Resolutions vs. Rules to Live By

Resolutions vs. Rules to Live By

It’s about that time when some contemplate their resolutions for the coming year. Typically, these include promises to lose weight, eat healthier, enjoy life more, get fit, manage one’s finances better, travel more or take up a new hobby. All good ideas. And that’s the problem – they’re little more than intentions or vague goals at best. Research (Forbes and CNN) suggests about 80% of us abandon such resolutions by February and less than 8% actually achieve them. (Yes, I know, you may think you’re among that 8%.)

The reason for this dismal return on New Years’ resolutions is that they’re goals, not plans. Having a plan increases the chances of achieving a goal. The follow through on goals is about 22%; on plans, it’s three times higher. Goals mean you’re aiming at a target; a plan means you’re figuring out how to hit it. If you have a goal, you’re thinking about doing it. If you have a plan, you’ve started doing it. You’ve taken the first step. And, as Lao Tzu wrote 2700 years ago, that’s the most important part of every journey.

Plans have benchmarks and time lines; goals don’t. Goals are often big, vague and overwhelming; plans must be broken into bite-size action steps and milestones. Momentum is the key to success in anything you undertake – incremental gains are usually sustainable while quantum leaps are often destined to fail. Plans require specifics; goals are just generalizations of intent. Goal seekers optimize; planners simplify. If you do something every day, you’re following a plan. If you’re thinking about it, it’s simply a goal.

If your goal is to run a marathon, getting fit isn’t the first step. Buying a pair of running shoes is. If your goal is to write a great novel, the plan begins with a writing schedule you follow every day. If your goal is to build a profitable enterprise, your plan is to start figuring out a business model on how to get there. A question that has always intrigued me is why we have plans for most of the less important things we want to do – like going on a vacation or to the grocery store or what to plant in your garden – but not one for our lives?

At this time of year, we prefer to think about resolutions or goals because it’s easy to do. Planning requires a lot of thinking time, some solid research and due diligence. Hardly the pastime one wants to engage in while contemplating the next twelve months at a high level of abstraction with a favourite beverage in hand. So, if not goals or plans as thought experiments over the coming weeks, then what? How about writing down some new rules to live by? Or reframing and recommitting to those you once declared but subsequently decided – out of laziness, fear or the continuing BS stories you occasionally like to tell yourself – not to follow?

The way to live the life you want is to determine the rules that will make that happen. Then follow them. If ever there was a secret to success, that’s it. Rules aren’t resolutions or plans. They’re prescriptions for focussing effort and resources. Nor are they about what’s right; rather, they’re about how we want to live our lives fully and freely being who we are. During our formative years, others gave us their rules to live by. Among other guidelines, we were told to speak when spoken to, give thanks for what we have and follow our dreams. We were told these were rules we should live by to ensure a good life. I do hope they’ve served you well. But, at this particular time of year, maybe the time has come for you to rethink and revise them based on the lessons of your own experiences and aspirations.

I suggest your rules might be framed as either do’s or don’t’s. Keep them short – consistency and brevity aid memory. Make a long list of those that reflect the kind of life you seek, then choose the five that appeal the most. Solid research tells us we can only remember five anyway (the notion that it’s seven is an urban myth). Then list them in priority order – the essence of strategic thinking – and post them where you will see them every day. Eventually, they’ll become second nature. Then, in another year, you can contemplate others.

If you want a list of do’s, try these:  Take calculated risks. Protect your time. Feed your soul: read old books and listen to music that inspires you. Cultivate opportunities for creative thought. Create a life that feels good on the inside, not one that just looks good on the outside. Find reasons to laugh, mostly at yourself. Promote your better qualities without showing off. Make peace with your past so it doesn’t spoil your present. And, finally, it’s alright not to know all the answers (because no one does).

Pick your battles wisely; not everything is worth fighting over. Focus on what you can control; it’s pointless to dwell on what you can’t. Perfect is a myth and progress is always achievable; start somewhere then adapt and iterate. Avoid annoying, apathetic or disgruntled people; their vibes are contagious. Groupthink is regressing to the mean; trying to appease everyone gets you nowhere.

Courage is like a muscle; it gets stronger and easier the more you use it. To build confidence, do things outside your comfort zone and learn from the inevitable failures. Then repeat as your pluck and grit expand. Trying to accommodate everyone is the path to mediocrity – dare to be different. Brevity is the soul of wit and the essence of brilliance; shorter is always better. Life is not baseball, so don’t hit for average; seek mastery not mere competence. Your time is limited so live it without regrets. The journey will become its own reward.

If you prefer a what-not-to-do list, then try a few of these: Never stop dreaming about possibilities – when you find what intrigues and compels, let that spark light a fire in your belly and develop a plan for its realization. Never accept “good enough” as being enough; it never is. Don’t try to sell what you wouldn’t buy; if you don’t believe in it, why should they? Never give up hope; every day is a new beginning. Never doubt your value; demonstrate it. Never wait for opportunities to arrive; create them. Never make excuses; it’s the reason why people don’t follow their dreams. Never compromise your principles; you are destined to live your entire life with only one person. Guess who?

The rules we choose to define our identity must be ours alone and a failure to live up to them must carry real consequences. Otherwise, they slip to the level of meaningless resolutions. After all is said, each of us is the sole architect of our happiness and success as much as our discontent and misfortune. When we break the rules we select to live by, we are accountable only to ourselves. This is as it should be. Wishing you a splendid 2023.