The Focus Course

Avoid being a New Years Resolution Statistic

University of Scranton research found that 92% of new years resolutions fail.

I was in disbelief the first time I heard that. Sure 50%, I maybe would have even said 75%, but 92%? That’s crazy.

So if nine out of ten people are failing at their goals, how do you become the one that nails it?

If you’re betting on good intentions and a new gym membership that’s probably not going to get it done. If you were playing Russian roulette and your odds were 1/10, would you bet on good intentions?

The point is, everyone thinks they won’t be part of the 9/10 that don’t hit their goals. But if 90% of people are missing the mark, what are you going to do differently to make sure you’re not one of them? To avoid being a new-years-resolution-statistic, how are you going to change the way that you (ahem) change?

Context is Everything

If you’re like me and enjoy nerding out over goal-setting for the upcoming year, there is something euphoric about planning. I mean, who doesn’t love dreaming about all the things they want to do as though they were finished? Dreaming up goals is the easy part, doing them is hard.

It’s far easier to picture yourself having completed the goal than it is to imagine what it’s going to be like to actually do the work. Goals aren’t achieved in a vacuum. If your goal is going to see the light of day you need to remember that context is everything.

Your goals will be part of your daily life. The one in which you wake up at a certain time, go through your morning routine, have breakfast with your family, head to work, try to make progress on various projects, run errands over lunch, maybe try to wrestle kids down for a nap, get a few things done around the house, wrap up your workday, commute home, play with your kids, make dinner, play some more, jammies and books, put your kids to bed, and maybe have a spare hour or two before heading to bed. And this is when everything goes according to plan.

This doesn’t account for a child being sick, having car trouble, not sleeping well, processing the loss of a loved one, someone in your community asking for your help, fall clean-up and maintaining your property, overcoming depression, working on your passion project, paying bills and managing the budget, getting quality time with your spouse, last minute grocery store run, watching the show you love, getting a cold, FaceTiming family, fixing the broken thermostat, another child is teething, oh yeah, and finding time to exercise.

When you dream up a goal, remember that it has to fit in your current life. The one you live. Where is it going to fit?

Narrow your Focus

Keeping your current season of life in mind, let’s start to narrow your focus. Start by asking yourself, “What area of life feels most important right now?” Choose from the six areas of life.

  • Relationships
  • Finances
  • Rest and Recreation
  • Work
  • Physical Health
  • Inner Personal / Spiritual

In general we can focus on one or two areas of our life at a time. When we try to make changes in more than two we end up making little or no progress in any. Choosing to focus on a specific area is acknowledging a need for extra care, not neglecting the other areas of our life. As the seasons of life ebb and flow, so too will our focus shift. More on this in a second.

Identifying the one or two areas of life you want to focus on will help you choose goals that are purposefully moving you in the right direction. Instead of shooting from the hip.

Transition is Kryptonite

Major life transitions act as kryptonite against goals. Remember, achieving your goals doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Implementing a new goal in the throws of transition is not particularly advised.

  • Graduating college
  • Getting married
  • Having a baby
  • Starting a new job
  • Moving cross country / internationally / across town
  • Buying or selling a home
  • Caring for a sick family member
  • Grieving the loss of a friend or family member
  • Retiring
  • Empty nester
  • Career change
  • Divorce or separation
  • A child leaving for college
  • Hip or knee replacement

Major transitions such as these can completely flip the landscape of our life. What used to feel effortless may now seem like an insurmountable obstacle. It takes time to recognize the different ways transition will affect daily and weekly life. Go easy on yourself in these seasons, know that things will eventually calm back down, but for now, be ok with where you’re at.

Comparison Kills

Lastly, it’s hard to narrow your focus when comparing yourself to others.

You see others living a sort of way and think to yourself, “I want to live that way.” While emulating others in some scenarios may be helpful, basing your goals off comparison is not a sufficient motivator in the long run.

Are you taking on a goal due to comparing yourself to others in that area of life?

I love the visual analogy of an iceberg. The part that you can see is only 10%. Over 90% is hidden below the water. We would do well to keep that in mind when we compare our life to others. It’s easy to look at everyone else and assume everything is going well. But we don’t know the whole story. In fact, we don’t even know half of it.

While comparison can feel elusive, see if you can pinpoint areas of decision making that are influenced by it. Ask yourself why?

Why do I want this? Why am I doing this? Why do I feel like I should do this?

You may be surprised how much could be attributed to comparison.

Embrace your limitations

Placing our goals in the larger context of life allows us to acknowledge our limitations. There are limits to what you and I are able to do. And based on your unique circumstances, your limitations are different than mine. Another reason why comparison is so deadly.

