Resolutions are stupid. Do this instead... – Trajan King

Resolutions are stupid. Do this instead…

We’re told that setting goals is one of the most important things we can do in life to achieve success.  Goals give us direction and enable our vision and dreams. As the saying goes, “a goal without a plan in just a wish.”
While that’s true, setting goals is only the first step. We need to look at the systems and habits we build to achieve the goals because they have a much longer lasting impact.
I’ve always set yearly goals.  Since Jr. High I wrote down and tracked all my goals throughout the year. Checking them off one by one as I went.
Having goals has allowed me to achieve things like finishing an Ironman, getting a Black Belt and starting several companies. But was it the goal that helped or something much more powerful?
There are 3 levels of effectiveness and goals is only the lowest level. It’s a place to start, but it doesn’t end there.  So let’s start with goal setting.

How to set a goal

First off, goals do have some benefit. They help us focus our intentions so we know where we’re going. As the Cheshire cat says in “Alice and Wonderland,” it doesn’t matter which road you choose if you don’t know where you’re going.
When setting a goal use the SMART criteria, which is that each goal must be:
Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely.
Goals can give us direction and are very useful.  Meanwhile, resolutions (as in New Year’s Resolutions) are worthless. They’re a degree above a wish. Why? Because they don’t have any of the above characteristics. They also have no follow through.
Let’s say you have a resolution to lose 20 pounds in the following year. You write it down and put it on your refrigerator  and maybe post it on Facebook. Then, what happens with most people, is they get new shoes from Santa and hit the gym on the morning of January 2nd.  Totally motivated.  The daily workouts last only as long as the motivation.
So let’s forget about resolutions and focus on goals, which have their own problems.

Focus on small tasks

After you’ve got your goal, break it down into smaller pieces and focus on those pieces.
On a daily level, I prefer to have only 3 things to focus on. I write them down each morning and track them throughout the day. Focusing on the things I feel would make the day successful allows me to stay on track. If I accomplish only those 3 things, then I’ll feel productive.
Three may not sound like a lot, but it’s amazing how many inconsequential things we do each day that don’t contribute to our success. It’s easy to get sidetracked and do the wrong things.
Or as Peter Drucker said,
The first on that list is my Main Task for the day. It’s my focus.  If you’re an Idea Person, then it may be difficult to focus as ideas flood into your mind.  We must be vigilant not to succumb to the Entrepreneur’s Curse.
Practice saying “no” to everything else and schedule important tasks for future days. If you’re working on a large project, your Main Task could be the same every day for a week or over a month.

What’s more effective than goals?

Everyone sets goals, yet not everyone achieves them. If goals are so great, then why isn’t everyone achieving their goals?  It’s obvious that there’s something behind the goals that drives someone to achieve.  It’s more than just the goal that matters.
In every sports competition, each team wants to win. Each competitor says they give 110%. They train, diet, listen to coaches, some even have psychologists to get into the right mental state.  With all the effort each athlete puts into it, why don’t they all win?
It comes down to their systems and habits. In other words, what are they doing during those training sessions?
During my youth I practiced both the piano and violin. I had a set time to practice – an hour each day. Some days I was into it and had the patience to break apart every measure of the music and work on technique and do finger exercises to master difficult passages.  On less effective days, I just screwed around for an hour. I got my hour in, but each hour was effectively different.
Successful people don’t just have goals to check off the list. They have systems behind those goals to make it easier to achieve them.

