5 Questions to Ask Yourself When You’re Making New Year’s Resolutions

Make more money. Save more money. Lose weight. Eat healthier. Read more books. Watch less TV. Get more sleep. Wake up at the same time every day—even.on.weekends. Enthused by all that the New Year and a new beginning can promise, New Year’s resolutions practically write themselves. The words, and all their accompanying hope, flow onto the page. But as many know firsthand, that’s often exactly where they stay. Thoughts and ideas for a better tomorrow stay in their formative stages, never moving from page to progress.

The chasm between wanting change and experiencing change begins to loom large and that enthusiastic voice that said You can do it! on December 31 starts to sound more like Why bother? by late January. But it doesn’t have to be that way this year. This year, ready yourself not for greater and greater outcomes, but for better and better steps to discovery.

Melody Jennings Bowers, co-founder of Virtual Collective, an organization that builds virtual teams of independent contractors, and Elizabeth Atcheson, a career coach at Blue Bridge Career Coaching, weigh in on what it looks like to make—and keep—New Year’s resolutions. So, before that list starts growing, ask yourself these five questions.

1. Is this a goal or an intention?

It’s not just semantics for Bowers. A goal and an intention are two different things. “A goal is something future-minded. The minute you set the goal it becomes this finite thing,” she says. “But an intention is a present tense state of mind.”

She doesn’t discount the power of goal setting but is clear that, for her, the subtle language shift can mean the difference between success and failure. “It felt like I was constantly setting myself up for disappointment or defeat. When I would make these lists [of goals] they wouldn’t be attainable because life [happens],” she says.

Intention setting has offered her the fluidity and flexibility that goal setting seemed to lack. Intention setting keeps her in today where she can do the work that will create a better tomorrow, a better next month, and a better next year.

2. Where am I trying to go? Do I know?

When Bowers and her business partner realized at the end of 2016, they needed to make some big changes in their business model, they set an intention to change the way they viewed and valued clients, and ultimately, how they priced their services. Rather than rest on an abstract intention, the pair then mapped out the action items it would take to get them to this new service model. This meant a deep dive into their financials, hiring outside help to get a different perspective, and making some tough decisions about which clients would stay and which might need to go.

“Goals are fun and it’s easy to stake your claim, but without some sort of a ladder or stair step to those goals, they’re just empty ideas,” says Bowers. “We like to think of it as more of an intentional process. We can set the end point but if we don’t have clear steps, if we don’t work it backwards and see what it will take to get there, then it’s probably not a very realistic goal.”

While Bowers and her business partner, several years into their work together, were able to make some very specific choices about where their attention would go next, Elizabeth Atcheson finds herself working with many individuals in the beginning stages of a career change or move. The sentiment around goal setting is similar, however: “Once you know your target field or occupation, or your desired change in circumstances, it will be much easier for others to help you,” Atcheson shares. All the resources in the world won’t be nearly as useful as they could be until you know where you’re headed, even if it’s just a general idea at first.

3. Are my resolutions relevant to where I am trying to go?

Atcheson encourages clients to expand and deepen their knowledge, whether it’s in their current field or one in which they’d like to eventually move. She recommends signing up for a course on LinkedIn Learning, finding out who the movers and shakers are in your industry and following them on LinkedIn or Twitter, attending conferences, and reading relevant trade publications or other professional development books. The more in the know you can be, the more equipped you are to nurture that next relationship, land that next client, or turn that financial corner in your business.

But like with most things, there is a balance. One of the comfortable traps Bowers remains mindful of is getting too swept up in trying to learn it all. “All of these things that you can be doing and learning can actually be pushing you further away from reaching your goals because you’re stuck in learning mode. That’s why we really try to attach tangibles [to our intentions].” For each milestone Bowers is working toward, there are action items and timelines in place. Guardrails, not straight jackets. “You don’t know what you don’t know, so you just get going.”

4. Will this bring me joy or dread?

It took a full year for Bowers and her business partner to restructure their business. It was slow and steady work—some of it enjoyable, some of it grueling. But the last year, and the events that motivated the restructuring, revealed an important question to them: is this work life-giving or life-taking?

“[My business partner and I] ask each other, ‘What do you like about what’s going on? What are you looking forward to? What are you putting off? What do you dread doing?’” says Bowers. “You can operate in your places of weakness, but I don’t want to do that forever. I can say, ‘That’s not my joy.’” Bowers and her business partner have honest discussions about the parts of their jobs they’re enjoying and the parts they’re not. And just because they don’t enjoy something doesn’t mean they don’t do it, but it does mean they start working towards an alternative. Maybe it’s something that can be outsourced a year from now. Or maybe it’s something that can be phased out entirely, like in the case of some of their more taxing clients.

“Bottom line, we’re the ones that wake up and do this work every day. If we’re not enjoying it, or if we can’t be proud of it, or if we’re not feeling like it’s something we can build off of, what’s the point?”

5. Does this resolution match up with who I say I am (or who I say I want to be)?

“Be intentional. Be proactive.” They’re two of Atcheson’s biggest leave-behinds for clients, and they’re what can move you from yet another list of resolutions to actual change.  

“I believe in the laws of attraction and making room for what you want in life, but you have to be willing to do all the work between here and wherever you’re trying to get. If I say I want to do the Ironman one day, what am I doing to get there if I’ve never ridden a bike, or run, or swam?” offers Bowers.

Either you’re doing the work or you’re not. Simply writing a resolution will not make it come true. “It’s so freeing to have the knowledge that you rise or fall because of what you show up and do.”

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