This year, switch and get things done

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?

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M
M
7 years ago

El Nerdo,
I’ve seen this rider-elephant motif presented before and one way to get both to cooperate is through meditation. In our Western culture, the rider has been over-emphasized and we aren’t always aware of how much the unconscious (elephant)is directing our behaviors. While meditation looks easy/passive it’s HARD WORK (but teaches you a lot about yourself). Sometimes when I’m sitting quietly emotional “stuff” flashes through my head and I’ll think, WTH? Where did THAT come from? A goal of mine is to not over-analyze it, just let it go. Best of luck in the new year.

SweetCoffee
SweetCoffee
7 years ago
Reply to  M

I have a similar goal to M: stop over-analyzing things and start doing things. Ironically, I’ve been thinking way too much about trying meditation as a way to help me stop analyzing so much– geez. Thanks M for sharing your comments, and thanks Nerdo for a thoughtful article.

Gary
Gary
7 years ago

Most new years resolutions fail during the first few weeks of the new year. But this fact should not discourage anyone from setting goals and trying to improve their lot in life. It was once said that millionaires review their goals once each day, billionaires review their goals twice each day.

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago
Reply to  Gary

And that we should be afraid of slipping, either.

Ira Flatow had a great piece on New Year’s resolutions last week (here’s the text: http://www.npr.org/2012/12/28/168203195/making-resolutions-that-stick), and the big take-home for me was that slipping up on a resolution (or goal or whatever we want to call it) can serve to strengthen your resolve and reevaluate methods instead of being called a failure. I think the stat was that over 70% of people who stick to their resolution will slip up within the first month… but they don’t quit.

Mike @ Accountingdiaries.com
Mike @ Accountingdiaries.com
7 years ago
Reply to  Gary

That shows lack of commitment! In my opinion, most people are looking for the easy fix, the easy solution. These people are not determined to do what it takes to achieve their goals.

krantcents
krantcents
7 years ago

I made some changes for 2013, actually I started in December 2012! I am focusing more on what is important and I think the rest will take care of itself.

Stephen
Stephen
7 years ago

For the web team, the PDF of the GTD post is broken, presumably whenever the site was switched around. Could it be fixed please?

Joan
Joan
7 years ago

Each week I make a “to do” list of must do’s and goals for the week. Then I cross them off as I get them done. For me this works and it is easy for hubby to look at and see what we need to pay or do around the house. I post money saving tips on my site too!

Wm
Wm
7 years ago

I agree with El Nerdo. We need to focus on all spheres of our life – health, wealth, career, relationships and spirituality. It’s similar to how kids are expected to be all-rounders. Rather than excelling in just academics, it makes more sense to excel in academics AND other extra-curricular activities like sports, music and languages and what not. We believe this will produce a well-rounded personality as they grow up. Likewise, having a balanced focus on all arenas of our life will produce a more positive and versatile life. Even if one area has problems and obstacles, the delicate balance… Read more »

Anne
Anne
7 years ago

Great post!

mary w
mary w
7 years ago

I do my “resolutions” and yearly business around my birthday rather than New Years. Doctors less crowded, financial planner less busy, etc. I’m sure that the gyms are less crowded also.

Tim Mobley
Tim Mobley
7 years ago
Reply to  mary w

What a great idea! after all, everyone’s New Year begins on their birthday.

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago

I’ve given GTD a whirl in the past (and probably every other time management system known to man – including none) but wasn’t a big fan. My issue isn’t lack of focus, it’s being too focused and letting other, equally and sometimes more important things get the back seat too often and too long. So I need to build balance in to life more than anything. My favorite methods rest on a base of Agile time management – here: http://gettingresults.com/wiki/Getting_Started_with_Agile_Results Coupled with a bit of Get Sh-t done: http://blog.utilware.com/gsd And I still use a fair number of techniques once in… Read more »

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey
7 years ago

I figure out a couple of key goals and then come up with specific doable and measurable steps to take towards achieving those goals. Example 1: My goal might be “Save and invest more.” How am I going to get there? By saving $1000 per month in my investment account. Example 2: My goal might be to lose weight. I’ll get there by “Exercising every morning.” and “Cutting out soda and alcohol on the weekdays.” At any point during the year and I can look back and see whether I’m achieving my goal or not. And if not, the first… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
7 years ago

