Have a Better 2013 Without a New Year’s Resolution

cover shot of Peter Bregman, 18 Minutes book

If you are like 89% of Americans, you probably made a New Year’s Resolution at some point in the last couple of weeks. And if you’re like roughly two thirds of your fellow resolvers, at the six-month mark, you will have failed. A growing body of research shows that in fact resolutions and long-term goal setting don’t work especially well and can actually be counter-productive. Simple, discrete tasks help organize your life (“contact Nielsen & Geenty to review my liability coverage”), but long-term goals and resolutions (“give up candy this year”) usually don’t go as well. Deep down you already know this. If you think back to that awful, defeated feeling you had on April 17, 2012, the day you finally broke down and had six Snickers bars, you can see right away that not only did the resolution fail to get you to give up candy, it did little to boost your self-esteem and motivation. So maybe we can shortcut the whole process by throwing out any resolutions we’ve already made and move on to Plan B.

Plan B: Focus Areas, Not Resolutions

Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, is a former instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School who now coaches CEOs and other top executives. Bregman is not a fan of setting New Year’s Resolutions or other big goals. He says that commonly focus on a specific goal often causes other important areas to suffer as we attempt to game the system to meet the goal. In fact, it can even lead to unethical behavior. Think about the lawyer whose goal is “more billable hours” who achieves that by either letting crucial office management tasks go by the wayside or, even worse, by always rounding up slightly on billing statements . Bregman suggests instead choosing about five “focus areas” where you plan to spend most of your time in the upcoming year. Just by way of example, his areas are:

  • Work
    • Do great work for existing clients
    • Find new clients
    • Spend time writing and speaking
  • Personal
    • Spend time with family and friends
    • Exercise and take care of myself

Activities in those five areas supposedly take up 95% of his time. Each week he looks over the past week to see which areas he actually focused on and which ones he neglected and whether the busy work of life (change the oil, mow the lawn) took up more than 5% of his time. Of course, you may have to neglect some areas from time to time. If you’re a tax attorney with the same focus areas as Bregman, it’s likely that in March and early April, almost all your time would be devoted to working with existing clients. Having tracked that each week, however, come the end of tax season, you would want to focus on new clients, time with family and getting back in shape. Your focus areas provides the filter to decide what goes on your To-Do list.

The Not To-Do List

The advantage of the focus areas is that they not only help you figure out what should be on your To-Do list, they also help you figure out what should NOT be on your To-Do list. If it doesn’t fall into one of the five areas (or maybe you have six, but not eleven!) and doesn’t fit into your miscellaneous five percent (or maybe you allow ten percent, but not thirty!), then you just say no. If it’s not in your focus area or your five percent, it doesn’t go on the list. If it sits on the list for three days and doesn’t get done, it must get scheduled or thrown away. If you schedule and move it three times, it then goes in the “Sometime Maybe” list which is actually the “Realistically I am never going to do this” list.

Focus areas are based on your general priorities in life, so they work with your intrinsic motivations to help you choose what your short-term goals and tasks should be. But since they are fairly broad, it’s harder to cheat, but also easier to stay within the limits of your focus area. They also provide broader and more useful guidelines for what goes on your list and what doesn’t. So skip the resolution and find your focus for a productive 2013.

Wishing you all the best for the New Year from Nielsen and Geenty!


Additional resources:

  • Oliver Burkeman, “The New Year’s Resolutions that Won’t Fail You,” Newsweek, Nov 24, 2012.

Nielsen & Geenty Insurance Services Inc. is a boutique insurance brokerage that specializes in lawyers professional liability insurance. The firm offers legal malpractice insurance, errors and omissions insurance, workers compensation insurance and office package policies.

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