Ah, January. What better time than the dead of winter to look at your life and find room for improvement? Wedged nicely between post-holiday blues, tax time and swimsuit-buying season, if there ever was a season ripe for self-examination, January is it – prime time to envision a new-and-improved you. Time to make some determined proclamations about how things are going to be different from here on out.
Sadly, the phrase “New Year’s resolutions” is rarely spoken without a same-breath reference to resolutions’ dismal rate of failure. Why are we so darned prepared for – and even resigned to – defeat? Part of it, undoubtedly, is that most of us have a long and somewhat undignified personal history with resolutions – a history that goes something like this: “Set goal. Faltered. Failed. Forgot about it. Repeated 12 months later.” Somehow, although the majority of us define (and subsequently ditch) at least one goal or resolution annually, we just don’t appear to learn much in between.
Typically, when this occurs, we assume there is something lacking in our character or willpower. Or we figure that the timing and circumstances just aren’t right. Whatever the reason, we certainly don’t have the energy to keep throwing at a goal that isn’t working out, so after a few days or weeks of struggle and disappointment, a lot of us simply take our lumps, give up and wait for the next New Year to try again. And again.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Beyond the Goal Line
In search of a more enlightened and effective approach to working with resolutions, our editorial staff recently scoured a couple dozen books on the topic. In the process, we discovered that there is a real art to resolution crafting, and that getting into the right mindset is the first priority.
If you plan to go into resolution/goal mode any time in the near future, here are three key concepts worth considering:
1) Resolutions don’t just give us an opportunity to achieve specific goals. They give us an opportunity to build our integrity – to cease doing the things that damage or limit us, and to begin to do the things we know will serve us. Thinking of resolutions as character-building exercises can help shift the emphasis from outcome to process, from external results to instrinsic motivations.
2) Although we tend to think of resolutions as acts of sheer willpower, at their best they are acts of self-exploration, self-mastery and self-acceptance. Resolutions are not about a fight against the worst parts of yourself. Rather, they are about convincing “Team You” to pull together. Understanding this can help you soften rigid, self-punishing attitudes and fears of failure.
3) Resolutions are not a one-time, change-all proposition. On the contrary, they are a cyclical, continuous process of assessment, commitment, feedback and follow-through. These four basic phases are universal and necessary for any resolution to have lasting power and effect. So even though you may endure repeated set-backs and “re-dos” in your resolution action plan, remember: You haven’t failed until you’ve bailed on this larger process.
Oh, and there is one other important insight that came out of our research: Resolutions are not a one-size-fits-all commodity. Each of us is rigged differently, and the approach that lands one person on solid ground may leave another idling upstream without a paddle. So, while the basic principles and steps of goal setting are pretty straightforward, the best way for you to carry them out will depend largely on your own personality and preferences.
With that in mind, for this year’s Resolution Workshop we decided to survey the approaches of two different personal-development experts from two distinctly different backgrounds. By serving up some of the best advice each has to offer, we figured we’d double your chances of success and help you broaden your perspectives at the same time.
West Meets East
Brian Tracy is a leading writer, speaker and authority on business success and personal achievement. He consults with businesses and organizations, and conducts personal and professional development seminars for more than 450,000 people a year. He has written numerous books, including Focal Point, 21 Success Secrets of Self-Made Millionaires and the bestselling book, Maximum Achievement. He has a new book, Goals!, due out this spring.
Cheri Huber is a Zen teacher, lecturer and the founder of the Zen Monastery Practice Center in Murphys, Calif. She teaches workshops and seminars nationwide, and has written 10 books, including How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, There Is Nothing Wrong With You and Be the Person You Want to Find.
Both Tracy and Huber have taught and written widely on the topics of personal transformation and life change; both adopt a whole-person approach that considers individual history, emotions, beliefs, values and patterns of behavior. That said, they still approach their material very differently. Tracy teaches you to achieve your dreams and enhance your personal effectiveness by taking control of your life, while Huber rejects the notion of control and instead focuses on cultivating change through awareness, observation and self-acceptance in the present moment. Tracy is more focused on tangible measures of success; Huber is more interested in the subtleties of personal evolution, freedom and spiritual realization.
Despite their different approaches, however, both are pragmatists who agree that lasting success in any realm is not possible without self-knowledge and self-exploration. That’s because, both insist, the greatest obstacles to our achieving any goal are likely to come not from external realms but from within our own psyches.
