Friends: this is only an arbitrary calendar, but still, it’s a nice mental paradigm to start counting again from day one. Don’t forget to write the correct year when you write your next check! (That is, if you still write checks.)

Speaking of checks, and balances, I don’t have a crystal ball, so at the time of writing this I don’t yet know if by the time of publication we’ll have gone over the “fiscal cliff,” or if our politicians will have managed to cobble some sort of compromise. Whatever it was and whatever happens, it’s going to be big news, but I don’t want to speculate right now — I just want to wish a good and prosperous year to all.

And with those caveats — Happy New Year! Today is the day when people customarily talk about their resolutions for the next 365 days. We proclaim things like “I’ll never drink again” or “I’m going to lose all the weight I put on during the holidays” or “I swear an oath to file my taxes by February.”

Focus or balance or both?

A couple of years ago, J.D. recommended making a single resolution for the year, and he explained how he had successfully dedicated 2010 to the pursuit of fitness.

I believe in the power of focus too, but I’ll have to say, my life is a struggle on all fronts, and I can’t stick to a single resolution for the year. Health, wealth, relationships, work — everything is connected and everything affects us in one way or another.

I might go broke in the process of getting fit, I might lose my health in the process of making money, I might neglect my family while striving to become a rich athlete– none of which is a desirable outcome in my book. Life is not a zero-sum game though, and positives also build off each other: being fitter lets us work better, having secure finances is a huge stress relief for any family, and having a good home life is excellent for your health. So, like in most things, focus is essential, but it needs to be modulated with balance.

A flexible focus tool

For me, the best way to keep focus but remain flexible is the legendary “Getting Things Done” (GTD). It’s a beast of a system, and long to explain, but you can read J.D.’s review from six years ago and see what you think of it. As you can see, there are whole websites devoted to this methodology, so if you need a support system to stick with the program you’ll be able to find it. Some of the links at the end of that article have changed (I checked) but there’s nothing on the web that Google can’t find for you. Seek and you shall find.

GTD has been great for me because it’s like having a map and a compass; it shows me where I am and where I need to go. This is very important for me because I have a measure of ADHD that gets in the way of accomplishment. I tend to get caught up with what is in front of me and forget everything else. Before I started to use this system, it was extremely hard for me to keep track of things.

For example, I’d start working on something and immediately I’d begin to worry about other things I had to do. Then, I’d start doing what I had remembered and forget what I had been doing. Then I’d remember something else. Then the workday would end without results.

Nowadays, I have a single repository for all the things I must recall. So, if my mind is interrupted by something, I simply put it into the GTD inbox with the confidence it will be processed, which lets me continue with my appointed task. No more lists of things to do crumpled in my pockets, no more list-filled notepads buried under the couch, no more forgotten calendars, and no more meaningless electronic files cluttering my hard drives.

Yes, I still get very distracted, or very focused, and my brain goes off chasing after shiny things, but once I come back, all I need to do is look at my chart and compass and I remember my destination. Every day, whenever I remember I have things to do, I check my map and compass.

Ongoing goals vs. calendared resolutions

I don’t want to ruin the party or dampen your enthusiasm, but I’ll confess I’m not much of a resolution maker for the new calendar. Why not? GTD wires me in a different way — I get to formulate goals year-round and track my progress and shifting priorities every week. OK, sometimes I’ll skip a week, but I can always get back to my map and compass and resume course.

Still, the new year has some additional symbolic associations, and it’s as good a counting method as it gets. A lot of things get counted in the calendar year, particularly, personal income and taxes. So this is probably a good time for financial resolutions. Joining others in this ritual can be a positive stimulus, increasing your enthusiasm and surrounding you with allies in your quest. This can be very helpful to motivate the elephant… The what, you say?

The “Switch” approach

In 2012 I was lucky to read “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Difficult.” It’s a great book, and while it’s been discussed here, I haven’t read a full review of it on GRS.

To summarize, “Switch” provides a useful metaphor for the human mind as it moves toward a goal: a rider sitting atop an elephant walking on a path. The rider is the rational mind, which is tiny by comparison. The elephant is the unconscious, which provides the main power. The path is the world in which rider and elephant must manage to travel. Authors Chip and Dan Heath provide three powerful prescriptions for change, which can be used individually or combined:

  1. Direct the rider. This is about providing simple clear directions to follow to achieve our goals. One example they give simplifies weight reduction to “drink 1% milk.” It’s simple and crystal clear and there is no way to rationalize your way out of it. (The book explains how this strategy produced significant weight loss across a whole population.)
  2. Motivate the elephant. This means engaging your emotions in the change process. Without emotion, we lack the power to move along the path of change. With the right emotion, you can change a whole nation.
  3. Shape the path. That means making environmental changes to induce change in the direction that we wish to take. (One example they show is how people will eat more popcorn when they are given bigger containers, even if the popcorn is disgusting).

“Switch” provides an excellent methodology to produce change at the personal level, in organizations and even at the cultural or national level; the authors provide many examples of this.

One of the things I like is that the methodology is compatible with my GTD, especially when it comes to directing the rider or shaping the path. GTD helps me break down large change into small milestones that direct the rider, and it helps me track environmental changes that shape the path. It also lets me track progress toward my goals, both at the micro and macro levels.

What’s your approach and what are your goals for the year?

While I’m not much of a resolution guy, I do have some large personal goals right now.

One is to get my health in the best possible condition. I have some sports injuries that need mending and I’ve been neglecting (this is bad, as this negatively “shapes the path” and it turns me into a couch potato). Going to the doctor requires motivating the elephant.

The second is to implement some professional changes that I’ve been planning. More details at another time when there’s more space to write about them. But this is a large project that requires acting on a series of GTD actionable items while I keep track with my map and compass.

The third one is to make more money! I have been working on that for a while, and it’s a constant struggle, but it’s my primary personal finance focus at the moment. Now I realize I haven’t set up definitive goals for this, but I should probably do it soon so I can better “direct the rider.”

Do you have goals for the year, or do you do this year-round? Do you have specific goals you could post here? What about a methodology you’d like to share with your fellow readers?