It’s that time of the year again. To review goals accomplished over the last 365 days, to set new ones for the coming year.
If you are looking at the list you made last year and are feeling disappointed at yet another turn around the sun where you didn’t hit your own goals, you are not alone. And if you achieved all your yearly goals and still feel like you didn’t do the things that really mattered, join the club.
Most people feel either of those emotions. But instead of pushing the handbrake, they simply refresh the resolutions list once again. They add that fitness goal there for the Nth time and promise themselves that this time everything will be different.
I listened to ‘Four Thousand Weeks’ a book by Oliver Burkeman. A book that highlights the simple fact that we have an average of 4000 weeks to live. And states that our “job” in life is not so much to manage time spent in low-level tasks (like optimising our email inbox) to “make more time” to achieve our hopes and dreams, as it is to prioritise the things that will get done while accepting that there are many things that will simply not make the cut.
As I turned the pages, a sense of both urgency and determination grew inside me. Considering I have already lived at least a third of those weeks, the things I do from now on really matter. They will determine whether I will achieve my life’s mission.
But we know it’s never that straightforward, life gets in the way.
Below are my thoughts around the reasons why we often fail to reach our goals, how to avoid common traps around prioritisation and task management, and how new years resolutions are no good unless they are attached to your mission.
Why is it so hard to achieve your yearly goals?
When you write down your goals for the year, it’s easy to think short term. After all, you want to be able to accomplish those goals in one year.
Once your goals are set, you are likely to break down the year into quarters, months, weeks, days, and with that, break your goals into tasks. There are certainly positives about this motion. By transforming dreams into tasks, you can laser focus on what needs to get done when and do it to a high standard.
I am a big believer in task management and can attribute a lot of my success in executing against my goals to this process.
The downside is that sometimes when we fractionate goals they disintegrate. We get bogged down at the microscopic level. We forget what we set out to accomplish in the first place.
For example, you write down that you will work towards a promotion this year. You can then break this goal into the gaps you have in your experience. Those gaps help you identify the projects you will get involved with, the courses you will do etc. You make a plan and move to the execution phase. Then you further divide it into daily, weekly, monthly tasks. You are set up and confident you can skill up in the coming months to start that journey.
The bad news is: the world has demands on your time too.
Your manager wants your expertise in some projects. A KPI that used to be healthy starts slipping off. You get sick. Your children need extra help with school. Your best friend is getting married and you are now a maid of honour. People leave your team and you are suddenly understaffed. Your partner suggests a trip. Ad. Infinitum.
Basically, life happens and before you notice you are off track.
Some of these “interruptions” might be part of your yearly goals. In the words of Matthew McConaughey they are “greenlights”. But mostly they won’t.
If you were to follow your perfectly crafted plan and reach your goals within that timeframe without burning out, you should say no to the things you can and fight through the ones you can’t avoid. But most of us don’t want to upset our loved ones, want to retain our jobs, and have FOMO.
Suddenly the sheet of tasks connected to goals is no longer clean, and discerning between “nice to do”, “need to do” and “must-do” from our own point of view becomes VERY hard.
All these things can seem really important. Despite not having planned on doing them, you would very much like (or even feel like you have) to do them now.
With a longer list, another process starts. We fall into the time management trap and trick ourselves into believing that by optimising our days we will fit everything in. We organise our calendars in increasingly smaller blocks. Starting slightly earlier, finishing slightly later. Every hour accounted for.
Eventually, some things spill into time that should be dedicated to others, and some blocks are skipped altogether.
Guess what usually gets sacrificed? Your own goals.
Why? Because nobody but you is watching and demanding that you complete them. With less pressure, it’s easier to drop them.
So when you go back to your list of resolutions, you realise that some of them are “no longer relevant” and the others are simply “unreasonable” to complete in the remainder of the year. But you feel comforted by the volume of things you achieved nevertheless. You tell yourself that you need to remain adaptable. You tell yourself that all is good because you are growing.
At this point, we must ask ourselves a hard question: Is this the story we tell ourselves because we allowed other people’s demands to take over by the way of task management?
With an average of 4000 weeks to get your dreams ticked off, wherever you are in the journey, it’s worth considering if you are letting time and task management become so granular and so focused on other people’s priorities that you are forgetting about your own big picture.