Tracy and Huber suggest that it’s our unconscious fears and negative judgments that most often prevent us from claiming our true potential. Get a better understanding of the intimate mechanics of your own unconscious thought pro-cesses, they say, and you may very well discover the keys to success and satisfaction – not just for a single goal, but in many areas of your life.
If you’re serious about your resolutions this year, do yourself the favor of putting some quality time into your thought-and-planning process. Keep an open mind. Take a weekend to sit down and really do (vs. just read) the suggested exercises. Plan your work. Work your plan. Then observe yourself in action – and let us know how things turn out!
Brian Tracy: 12 Steps To Success
Brian Tracy is a goal-setting guru in the classic, Western tradition. Continuous goal setting, he says, is “the most important contribution you can make to your success and happiness.” Before you get too far ahead of yourself, however, remember that in order to develop an effective goal-setting habit, you must first master “how to deliberately set and achieve one clear, challenging goal.”
Tracy suggests that there is a direct relationship between how clearly you can see your goal in your mind and how rapidly it manifests in your life. He and many other experts insist that creating successful goals hinges chiefly on creating a blueprint that the wise and super-powerful part of your intelligence – your “superconscious mind” – can employ as a men tal model for creating the real thing.
The following, adapted from Tracy’s popular book, Maximum Achievement, is a summary of his recommended system for drafting that blueprint:
1) Develop desire. Desire is the motivational force that counters fear and inertia – two of the worst resolution-shredding culprits known to man. According to Tracy, every decision you make is motivated either by fear or desire, and whichever you dwell upon will tend to grow and gain power. So developing your desire – feeling it intensely and giving it maximum attention – is the best way to make it come to life. Whenever you lose touch with your root desire and get demoralized or distracted by something else, get into the habit of reconnecting with your first choice by asking yourself, “What do I really want here, and how much do I want it?” Weaken distraction, fear and inertia simply by getting back in touch with the desire in your gut.
2) Develop belief. For your whole body and mind (including your superconscious abilities) to get on board with your goal, you need faith and conviction that it is possible. You must also have complete faith that you deserve the goal, according to Tracy. “Because belief is the catalyst that activates your mental powers, it is important that your goals be realistic, especially at first.” Set a goal that’s too far beyond your conception, he says, and your superconscious mind won’t take you seriously. So, while you are initially building your belief in yourself, Tracy suggests setting smaller, short-term goals: Rather than set a goal of losing 50 pounds, for example, set a goal of losing 5 pounds over the next 30 days.
3) Write it down. Until you write it down, a goal is just a wish, says Tracy. “One of the most powerful of all methods for implanting a goal into your subconscious mind,” he suggests, “is to write it out clearly, vividly, in detail, exactly as you would like to see it in reality.” In this stage, don’t worry about how the goal will be achieved. Just focus on getting the description of what you want exactly right. Make it specific. Describe how the achieved goal looks and feels, and refine it until the crystallization you have created is complete, accurate and totally exhilarating to you.
4) Make a list of all the ways that you will benefit from achieving your goal. Now that you’ve got your “what” down pat, start developing your “why.” Your motivation is fueled by your motives, notes Tracy, “and the more reasons you have, the more motivated you will be.” Try to focus on intrinsic motivators – the factors that line up with your own internal compass, and not the values and priorities of others. How will achieving your goal serve you and the things that matter most to you? What pleasures and opportunities will it bring? How will it remove roadblocks to success, enhance your life and further your purpose? “If your reasons are big enough, your belief solid enough and your desire intense enough,” says Tracy, “nothing can stop you.”
5) Analyze your position. Now that you’re totally clear about where you’re going, take a moment and get oriented to where you’re at. Document your starting point with some tangible evidence. If your goal is to transform your financial situation, take stock of your current debt, income, net worth and spending habits. If your goal is to shape up physically, get a fitness assessment that documents your current weight, body fat and physical condition. Note how long it’s been since you were last in good shape and exercising regularly, and honestly evaluate your current nutrition, exercise and lifestyle habits. Take a “before” picture (real or metaphorical) and keep this information in a resolution scrapbook or file along with your other goal-planning materials. No matter how obvious this information might seem to you, don’t skip this step. “I cannot emphasize too strongly,” says Tracy, “that the clearer you are about where you are coming from and where you are going, the more likely it is that you will end up where you want to be.”
