We’ve just passed the halfway point of the first month of 2012.  We’ve made it 2/52nd or 1/26th of the way through the year.  2 weeks ago, you may have made some New Year’s resolutions like many people do every year. Maybe you made just one resolution.

Here are some common resolutions, as presented by Wikipedia, The Washington Post and the U.S. Government:

  • Lose/gain weight
  • Exercise more
  • Eat better
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Quit smoking
  • Get out of debt/reduce debt
  • Save money
  • Get a better job
  • Improve grades
  • Study more
  • Get organized
  • Be less stressed out
  • Watch less TV
  • Read more
  • Volunteer more
  • Spend more time with family

There’s nothing shameful about having these goals.  In fact, some one you may have made some of these your personal goals.

But how is it that, just 2 weeks into the new year, there are people who have already failed at their resolution?  What went wrong?  Was it the resolution itself or the person who made the resolution?  And as 2012 continues and inevitable ends, even more people will fail at their new years resolutions.  With more people failing at their New Year’s resolutions than succeeding, something can’t be right with New Year’s Resolutions

But what can we do about it?

Structuring Goals

One of the drawbacks of the goals that I listed above is that they are vague.  What I mean by this is that the goals are pass/fail.  By the end of the year, you’ve either met the goal, or you haven’t.  You either lose weight or you didn’t.  I either quit smoking or I didn’t.  I either studied(practiced) more or I didn’t.

Other goals are even worse, as it’s hard or even impossible to measure if the goal was met or not.  Eat better? I ate more this year, giving my jaw muscles a good work-out.  My mouth is now stronger, so I can now eat better.  I didn’t choke on food this year, so I’m ate better.  I didn’t throw away and waste food, consuming 100% of the food that was served to me, so I ate better.

Okay, I made the last bit sound ridiculous.  But is it really that more absurd than making an extremely vague goal?

A problem with making a vague pass/fail goal is that it calls for making a large and drastic change.  Quitting smoking is an extremely large change.  Exercising or changing your diet is a monumental change to your lifestyle.  Even if the time frame for making such a change is over the course of an entire year, just the idea of making an extremely large resolution is stressful.  Eliminating all of your $10,000 credit card debt by the end of the year is a massive undertaking.  It’s huge, outrageous, overwhelming!

Resolutions of this style also lack a clear way of giving feedback about progress made towards the goal.  And without feedback, it is extremely difficult to stay motivated to keep striving towards the goal.  This is why it’s important to quantify goals in such a way that it can be broken down into smaller increments.  Not only will breaking down a goal make it easier to track progress, smaller increments are much less intimidating than the larger goal.

Revisiting our hypothetical $10,000 credit card debt, if we break it down to a monthly goal, that number becomes $834, assuming that you’re working all 12 months.  A biweekly goal is $417.  Looking at these numbers, $417 is not nearly as scary as $10,000.  At this point, you can probably determine whether or not this goal is feasible based on your monthly/biweekly income.  If it’s not, perhaps the original goal of $10,000 can be extended across 2 years.  Now the biweekly payment looks even smaller.  Maybe $417 is an extremely easy goal for you to make.  You can adjust your goal appropriately, aiming to complete it within 8 months instead of 12.  That means paying off $1250 a month, or $625 every 2 weeks.  Is this goal feasible?  With this approach, you can adjust your goal to try to maximize the progress that you make.  Of course, interest would also have to be taken into account, but even then the number is not nearly as frightening as before.  But without breaking down the goal to manageable size, it’s a shot in the dark when trying to determine if success was possible in the first place.

It does take some number crunching along with a calendar, but the math isn’t that difficult.  If you’re serious about your New Year’s Resolution, time has to be put into the development of the goal.  There has to be a plan to achieving that goal.  Flying blind relies on luck to achieve success, but clearly mapping out the course places the chances to achieve success within your hands.  And having more control on your progress will be more reassuring.

Adjusting Goals

Even after breaking down our goals into smaller increments, we won’t always end up sticking to the plan exactly.

This past semester (Fall 2011), one of my goals was to learn an entire marimba solo.  This solo, Northern Lights by Eric Ewazen, is 16 pages long.  For comparison, the last marimba solo that I learned is 7 pages long, where the first third of the piece is very similar to the last third.  This took me about 12 weeks to learn.  Northern Lights is easily more than 3 times as much material to learn.  This was a very large goal for me, and to achieve this goal within 16 weeks, I would have to learn it at a rate of 1 page per week.  This actually didn’t make musical sense, so I divided the piece into 15 unique sections of music.

When I finally started learning the piece, I was actually able to learn a little faster than I had planned.  Each week, I learned a section to the point where I felt comfortable playing it (not up to tempo though), but I was also able to look at part of the next section and learn some of it.  I was progressing faster than planned, and actually managed to learn the first 5 sections in about 4 weeks.  Unfortunately, I got sick the following week, so that put me right back on schedule.  But these things happen, and when they do, goals have to be adjusted accordingly so that they are still manageable.

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