As Greg McKeown says so well in his book Essentialism, “We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.” Which is to say, there is a trade-off to everything in life.

Embracing your limitations means choosing the most important things in life and ignoring the mediocre. I’m not saying it makes the decision any easier, but it’s honoring the reality that you can’t do everything. Earlier we looked at focusing on only one or two areas of life at a time. We’re really only able to do one to two things well before losing focus. This is part of our limitations as people.

You know who is part of the 92% of failed new years resolutions? The folks that ignore limitations. They have a list of 10 goals they’d like to accomplish before the year is out spanning all six areas of life. They may come out of the gate swinging in January, but by February the feeling of overwhelm starts to settle in as life continues to crash down on them. You have limits, so be choosy about what goals you want to set.

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” — Bill Gates

Don’t Set Competing Goals

Picking the one or two areas of life you’d like to focus on will help clarify which goals you’ll actually work on, and which ones you’ll ignore. Here’s why.

Avoid the mistake of setting competing goals. Let’s say you’re going to focus on your finances and physical health for the upcoming year. In which case, it may not be the year to plan on doing a destination Ironman event in Thailand, while paying off debt, while paying off the rest of your mortgage. While these goals technically fit in your two areas of focus (finance and physical health), a destination race in Thailand is going to be expensive, i.e. stands in opposition to paying off debt.

Obviously that’s a bit of an extreme example, but we do it to ourselves more than we realize. We say we want to focus on our marriage, but we travel 3–4 days a week for work. When we’re not traveling, we spend our evenings working on house projects. Goals require change, so if we say we’re going to focus on our marriage then something has to change in the way we’re spending our time.

The point is, avoid making the mistake of competing goals. As you finalize your goals make sure they are not at odds with one another. And if they are, look for another way to achieve the why behind the what. As the saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

What is this goal going to cost you?

Before committing to a goal it’s a good idea to evaluate what it will cost you. And while financial cost is part of the equation, it’s only a fraction.

Dr. Richard Swenson lays out 4 types of margin in his book appropriately titled, Margin.

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Time
  • Financial

Every goal you set makes withdrawals on these areas of margin in your life. Some more than others.

In December of 2017 my wife and I were planning the upcoming year. We had recently found out we were expecting our second baby in June. And we also knew my sister would be getting married in March, and my wife’s brother would be getting married in April in Hawaii. These were all big things.

I’m a pretty avid triathlete, one of the crazy people running doesn’t quite do it for. So I’ll swim and bike, and then run. In 2017, I trained just over 300 hours and raced a handful of times. As we started planning 2018 I was feeling overwhelmed already at the thought of two family weddings a month apart, welcoming our second son, and trying to train on top of that.

The easy decision? Don’t race triathlon in 2018.

Training to race took up physical, emotional, and financial margin, as well as a lot of time. It was an easy call to make. I love the sport, but it’s not going anywhere. My physical health wasn’t going to tank in 12 months, I could shift my focus to other areas of life by dropping the goal to race. One decision freed up margin in all four areas. It was a no brainer.

And before you think I sat around all year eating donuts and being lazy, I still ran 3 half marathons, and swam over 130,000 yards.

Achieving your goals is going to make withdrawals from your limited amount of margin. As you map out new goals rank how much demand they will require of you physically, emotionally, your time, and financially.

Make a Plan

Now that you’ve got a clearer picture of how your goals fits into your life, and recognized your limitations, it’s time to make a plan. Give yourself a chance at success by mapping out how you’re going to get from here to there.

Here are four principles that are proven to help you execute. As laid out in the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution.

  1. Focus: Absolute clarity about your goal. Defining your starting point and finish line.
  2. Leverage: Identifying high leverage actions that are predictive of achieving your goal. Do this, and you will achieve your goal.
  3. Engagement: Track your progress and make sure you’re on course to achieve your goal. Think of it as a scoreboard, are you winning?
  4. Accountability: Hold yourself accountable through weekly rhythms of reviewing your action items. And invite others in to the process.

You dramatically increase your chance of success when you make a plan, track your progress, and invite accountability into the process. To keep your goals from fading into the background and dying a slow and quiet death you must keep them front and center with a plan of attack.

Google Maps ruined road trips. It used to be that you would start in one place and drive in the general direction of your destination. You didn’t need to know the exact details of your route, you’d get to where you were going by making adjustments along the way.

Since we don’t have Google Maps for your goals, you can plan on the fact that you’ll need to make adjustments along the way. You won’t know every single twist and turn when you set out. And that’s ok. You have a clear picture of where you’d like to end up, enjoy the journey along the way. Just don’t stop until you get to where you’re going.


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