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It’s time for all the New Year’s post—the ones about resolutions, goals, and other activities we engage in to look back on the year before, and then move on to focus on the coming year and what we plan to do. The end of this year seems somehow more significant, as we’re entering a new decade.

While there is no doubt in my mind that taking the time to look behind at your accomplishments and quite likely failures over the last twelve months, and look set goals for whatever is next, I’m going to argue for a moment that the change of the calendar doesn’t really matter. You can do this same exercise anytime you want.

Why is this important to talk about at all? Because we somehow have an idea that this time of year is magical. We make resolutions that are vague and outlandish with no goals to back them up. We may even drop them into a jar or lock them into a box so we can read them and chuckle at our past plans during the next magical calendar change. We feel a sense of hope, which isn’t bad, but unless we take action, it becomes false hope, and maybe even turns into expectations. And expectations are future disappointments.

Should we then abandon all New Year’s resolutions and tomfoolery? Should we not take this time of the year to reset and start over with a fresh beginning. Not at all. The changing of the calendar pages is an opportunity and the New Year can be a new beginning or a building on previous success.

The key is to be mindful of how, exactly, we do this.

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Look Back at Positives First

One of the positive numbers I can look back on this year is that I gained some weight. Okay, it’s a positive number but not a positive thing. In fact, I’m using this time of year to reset because I need to do something about that, and I am the only one who can. But it’s not a positive. The thing is, if we are honest we have all had good and bad happen in our lives over the last year. The key is to focus on the good first.

This lets you start your New Year activities, which we will call a reset rather than resolutions, off on a positive note. Look at what you have accomplished over the last year. I wrote another book, my business grew 20% Year over Year, I got that promotion, or I told my boss to shove it and I moved on are all good examples.

Make a list. Do this physically: write it down on a whiteboard, sticky notes, whatever method you use, but put this physical list somewhere you can look at it while you finish the exercise.

Be Honest About Setbacks

Just like my weight gain is my own responsibility, so are some of the other setbacks I have had to deal with this year, both in business and personally. Some of them are not anyone’s fault per se, they are just things that happened. Take the blame when it is deserved, but don’t assign blame to others or blame yourself for things out of your control.

Also, be careful about looking at these setbacks too long or trying to determine how to fix them. For some things, there just isn’t any fix. A couple of years ago, I went through the end of a relationship. There was nothing I could do to fix it, and many decisions made were out of my control.

The key at this point is to let those things go unless they are actually items you can act on and change. Weight gain is something I can do something about. The loss of a client because they went bankrupt is not. You can write all these setbacks down if you want, but erase or throw away all the things you can’t do anything about, and only keep the things that might inform your goal setting for next year.

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Determine Your Resolutions or Long-Term Goals

The problem with typical New Year’s resolutions is that they come with no actionable goals. You set a grand idea: “I want to lose seventy pounds this year.” If you don’t set up steps and smaller goals to accomplish that, it probably won’t happen for you.

That doesn’t mean you should not aim high. The key is to set goals that follow two “A’s”. They are both aspirational and achievable. In other words, if I say I am going to lose five pounds this year, that is very achievable, but not very aspirational. It’s too easy, and even if I meet that goal, I won’t be pleased with myself.

But don’t be so aspirational that you can’t possibly accomplish the goal. For most of us, having a goal to double our income this year is unrealistic. Increasing it by 10% or getting a new job, changing careers, or starting our own business is more realistic.

Also, don’t set goals you cannot control. “I’m going to get that promotion,” is aspirational and maybe even achievable, but you are banking on the cooperation of your boss, the continued success of the company you work for, and the hope that no one better qualified applies. You can’t manage those factors, so that is a poor goal.

Plan for Setbacks and Life Events

One of the reasons you look at setbacks early is simply this: if you see them over the last year and the last five years even, you can expect that this year will come with its own setbacks, and you need to allow yourself grace and room for those things to happen. You know that not everything will go smoothly, so plan for it.

For example, if I plan to go to the gym three days a week, on set days, but I wake up one day and my dog is sick and has puked all over the rug, that day’s gym visit may be delayed or never achieved at all. In fact, my workout may include a carpet shampooer and a trip to the vet.

Set Milestones and Smaller Goals

If I am going to lose weight, I need to set smaller goals like making small and then bigger changes in my diet and adding in the right kinds of exercise into my daily routine. Those small goals will help me achieve my larger ones. But they do something else too.

Perhaps the most important thing about smaller goals is it allows you to tackle a big goal in steps. You can then celebrate minor achievements. “I went to the gym three times this week.” Or “I met my calorie/carb/protein goals for the week.” That is an accomplishment and one you should celebrate, just not with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

These smaller milestones allow you to look back in the shorter term and see how you have progressed. Track that progress visually too, with a chart or even a screensaver on your computer. Look at it often.

Be Accountable to Others

Make your goals public or share them with some close friends. Allow them to—no, insist that they keep you accountable. When you pick up the donut, you should see their face scolding you, and that should encourage you to put it down and walk away. When you skip the gym, you should get a phone call or a text message. Have a partner of some sort who will make sure you are staying on track and give them permission to do so.

This is an important step. Your motivation and inspiration will run out from time to time. You may get discouraged. Having someone there to prop you up and encourage you can make all the difference in whether you achieve your goals or give up on them.

Look, there is nothing magical about the change in the calendar. There is no difference between how you wake up on December 31 or January 1st. But you can use this time of resolutions, goal setting, and looking back to your advantage. While we can do this any time of the year, the breather the holidays give us is as good a time as any.

Happy New Year to you and yours!

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Troy Lambert
Troy is a Freelance writer, editor, and author who lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho where he hikes, cycles, skis, and basically enjoys the outdoor lifestyle of the Northwest. Troy writes about business, sports, GIS, Education, and more. He is most passionate about writing suspense thrillers, and his work can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Troy-Lambert/e/B005LL1QEC/