Happy New Year! (New Year’s Resolutions)

Everyone seems to want to change something about themselves – their weight, their physical conditioning, improve their health, create new work habits, get better at their jobs, learn something new or achieve something great.  They really want to make these changes.  In fact, many people who seek out a coach are really asking for help in preparing for something new or figuring out how to get better at something.  No time of year do I have more inquiries about coaching than January.

January 1 has, for centuries, been a time of New Year’s resolutions. People are initially enthusiastic but the long-term commitment to change and serious learning can be daunting and lead to disappointment.  Why is it that every year, millions of people engage in a ritual that doesn’t seem to work?  What could help?

Years ago, I remember reading an article in the “Wall Street Journal” that really had an impact on me.  I had always admired Lou Holtz, the legendary coach, and found this article to explain some of his success.

Holtz was an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina when he got bad news – he had been fired.  He must have been desperate, fearful, filled with anxiety about an uncertain future.  Nope!  Even though he had two children, a wife who was pregnant, no savings, and no job, that New Year’s he supposedly sat down and wrote down more than 100 things he wanted to accomplish.

Lou’s wife, Beth, had given him a book in the midst of this major breakdown, “The Magic of Thinking Big,” by David Schwartz (1965).  In it, Schwartz says, “Success is determined not so much by the size of one’s brain as by the size of one’s thinking.”  What did Holtz do after reading this gift from his wife?  He created a list of big things he wanted to accomplish and included things like, “meet the Pope,” “go skydiving,” “run with the bulls in Spain,” “win a national championship,” and “coach football at Notre Dame.”  According to one source, he initially wrote 107 goals and forty-five years later, had accomplished 102 of them!  Holtz had learned that writing down goals was a first step in achieving them.

What’s so special about New Year’s resolutions?  Why do we engage in a process that, according to Forbes Magazine, is only successful with 8% of the people who set out to achieve them?  And what does this have to do with leadership?

According to Wikipedia, a New Year’s resolution is “a tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person resolves to change an undesired trait or behavior, to accomplish a personal goal or otherwise improve their life.”

So, in many ways, a resolution – a firm decision to do or not to do something – is a declaration you make to yourself.  Declarations are commitments we speak that are designed to alter our future.  Why do so many well-intentioned people fail to follow through on resolutions that they want to achieve, that address important things that are missing in their lives, that if they achieved them, would make a big difference in their living?

Sometimes it’s how we frame them.  Some advice from the Forbes article:

  • Keep it simple – avoid the large bucket lists or extreme makeovers; set small, attainable goals (you may want to start with 3-5 resolutions instead of following Lou Holtz’s model)
  • Make it tangible – set specific, measurable, achievable goals (“say no to potato chips, fries, or ice cream for six weeks” vs. “lose some weight”)
  • Make it obvious – write them down, share them with friends, build accountability with a friend
  • Keep believing you can do it – simply setting a goal does raise your chances of achieving that goal, significantly

Stephen Guise introduces another approach in his book, “Mini-Habits.”  Guise tells about resolving to get in shape, so he joined a gym.  After a few weeks, he noticed that he wasn’t going to the gym, so he thought that outfitting a home gym would be the solution.  He bought some fitness machines and found that they became convenient places to hang his clothes, but he wasn’t using them.  So he thought, maybe if he looked good, he would take this seriously, so he bought some new workout clothes.  He looked good, but still wasn’t working out.

What did he do?  He committed to doing one push-up a day for a month.  The first time he tried that, he thought, “I’m already down here; maybe I can do more than one.”  By the end of the month, he was doing fifty push-ups each day and by the end of three months, he was going to the gym regularly.

Guise’s book describes a three-step approach:

  1. You don’t need triggers to form habits.
  2. The easier a habit, the easier it is to sustain.
  3. Let your core motivations drive your habits.

The Five Big Ideas of his book:

  1. “Doing a little bit is infinitely bigger and better than doing nothing (mathematically and practically speaking)”
  2. “Doing a little bit every day has a greater impact than doing a lot on one day”
  3. “We’re quick to blame ourselves for lack of progress, but slow to blame our strategies”
  4. “When you invest in yourself in key areas like fitness and learning, you tend to do it in other areas too”
  5. “When you add good habits into your life, it illuminates another possible path, restores your confidence, and gives you hope”

As a leader, what do you resolve to do to take your leadership to another level this year?  What mini-habits could you introduce that could transform how you lead?  Let me recommend four for your consideration:

  1. Become more self-aware. Take the Leadership Circle Profile and consider what you could begin learning about yourself and how you could engage in a process of self-discovery that could impact your life.  Use the link and scroll to the bottom of the page that says “Take Your Free Self Assessment.”  Then read the first book in the next recommendation.
  2. Read at least one leadership book per quarter during 2019. Four of the best books I’ve read recently:
    • Mastering Leadership” by Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams (2015) – In this work, the authors describe the “inner and outer games” of leadership, synthesize theories of human development into an easily understood format, and point out how your level of development impacts your ability to lead.
    • Conscious Business” by Fred Kofman (2008) – Describes the individual, relational, and output dimensions of any organization and what it takes to be a “conscious leader.” Kofman’s work emphasizes that without understanding the key personal and interpersonal dimensions of leadership and only focusing on the task, any organization will be, at best, mediocre.
    • The Meaning Revolution” by Fred Kofman (2018) – Kofman draws on his experience as advisor to Google and vice president of leadership at LinkedIn to make the case that the biggest driver of motivation is the chance to serve a larger purpose beyond our careers and ourselves.
    • Leaders: Myth and Reality” (2018) by General Stanly McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone – In this work, McChrystal and his fellow authors borrow a concept from Plutarch to explore the profiles of 13 different leaders from diverse fields to examine and challenge traditional leadership models. Their model of leadership is a thought-provoking work that challenges long-held theories.
  3. Watch one Ted Talk or YouTube videos per month. Five of my favorites:
  4. Write one thank you note a day. Get a stack of thank you notes and begin your day by writing to someone you’d like to thank for what you’ve seen as a meaningful contribution.  Make sure they’re handwritten.  Robert Kegan has a method called “The Language of Ongoing Regard,” in which you specifically recognize people by telling them what you admire about them and what you appreciate that they did.  The more specific, the more effective. You’ll find this practice shifts how you start your day, your emotional state, and your focus.  You’ll also discover greater enthusiasm and commitment from those you recognize.

What would you add to the list?

You don’t have to be among the more than 90% of the people who fail at achieving their resolutions.  Start small and be specific.  Get an accountability partner or a coach.  Take your game to a higher level.

© Geoff Davis, 1/4/19


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