My resolution is to do all those little things around our apartment that will make it a more beautiful and organized space. We moved here in May and had a baby in October, and while our home is 80% to my liking, I’m feeling really motivated to finish things off. I made a list of tasks to do for each room, with the goal of completing it by April 1st, and then will take the summer to focus on tasks associated with our porch and shared backyard and garden. We plan on being here for at least 4 or 5… Read more »

Jeremy Jameson
Jeremy Jameson
7 years ago

Happy New Year to all at Get Rich Slowly! I don’t often set resolutions each new year. But this time I made 3 basic goals to meet for 2013 regarding my blog:

500 subscribers
50 unique visitors per post day on average
Receiving first payout from AdSense

If you’d like to read more about this please visit my blog and consider subscribing! 🙂

Babs
Babs
7 years ago

Great article and good comments. I don’t think I have a method yet that completely works for me but there are some ideas here that I am going to look at. There are some pieces I am missing. Often I am not that engaged in a project but now I am thinking that I am expecting the wrong emotion. This past year I did a couple of things that were really wonderful experiences. I am starting to see a pattern of things that motivate me. I should be able to build on that information. Thanks for the good ideas

KSR
KSR
7 years ago

I am a peculiar sort that requires the opposite of Nerdo’s need for external measures. I am innately focused, fine-tuned efficient, determined, scheduled, precise…labeled an over achiever and perfectionist by many, but not nearly felt internally–there’s always more to do and a better way to do it! A 16 hour work day is just a normal day and it’s impossible to distract me with shiny objects unless they take precedent in my priority code. I’ve never needed a checklist or a calendar since its auto stored in the brain box and on someone else’s books for them to remember. I’ve… Read more »

Ed Hoffmann
Ed Hoffmann
7 years ago

I am following up on your “Getting Things Done” (GTD) link. I had never heard it laid out as a formality, but this is (fortunately) intuitive for me, but sometimes temptations get in the way. For example, my practice for email is to go straight down the list and if I can take care of the item right then (I have the info I need, etc), I do it immediately. If I need more info, I request it right then, etc. As your review of GTD says, that way most things are done right away and no extra time is… Read more »

Babs
Babs
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Thanks I will look into the book.

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

El Nerdo – I’ve known some people that have had great success combining GTD with Autofocus (one of Mark Forster’s systems) – see here: http://tarot.alecsatin.com/get-everything-done-mark-fosters-autofocus-system/ I did that myself for awhile but in hindsight it wasn’t the best idea since I tended to ignore the 50,000 foot view – ie. maximize my consulting income back in 2009. I do think they play well together however. Neither of them gave me “mind like water” feelings though – until I clarified what I was *not* going to do or focus on – guilt free baby. I’m the type that needs a “not… Read more »

Brett @ wstreetstocks
Brett @ wstreetstocks
7 years ago

I definetly agree with your analysis. People need to change their habits if they want to have a more productive year. have a good new year!

AMW
AMW
7 years ago

Excellent post! I agree with El Nerdo on the fact that every part of my life is interconnected and influences every other part of my life. I had composed my own system but it seems very similar to GTD. It helps me keep all my balls in the air. I do not make resolutions, I set goals. Usually I find a “theme” for the year that will intertwine all areas of my live. Something I can repeat to myself and post in obvious places to remind me to stay on track. For 2013 it is the Year of Momentum. I… Read more »

Digital Personal Finance
Digital Personal Finance
7 years ago

I like to set a small set of goals for the year, so it’s actuall manageable. Then, each month I set progress goals to make sure I’m on track.

The key – for me, anyway – is to make early progress, and just get the momentum going.

Natalie F
Natalie F
7 years ago

I’m not of a new years resolution maker, but I do like to take the time to set some goals for my year. I need to have them as a constant reminder of what i want and need to accomplish. Realistic goals of course, though I like to throw in one for the dreamer in me as well 🙂

Yoram Baltinester
Yoram Baltinester
7 years ago

Regardless of the methodology the results start with a clear decision. Deciding means that you exclude all other options and choose one. A clear decision typically bears no re-thinking afterwards, just action. You either do what you decided or you don’t know how in which case you go after the information them apply it. I agree with having one goal a time, but once you accomplish your goal don’t sit there waiting for Christmas to set another one. Celebrate your successes along the way and bigtime one accomplishment of your goal. Then set the next one.

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