6) Set a deadline. Actually, Tracy recommends setting multiple deadlines, breaking long-term goals into 90-, 60- and 30-day subgoals. To do this, you’ll need to think through the process by which your goal will be achieved and also what a realistic rate of change might look like. Tracy suggests using “back from the future” thinking: “Project yourself forward in your mind to your complete goal, and then look back to where you are today. Imagine the steps that you would have taken to get from where you are now to where you want to be in the future.” Make the steps measurable and actionable whenever possible, and get help from an expert (such as a personal coach) or read a book on the topic if you’re not confident about establishing a realistic timeline on your own.
7) Make a list of all the obstacles that stand between you and the accomplishment of your goal. Now that you’ve got all these stellar coordinates all plugged in, scanning for asteroid belts may seem a bit pessimistic and depressing, but when you can see those chunks of hot metal coming, they’re that much easier to vaporize. Getting honest about major and minor obstacles also helps you take ownership of factors in your life that you might prefer to ignore – factors that may well be holding you back in multiple areas. Tracy suggests organizing your list of obstacles in order of importance and then identifying the single biggest obstacle or “rock” in your way.
8) Identify the additional information you will need to achieve your goal. Many of the mistakes people make in pursuing their goals, says Tracy, result from having insufficient or incorrect information. “One of your responsibilities,” he notes, “is to learn what you need to know so you can accomplish what you want to accomplish.” If you suspect you might not have all the necessary knowledge or information yourself, ask yourself where you can get it. “Make a list of all the information, talents, skills, abilities and experience that you will need,” suggests Tracy, “and then make a plan to learn, buy, rent, or borrow this information or skill as quickly as you can.” In step 10, you’ll establish deadlines for acquiring this knowledge.
9) Make a list of all the people whose support you will require. “To accomplish anything worthwhile,” says Tracy, “you’ll need the help and cooperation of many people.” List all the individuals and groups of people who are likely to be key to your effort, then organize the list in order of priority. Next figure out what, if anything, you’ll need to do in order to compensate and motivate these people to lend their support (or at least keep them from impeding your progress). In the case of family, friends and other people who love you, it may be as simple as sharing your goal, telling them why it is important to you, and letting them know how they can help. In the case of colleagues, bosses and others, you may need to figure out “what’s in it for them” and how you can best reciprocate to make the exchange most attractive. Keep in mind that many employers look favorably on employees’ efforts to improve themselves, particularly if they’re likely to make that person more productive, efficient and successful overall.
10) Make a plan. This is your list of activities organized by time and priority. Look at the other lists you developed in previous steps and begin to prioritize and organize the action items in order of their value to the completed goal. Determine which steps, arrangements and alliances you will need to complete first, which tasks require preparatory steps or additional learning, which can be done simultaneously, etc. If you are the type who gets easily overwhelmed by this sort of thing, consider enlisting an organized friend or a personal coach for support and guidance. Or employ a step-by-step workbook or software tool designed for the job. Once you have a detailed plan, get started immediately. Do not get stuck obsessing over every little thing. Accept that your initial plan will have flaws. As you progress, you will get feedback and make course corrections. Be sure to build in periodic checkpoints where you can evaluate your progress and determine whether adjustments are necessary.
11) Use Visualization. In addition to regularly revisiting your written, linear, left-brained plan, keep your right brain engaged by employing visualization techniques. Visualizations help trigger what Tracy refers to as the “Law of Attraction.” The Law of Attraction dictates that you will tend to magnetize people, experiences and things that reflect the ideas and attitudes to which you give the most energy. When you focus all your mental, emotional and creative energy on a clear, specific vision, says Tracy, you activate this component of your superconscious mind. “You immediately begin attracting to you – like iron filings to a magnet – the people, ideas and opportunities you need to attain your objectives.”
12) Make the decision to never, ever give up. Recognize from the beginning that your goal will require persistence, and remember that you have a whole cadre of tools (your visualizations, your plans, your support network, your capacity for self-examination) to get you through the rough times. Remember, too, that unexpected set-backs and encounters with obstacles are just forms of feedback that allow you to reinforce your plan with new information and energy!
Once you’ve initiated your goal, Tracy recommends reviewing your plan regularly and doing something every single day that moves you toward your goals.
When you establish this kind of forward momentum, says Tracy, the pride, pleasure and infusion of energy that come with it will make the pursuit of your goal feel easier and more exciting – not harder and more daunting – day after day, week after week.
