Resolutions Past, Present and Future

A year-end, a new calendar, or a change of seasons bring fresh starts and times of renewal and reflection. It’s also a time for us to frame the usefulness of our past, our present, and future thinking for making positive change. In this post, we look at our relationship with time, planning, and strategy.

New Years Resolutions are the clearest manifestation of a commitment to an action — often a goal — and yet rarely produce bold results. The problem is not the resolution itself, but the way it’s formed and the expectations we bring with them.

So how might we create better resolutions?

Systems + Goals

goal |ɡōl| noun:  the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result • the destination of a journey

Much is written about creating SMART goals as the key to success. These are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely) goals with clear, accountable targets attached to them. These can work, but only if you understand what kind of game you’re playing to reach the goals.

Goals imply you’re operating with rules and structures that allow you to reach a specific target. As Simon Sinek has written and spoken about: goals only matter if you know what game you’re playing

Tools like the Cynefin Framework can help you assess the kind of structural setting you’re operating within and whether SMART goals make sense. If your situation is highly ordered, they might work. If your situation is complex, that’s not likely to help. This will help you know what kind of system you need to create, leverage or foster.

SMART goals fail in bad systems. We might not need or want SMART goals and might be better using the following framework for making decisions that keep us moving toward something.

  1. Commit to a process, not a specific goal
  2. Release the need for immediate results
  3. Build feedback loops
  4. Build better systems, not better goals

Past Practice, Present Circumstances

One of the great errors we make in strategy is ignoring the past. Our past — the baggage we bring with us — is not something to ignore.

Our baggage represents a system we organize our experiences. Like any good system, it has to be functional and simple enough to organize things coherently. This usually means being selective about what we ‘pack’ into our bags — what we add and what we remove. Like real luggage, the more we have, the slower, more encumbered, and more confused we become. We add to the complexity, rather than create simplicity.

The best packers are those who create extra space for things they’ll pick up along the way, put in things that go together (e.g., outfits that mix and match), and determine their essentials ahead of time. They spend the time considering what is most important, most used, most necessary and organize around those things: they employ strategy (and they adapt their strategy along their journey). They know what they need, what they like, and what makes them comfortable, safe and happy on their journey.

A great strategy for leveraging the past for planning resolutions was recently profiled in the year-end Censemaking Newsletter. The suggestion comes from Dan Pink.

  1. Look back on the previous year. New Year’s resolutions begin with old year’s regrets.
  2. Fill in the blank: “If only I ___________.”
  3. Make a long list of your “If Only” regrets
  4. Pick the one — and only one — that bugs you the most.
  5. Make that — and only that — your New Year’s resolution. Less is more.
  6. Put an action plan into place by setting private commitments on the even-numbered days of January.
  7. Tell others what you’re doing so they can hold you accountable.

Design for (Our) Human Behaviour

Changing habits is vital to changing ingrained behaviours. What’s important is reminding us that behaviour change is part rational (setting goals, using willpower), part emotional (harnessing energy), and part biological. These forces are all interconnected. A recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain goes deep into the science of habit change and provides some good, evidence-based recommendations for change-making.

Those who are better at self-regulation of behaviour are better at creating better systems for ignoring or eliminating temptations or disruptions. It’s a virtuous cycle.

The key for all of this is to design the situations, contexts and for preferences, skills, and abilities of those involved. This means being mindful of our change and designing for humans as they are, not just as we want them to be. This means being more clear on who we are, how we operate, and what we prefer and seek. This involves self-knowledge.

That requires a bit of time, care and attention. Yet, if we can do this, we can create a new year, a new quarter, a new start that is not only a fresh one but leads us to greater happiness as well as success.

Photos by Elena Kloppenburg on Unsplash, Eric Rothermel on Unsplash, and by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash (thank you for sharing your art)

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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