I hoped and realising that there’s a much larger picture for me to look at.  From this perspective, I see successes I could never have anticipated and some very human barriers I have overcome.

I am looking forward to whatever life brings in 2015.

I hope you are, too.

PS  The photos are from my visit to a Buddhist temple last year on mainland South Korea.  Buddhism emphasises compassion, which may be why I was drawn to these photos in particular when writing this post.

2 thoughts on “The trouble with New Year’s resolutions

  1. A fantastic blog entry to start the year, and all the better for being published at this stage in January!

    I loved how you intertwined your own story, the experience of John, and some really robust analysis with practical examples of what can get in the way of achieving goals.

    I look forward to hearing how you have exceeded your own unstated, unSMART goals in a year’s time!

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