“The most difficult mental obstacle you have to overcome is inertia, the tendency to slip back into your comfort zone and to lose your forward momentum,” emphasizes Tracy. “That is why perhaps the best definition of character is ‘the ability to carry through on a resolution after the mood in which the resolution was made is past.'”
Cheri Huber: Awareness Training
Cheri Huber is a Zen teacher and a keen observer. One thing she’s particularly keen on observing is the way that resolutions implode. Far from being a liability, she says, a rickety resolution can actually be a priceless tool. In fact, according to Huber, it’s when your resolve weakens that things get interesting.
“It’s in examining the process of trying and failing,” Huber explains, “that we can uncover the most valuable keys to achieving life success. It’s in looking at how we don’t manage to alter specific habits or achieve specific goals that we can transform the bigger patterns and beliefs that have been holding us back.”
Huber, author of several books on personal development and exploration, believes that while sound in theory, much of the conventional literature on goal setting and habit breaking often proves counterproductive in practice. The reason? “A lot of these books lead people to assume that all they really need in order to change deep-seated life habits and beliefs is organizational skills and a lot of willpower. If that were the case, bad habits would have been wiped out long ago.”
Goal-planning skills can be useful, she emphasizes, but only when they aren’t being overwhelmed by more powerful instincts toward self-sabotage. “If I wanted to get on Oprah and make a zillion dollars,” jokes Huber, “I’d title one of my books How to Have Complete Control of Your Life. It would probably sell a zillion copies because that’s what people want. But that’s not really the way it works.*
In reality, Huber suggests, trying to change is the single fastest way to come right up against your deepest sources of resistance. Likewise, trying to do something positive for yourself is often the fastest way to come face-to-face with your most negative beliefs and self-sabotaging tendencies. But don’t let that stop you!
“Rather than deny that dynamic,” says Huber, “I like to show people how to use it to their advantage.” The real key to successful resolutions, she insists, isn’t so much willpower (which, she notes, most of us can summon for everything BUT our most important resolutions) or even goal setting and time-management skills (which she believes most of us can learn fairly easily). Rather, according to Huber, the key is awareness. Awareness of the subtle forces at work in our own minds and bodies. Awareness of our own tendencies to go unconscious in certain situations. Awareness of when our dominant personalities “check out” and forces we hardly recognize as us “check in.”
Cultivating awareness, says Huber, is the single most important prerequisite for successful personal development, and very probably the single most under-taught skill. Fortunately, resolution setting proves to be an ideal forum for it. Here’s how Huber suggests you get started:
1) Pick your resolution or identify something you want to change.
It should be something important to you – something that you know is in your best interest and that would have a significant positive impact on your life. Most likely, it will be something that you’ve had difficulty doing in the past.
2) Define your goal according to conventional wisdom.
Define the reasons you want it, and the specific actions and changes you will have to implement to achieve it. For example, if your resolution is to lose weight, you might identify that you are going to cut out sugar and late-night snacks and exercise five times a week for 45 minutes a day. Visualize yourself completing these steps and achieving your ideal outcome. Set deadlines and checkpoints for your progress.
3) Now comes the fun part: Start watching just how you go about not accomplishing these things.
How is it you end up not eliminating sugar and late-night snacks? How do you wind up not going to the gym? Stay on the lookout. Be inquiring and precise in your observations. In a resolution journal, at every opportunity, note the nature of the urges, habitual excuses and accusations that rise up to discourage you, brain-addle you or otherwise sabotage your success. Become aware of when they come up and how.
During each moment of weakness (or immediately following it, do your best to identify and characterize all the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come into play. What dynamics are operating? Distraction? Justification? A sense of being “elsewhere” or out of your body? Observe all the sensations that come up. Explore how these reactions might have been triggered. Listen for your personality’s internal voices and name them if you can (e.g., Critic, Judge, Guilt Monster, Victim, Child). Write your feelings and observations down in your resolution journal.
Note, too, the emotions that typically follow a resolution lapse. What happens when you miss a scheduled workout or don’t mean a goal deadline? Do you get suddenly exhausted or depressed? Do you feel helpless? Do you clench your teeth and determine to “make up for it” no matter what? Again, just what are the thoughts and voices operating here?