If you didn’t achieve your goals and is looking to understand this in a deeper way, check your weekly schedule for the last few months. It should give you a realistic picture of how much of your time is dedicated to things that are not aligned with your priorities.
Whether you end the year with your goals crossed off or not, you are growing.
We are all growing.
But… Where are you growing to?
Most people make year resolutions or goals. It’s easier to think in that timeframe precisely because we can reverse engineer years into calendar slots and goals into tasks in a way that doesn’t make our brains hurt.
The further we stretch the timeframe, the harder it is to predict what might happen. There are countless variables to consider as we move the timeline. The choices are infinite (or so our Instagram feed wants us to believe). We are paralised.
What if I told you that those variables don’t mean as much as you might think?
Sure you might end up in a different industry, you might marry a different person, you can fall sick unexpectedly, but deep down you know the things that make you happy and the things that don’t. The areas of life where you aspire to excel in and the stuff that is not so important to you. You know your values.
You might not have articulated them yet, but they are there within you. You just need to look inwardly and listen.
So why not zoom WAY out?
Why not define “life missions” instead?
Statements that summarise what you will accomplish in the longest term.
Company – fictional entities we create to unite a group of people behind an ideal – have missions. It doesn’t matter that variables such as markets, regulations and technology shift. For the most part, company missions remain the same.
Why? Because they are a purpose. And you can achieve a purpose in a myriad of ways.
Companies also have goals, but they are designed as part of a strategy of how to achieve a mission.
In lieu of designing a brand new list of resolutions each year, perhaps it’s worth trying the following:
- spend some defining your values and life missions
- define goals by asking ourself “how can I best further my mission in the next few months?”
- every few weeks, review what you have done and sense check if anything has changed in the environment that will require you to shift your goals in the short term
- rinse and repeat
You might be thinking that this is not dissimilar to what you do every year. This process will still result in the definition of a few goals to pursue at any given point and with that task and time management.
The key difference is the constant of your mission guiding the direction of your goal setting. This will help with not getting bogged down on the things that won’t matter in the long run, and not missing out on the things that will.
A mission can easily be turned into a question used to prioritise your time: “Does taking on this extra responsibility help me with “insert mission here”?”
As missions are short and punchy, they are not meant to be all encompassing.
So in addition to defining a mission, I use a “life review”. The life review examines key areas of life that might not be explicit in your mission and ensure that the important stuff in life is at the forefront.
Think about the reviews as pit stops on the journey to check the car’s vitals and to ensure everything is in good working order to continue your life-long journey and avoid any breakdowns.
7 areas I use as guidance for my life reviews:
- Wellbeing (health and mental health)
- Personal Growth (your own development)
- Family (connection to your clan)
- Relationships (connection to the people around you)
- Professional (delivering value through your skills and knowledge)
- Financial (capturing value)
- Spiritual (connection to something bigger than you)
I use a scoring system from 1 to 5 to rate where I am in those areas.
After scoring it, I decide what I need to do in order to bring areas where I feel lacking, to a grade I am happy with.
This keeps me in check. If I dropped the ball on family recently in favour of work, having awareness of this allows me to save the energy and time needed to prioritise my family next.
It’s unrealistic to think that every week will be balanced in every area. You will never be a week where you will get time to meditate, go to the gym, hang out with your friends, be there for your family, ace the work tasks, have romantic dinners with your partner…
I have been using this framework for nearly 5 years and it has been game-changing. I am more grounded. I accept and embrace the chaos of life while ensuring these 7 things don’t get left behind. So when I optimise my continuously double-booked calendar, my never-at-zero inbox, and my ever-growing task list, I don’t lose sight of the big picture of where I am growing to and the stuff that really matters.
Your life is a 4000 weeks journey. Defining what you will do with those 4000 weeks is the most important thing you can do. Your mission is a statement that sets the direction and purpose of that journey. It helps you to be effective at setting goals and saying no to things that you would like to do but really cannot do. Ensuring your goals are connected to your mission will keep you at the steering wheel for the duration of the trip. Growing in the direction you want. Life reviews are pit stops in the journey that you make often to calibrate the time and energy you put on the things that really matter, so you know your car is in good working order for the journey. If you skip the pit stops, you are eventually going to break down in the middle of the road, setting you back for weeks. And remember, you only have around 4000 (if you are lucky).