Have you ever made a New Year Resolution? A quick poll of my friends suggests that most of us have, most of us don’t now, and most of us have found them hard to keep. But I believe there is a way to make the process work brilliantly well.
Think why we are sometimes drawn to make resolutions. At one level it is because we want to improve our lives. But the more basic reason may be that, when we reflect on our life and where it is going, we want meaning in what we do. We can picture life a number of ways. We can see it as an opportunity to gain pleasure and avoid pain, as a way to build wealth, or as a way to improve our lives by enjoying time with friends and those we love. All of those objectives are valid, but they largely miss the point.
Viktor Frankl – neurologist, psychiatrist, and concentration camp survivor – wrote “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.” In his view, “a human being is not in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant” in his or her life.
Explored this way, we can understand both why we are drawn to New Year Resolutions, and also why we usually fail to keep them. We want our lives to mean more, but we don’t have a clue about how to do that. So Resolutions are generally about self-improvement without the motor force to make them stick.
Here is a better way, inspired by Frankl’s philosophy and powered by insights from the 80/20 principle:
- Make Just One Resolution. If you make more than one resolution, you’ll forget most or all of them pretty quickly. If you make one resolution, you will choose the most important one and be able to remember it every day.
- Make it Exciting. As young children, we crave thrills and excitement. When we get older, most of us accept that life is generally not that exciting. We take jobs that are okay but about which we aren’t passionate. We spend time doing things that don’t excite us, with people who don’t either. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Life only has meaning if it’s exciting. And as matter of cold, hard fact, people only achieve great things if they are excited about them. The high point of my life was the six years years I spent aged 33-39 in co-founding and building up LEK, the strategy consulting firm. It had meaning for me because I could hire the people I wanted to work with – people I liked and who excited me with their ideas and enthusiasm. It excited me because I could develop ideas about why businesses succeed or fail. It excited me because we worked with business leaders, both people and companies. It excited me because we got involved in mergers and acquisitions. And, to be brutally honest, it excited me because we were very successful and made a lot of money. After that period, life became less exciting for a while, until I realized what really excited me was ideas about success, and I could find that excitement in writing and talking about the ideas.What will really excite you? In Frankl’s words, what will “actualize the potential meaning inherent and dormant” in your life? It may have to be something big, like starting a new job or starting your own firm. Think of something where you could both achieve the most, and enjoy the most. It may be hard, but if it has real meaning for you, why turn your back on your destiny?
- Seek help from powerful forces and extraordinarily gifted people. My last two posts were about “finding your horse”. The horse, you will recall, had to be something that was growing fast, that excited you, and that was a force for good in the world. The point is that we can’t do everything ourselves. Ask not what you can do for your horse, but what it can do for you. Life is divided into most forces which are very weak, and a few super-resonant forces that are going to win big. The trick is to spot the latter before they have reached their place in the sun.
Resolutions don’t succeed if they are all about us. They must also be about what is going to win. In the broadest possible sense, they are about the market, about what people want and will buy. And the market always clears, with a few great winners and a mass of people and businesses that achieve very little.
So there we have it. One Resolution. Excitement. A powerful Horse.
Now Resolve Away! In that trite but often true phrase, the right Resolution may change not just the trajectory of your year, but of your whole life or a big chunk of it.