It’s the start of a new year. 2023!
January is a time for new goals, new dreams, new resolutions. We want to start the year off right! Surely if we can do January well, momentum will carry us through the rest of the year, right?
Unfortunately, the data doesn’t support that. According to research conducted by Strava, the social network for athletes, “Quitter’s Day” this year occurred on the 13th of January. This is the day that we are most likely to start giving up on our fitness related goals. And our other resolutions typically aren’t far behind, with fewer than 40% making it past a month, and only one in ten making it to the end of the year. It seems that even with our best laid plans, we aren’t guaranteed success for long. Maybe if we want to make resolutions that stick, we need to take a different approach.
Sometimes we do well to step back and ask, “what does getting it right look like” to you?
What do you want to achieve this year? Maybe you want to lose weight or get fit. Maybe you want to improve your work/life balance. If you’re taking the time to read this article, I’m guessing that you want to improve your relationship with your kids, be a better parent, and have a happier family.
It’s great to know the “what”. But it’s not enough. Why your goals are important to you matters more.
Imagine you’re about to die…
Here are two helpful exercises we can do to help us get to the why behind our goals:
- Imagine you’re at the end of your life, reflecting over your years. What did you most enjoy doing? What are you most glad that you accomplished?
- Next, imagine that you just found out that you have a rare illness and only have six months left to live. What do you still want to experience and achieve? What would you change about your life?
Morbid? Perhaps. But these mortality-related reflections are powerful in helping us to identify what matters most to us – our values – as well as the type of person we want to be – our identity.
Clarity around values and identity leads to better goals. And make no mistake: goals matter. Kennon Sheldon, motivational researcher and author of the 2022 book, Freely Determined, explains that “what I’ve found is that setting new goals – and then achieving them – is one of the very best paths to happiness and well-being.”
Alignment with identity matters though. There’s no point setting a goal to be financially free if you’re a confessed shop-a-holic and proud of it. It’s about:
- Being the kind of person who… is considered and intentional with spending and saving. Or it’s about
- Being the kind of person who… feels great in their body and always has the energy to move. Or it’s about
- Being the kind of person who… is a patient, compassionate, safe space for the kids to return to every time they feel anxious. Or…
You get the picture. Identity is at the heart of successful goal achievement. What kind of person are you? And what kind of person do you want to be?
Not so S.M.A.R.T goals
There are a bunch of problems with many of our goals. Let me list them:
- Setting a goal can mean we’re approaching life with a deficit model. “I’m not enough.” “There are gaps in my life.” “I need to be better.” This can be dispiriting.
- Failure to achieve goals can be demotivating. We want to be more, but we’re not. And we feel like failures because we couldn’t do it.
- A goal is great until it’s achieved. What then?
- Goals can lead to dysfunctional behaviour. We can become short-sighted in trying to reach a goal, and misplace priorities and values. (We might neglect family so we can be fit. Or we might cheat in order to win.)
- Goals are often in contest with one another. The goal to have that big family holiday means working more, which conflicts with the goal to spend more time as a family!
There are other issues with goals. But the biggest one for me is that many of the things we try to set goals for aren’t really designed to be set up in a goal context. Here’s what I mean:
It's a common belief that your goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound). But how do we set a SMART goal to have a happy family? What does “happy” mean? How do we measure it? How do we know when we’ve achieved it? What if we achieve our happy family every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, but then lose it again every Sunday night? And have a happy family by when? What’s the timeframe? What if we were happy last week but this week has been a mess?
It's true that goal setting can be helpful and move us in positive directions. But some things just don’t work for goals – like “having a happy family”... unless we create a system that supports goal achievement and maintenance.
Systems support goals
James Clear, bestselling author of Atomic Habits says “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. ”
The problem with the goal of making the family happier is that it’s a moving feast. And “happiness” comes and goes. No one is always happy – and no family is always happy!
Instead, consider what system you can create that will move you in the right direction. Example:
“I know my family is happier when we’re organised, calm, and active in the mornings. Therefore, I need to design a morning system to support what we value and who I am.”
Developing systems to support your ambitions, dreams, hopes, and goals is a sustainable, long-term approach for those things that don’t quite fit in the standard goal paradigm. If you want mornings with your kids (or any other tricky points in your day) to run smoothly, there are five things we can do to make things easier.