The problem with goals

There are a few problems with focusing just on the goals. First, a goal is usual an end and not a means.  In other words, we focus intently on a goal until it’s accomplished. After which you usually forget about it and move on. We haven’t changed ourselves or our capacity to do better by very much.
Case in point, people who have New Year’s goals (or resolutions, ugh) to lose weight and work out more. They ask Santa for shoes and starting New Year’s day the gyms are packed. Everyone in the gym is wearing shiny, new shoes and new outfits. By mid-February the gym is back to normal and sparsely populated with the usual pre-New Year’s crowd.
Why does this happen? Because the goal is a moment in time. Those temporary gym rats didn’t develop habits or systems.
The second downside of goals is that it focuses us too much on the end achievement and  distracts from the journey of development. It’s much less enjoyable. Think of a long road trip. Your destination is Yosemite National Park. You can race the hundreds or thousands of miles to the park to achieve your goal or you can enjoy the drive and visit all the amazing sites along the way.
You can control how much you practice or how many resumes you send out for your dream jobs. What you can’t control is other people and their choices. Focus on what you can control, which are your habits and systems instead of what you often can’t control, which is the ultimate outcome.
This past year I developed a few habits:
  • Waking up at 5 AM
  • Writing every morning
  • Working out 4 days a week
  • Intermittent fasting 6 days a week (i.e. only eating within an 8 hour window)
  • Taking cold showers
  • Eating only real food (nothing processed)
Since I worked so hard to develop these habits and systems to support them (like going to bed at 10pm and taking my lunch to the office), they became easier and are now part of my life.
As a result, I’ve lost all my belly fat, feel great every day and publish 2 articles every week. That’s a result of habits, not resolutions. I expect to see continual improvement because I now have those habits and can tweak them or add more and the results will compound.
Resolutions and goals are like simple interest.  Systems and habits are like compound interest. We see more results over time from building good habits.
Think more about the systems you need to put into place to have a healthy lifestyle for a lifetime instead of focusing on “going to the gym.”
Achievement is a journey to be enjoyed. Building systems and habits will not only last longer, they will improve your life more than focus on a goal because those habits and systems you build can last a lifetime.
What do you do to achieve your goals? Please share in the comments below.
For more on goals, visit the section on Habits and Efficiency

About the author

Trajan King

Hey hey. I'm Trajan. I'm a minimalist entrepreneur who loves exploring the world (42 countries), learning new things (7 languages) and trying to get better every day (working on my backsquat).

I write about entrepreneurship and building an optimized and happy life through systems, good habits and scientific research.

Join me and we'll discover how we can build businesses we can be proud of.

<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="5647">6 comments</span>

  • Hey Trajan…great article. I’m curious…can you give me an example of 3 things you focus on in any given day. Or maybe several days in a row? It seems like I always have way more than 3 things that I’m juggling.

    • Hey Nate. It’s different every day, depending on my priorities. I start with 3 as the most important and make sure those get done. I don’t stop until they’re done. If I accomplish others, that’s great. Extra credit. I’ve found that when I have a long list, it’s easy to push off some of the items because they each tend to take on somewhat equal importance. It’s tougher to push off just 3 items when you’ve put such a priority on them. It also helps with follow through to stay on those 3 until they’re done, rather than working on 10 things at a time and not finishing them. Those 3 are different from my daily habits. Make sense? What have you found that works?

      • Right. I guess I’m wondering if you can give some examples. Are your top priorities work related? Or could they be anything?

        • Here’s an example of a main task, or keystone task: Four days a week I get up at 6 AM and workout. This task is important because not only do I get a workout, it affects other things throughout the day, like dominoes. I eat better, I go to sleep on time because I have to get up the next morning, I sleep better, I have more energy the rest of the day, etc. If I don’t get my workout in, it’s much tougher to get some of the related habits done. For work, I don’t check email before 11 AM, so I can focus on my priorities when I have the most mental energy.

          First thing in the morning, I write my top work priorities for that day and start with the most difficult when I’m fresh and focus. They will be different each day. If I can accomplish a big task before even opening email or taking calls or meetings, I get more done because, as I’m sure you know, it’s very difficult to get big projects done when you’re constantly interrupted.

By Trajan King

Trajan King

Hey hey. I'm Trajan. I'm a minimalist entrepreneur who loves exploring the world (42 countries), learning new things (7 languages) and trying to get better every day (working on my backsquat).

I write about entrepreneurship and building an optimized and happy life through systems, good habits and scientific research.

Join me and we'll discover how we can build businesses we can be proud of.

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