Keep in mind that often, even though these aspects may come disguised as the “voice of reason,” or “your conscience,” they may also be carrying precisely the kind of self-punishing mental scripts that set you up for more failure. Get to know them and you have a better shot at transforming them.
4) Review what you discover objectively, compassionately and without judging yourself.
Huber urges us to keep in mind that irresistible urges and entrenched habits don’t end up running the show because we are bad or weak people. They end up running the show because we are not entirely present or conscious in a given moment. To affect change, we don’t need to be any stronger or better, she says, we just need to be more completely here – more fully in possession of our faculties and choices – more often. We must have the courage to confront our own subconscious conditioning, says Huber. And to do that we mostly just need to become more honest, more compassionate with ourselves. Avoid judging or even assuming you know the meaning of the feelings that come up in these situations. Just observe them and write them down as accurately as you can.
5) Shift your state of mind.
Once you’ve identified some of the undermining forces that typically come into play, it’s time to evaluate why these attitudes are present and what impacts they are having in your life. One factor Huber suggests exploring is the “payoffs” you get from certain negative habits, behaviors and beliefs. In what ways do they serve you? Do they allow you to stay safe, to stay the same, to blame circumstances, to avoid taking responsibility?
Another important aspect to consider is the beliefs you hold about how good/strong/beautiful/perfect you “should be” or “have to be” in order to be acceptable to yourself and others – to feel satisfied and deserving, or even just to feel okay about living and taking up space. Where did you learn you had to be a certain way? How long have you believed that? Can you imagine evolving these beliefs or choosing differently?
Huber suggests employing both journaling and an awareness practice (like meditation) in order to get in closer contact with your authentic self and to begin challenging the engrained beliefs and illusions that diminish your clear perception. In her book, How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, Huber offers several interactive exercises you can employ for this purpose. One of the simplest and most powerful is simply sitting and focusing on your own breath.
If you’ve never done it (and even if you have) take 30 seconds to try it now:
- Close your eyes. Turn your attention to your body and the present moment, and take three long, slow breaths in and out…
- What did you notice? Where did your thoughts and feelings turn? What sensations were you aware of in your body? Were you able to keep your attention on your breath?
- Try it again: Three slow, deep breaths, eyes closed, totally in the present moment.
- Was your experience different this time? Did your energy level rise, fall or stay the same? Was your mind quiet?
- Do the three breaths once more, again noting your sensations and feelings.
Guess what? You just had your first meditative experience! It may seem like a little thing, but according to Huber, it is actually a huge act of self-mastery – and potentially one of your best allies in making any kind of life change. Because change requires consciousness, and consciousness requires calm focus on the here and now.
“To be free of suffering,” writes Huber, “we must learn to be in the moment in which life is happening. In my experience, it takes a good deal of paying attention to the attempts to be in the moment to realize how out of the moment we are.”
In the throes of an idealistic New Year’s goal-setting frenzy, it’s easy to get so caught up in all the exercises and visualizations that you forget one very important thing: You are the one who has to live this “ideal life” you’ve just hammered out. You are the one who must carry out the strategy and tactics, who must inhabit and animate the “best self” you just designed.
This is not about some disembodied entity who is going to leap off the page tomorrow and either become perfection personified or disappear forever into the abyss – it is about you, a living, breathing human being with quirks and history, blind spots and soft spots, and (thank god) the ability to learn your mistakes.
So remember, self-betterment is a process – assessment, commitment, feedback and follow-through. Of course, you may get stalled or find yourself idling a little now and then. To remove yourself from the rut, you need only get re-oriented: Figure out what part of the cycle you are in; get clear about what you need to do next. With a single, courageous step, you’ll once again be moving firmly in the direction of your most motivating dreams.
Get It in Writing
Once you’ve gotten yourself good and motivated, gather up some resolution-keeping equipment! Keeping a special resolution journal or scrapbook will help you keep track of how you are progressing through the various cycles of assessment, commitment, feedback and follow-through. It will help you hold yourself accountable for your choices. It will also create a visual reminder and physical evidence of the life change on which you’ve embarked.
Not the journaling type? Use a pad of legal paper for your written exercises, and keep all your documentation in a manila file folder with your other “hot” projects. Or try some goal planning software like GoalPro 5.0 (you can download a free trial version from www.goalpro.com). Just do something to document your plan, your process and your progress. A daily, written check-in is the best way to keep your mental, emotional and physical resources all moving in the same direction.