- Get the kids on board. Explain to them that you value having good interactions together, and having stressful mornings isn’t working. By explaining to them what your goal is and why, they’re much more likely to be supportive and cooperative.
- Build involvement. Ask them whether they agree or disagree? What are their values? What can they do to help create smoother mornings? Develop the system together. Their involvement brings you together and creates a unified approach.
- Curate competence. The kids are much more likely to have their lunch made, bags packed, and shoes on if they feel capable of doing those things. It might take a bit longer at the start while you teach them how to do these things on their own, but once they’ve got the confidence to do it, you’ll free up so much time by not having to do it for them or nag them to get it done.
- Develop structure (but be a bit flexy). If your mornings are chaotic because no one knows what’s happening and what still needs to get done, having a routine can really help. For younger kids a visual checklist showing what they’ve decided ought to happen (breakfast, get dressed, pack bags, brush teeth, shoes on etc.) can provide them the structure to know what comes next. This is competence building too! For older kids (and ourselves) we can plan a morning routine that requires little decision making - perfect for getting things moving while brains are still waking up.
- Support autonomy. Kids need to feel in charge of their own lives. Give them choice over the things you can (like what cereal they eat for breakfast, or which fruit they want to pack in their lunch box). Then help them to understand why the things they can’t have a choice over (like leaving for school at 7:15) are the way they are.
Scott vs Amundsen
If you’re still not sure how a system supports goals, read on for a fascinating bit of history.
In their race for the South Pole, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and British Robert Falcon Scott took different approaches to be the victor. Traipsing 3000 km in uncharted territory at altitude in the coldest, most inhospitable place on the planet with no satellite phones, Kathmandu puffer jackets, or other conveniences is an unthinkable challenge to most of us. Yet, in 1911, these two men were seeking to make history. (And no, it wasn’t an organised race. They both simply knew that the other wanted to do it and each wanted to be the first.)
Their approaches for attaining their goal could not have been more different. Scott was trying to achieve multiple competing goals. He was funded by a variety of people and organisations that made demands of him to collect data, do experiments, and win the race by being first. Amundsen, on the other hand, had one priority: get to the pole and back first.
When the getting was good, Scott drove his team hard. They walked for mile after mile through the tough conditions. On bad days, they’d hunker down and seek shelter. Amundsen, on the other hand, asked his team to march 20 miles (30km) every day regardless of conditions.
After 99 days, Amundsen arrived back at port. He had been the first to the pole. He had brought his team home safely. He’d “won”. Tragically, Scott not only failed in his efforts to be the first, but he and his entire team passed away on their trek. While they made it to the pole, they didn’t make it home.
While many factors contributed to the outcome, Amundsen’s 20-mile march seems to be at the heart of his success. He had a clear goal – that’s great! But he developed a system underneath that goal to support its achievement. And he did that 20-mile march day in and day out for more than three months.
Dieting for a day won’t change your life
Goal setting is often commenced with a flurry of enthusiasm. We’re so very sure that “this time it’s going to work”. But, as Strava has shown, motivation wanes. Boot camp hurts our muscles, and we don’t go back to the gym. The kids are moody and irritable, and we don’t think a happy family is achievable.
But it’s the steady, daily commitment to that 20-mile march that brings the results. Systems create habits. Habits compound. When you do something once it doesn’t make a big impact. But do it every day for a long period and it makes enormous change happen. For example:
- Telling my wife I love her once is nice, but doesn’t shift the relationship much. Telling her every day for 25 years – or 50 years? That could change our relationship a lot.
- Putting $100 into the bank for retirement savings doesn’t make my retirement comfortable. But doing it every week for 40 years? That could change my retirement a lot.
- Eating fruit and vegetables and laying off sugar for a day won’t change my health one bit. But making that choice daily will reduce the likelihood of almost every disease affecting me throughout my entire life.
So the question, really, is simple. What’s your 20-mile march? What system do you need to create to make your family happier? Perhaps there are several? Do you need to
- Create a system for mornings?
- Create a system for evenings?
- Create a system for weekends?
- Create a system for extra-curricular activities?
- Create a system for holidays/vacations?
Don’t try to do too much. Pick one or two things, and follow the five steps I outlined earlier. Create the system. Make it your 20-mile march. And do it daily. Watch what happens. And here’s to making this year your best year ever.