Long ago when I was young, I used to tell people that the only New Year’s resolution I would make was to not make any resolutions. Maybe I was trying (in a sophomoric kind of way) to be witty; perhaps it was a rejection of what I perceived as a useless tradition. After all, aren’t New Year’s resolutions famously kept for two weeks and then abandoned? Why bother making great promises you know you’re unlikely to keep? What makes people do this year after year?
Well, the end of a calendar has an effect on our minds (see my article on the “Mayan Apocalypse“, which I correctly predicted would not happen: a feat of astrological wizardry as amazing as the ability to predict sunrise tomorrow). The end of one thing signals the beginning of another, and like the old song says, the beginning is a very good place to start. People naturally want to turn over a new leaf with the new year.
So why are New Year’s resolutions notorious for failing? It’s not because they are a bad idea. The problem is that, although hoping and wishing and dreaming come naturally, good planning skills do not. We have to learn those, and long-term project management is not a core subject in elementary school. It should be.
For the last decade or so I have gone back to the tradition of making a set of resolutions for the new year. I am happy to say that they have helped me change my life in good ways! There are several reasons for this, none of which I discovered on my own. You can find plenty of good books and courses very easily, all of which will build on the same basic principles, including (but not limited to) the following:
1. Don’t be afraid to dream. And when you dream of your future, go ahead and make it a big dream. Why settle for anything less? It’s your dream, and it should make you happy. Just remember that it is still only a dream, and it is up to you to make it come true.
2. Reality check. There are two good reasons for this: first, some dreams are less possible than others; and second, it is a good idea to make sure your dream is not disguised as something else. If all this sounds kind of weird, let me explain. It’s OK to have really big dreams. That is how every great achievement begins! Flying, diving to the bottom of the ocean, and walking on the moon were all impossible until somebody had a really big dream. You should be aware that big dreams will require great effort. If you dream of winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, or exploring Mars, or being elected President, who knows? Those things are unlikely, but certainly not impossible. If your dream is to rule the world from your orbital space station, you should probably get help. Even if you genuinely desire to rule the world – let’s say from a skyscraper in New York, to keep it simple – is that what you really want? Why would you want to rule the world in the first place? Maybe a dream of ruling the world is really a wish to be respected, or to be in control. You don’t need to conquer the world to have those things.
3. Make a plan. Without a plan, your dream is no more than that – a wish, a hope. What needs to happen for you to fulfill your dream? For example, if you dream of exploring Mars, there is more than one way to get there. You could become a billionaire and build your own spaceship, or you could become an astronaut and be selected for an expedition, or you could wait for somebody to build a colony and sign up as a volunteer. All of these plans might get you to Mars, but they have different requirements. You will need to know yourself first. Are you the kind of person who can carry out your plan? You might need a plan for how to become that kind of person before you can achieve your original goal.
4. Turn your plan into a list of actions that you can take. Work backwards from your final goal to your present condition. This makes it easier to keep focused on what it is you want to achieve. For example, to be selected for a Mars mission, you would have to be an astronaut. To be an astronaut, you would have to work for a space agency. To work for a space agency, you would have to graduate at the top of your class in a science program. To do that, you would have to get into the program and study hard with a high-powered peer group. For each step, you should get a clearer idea of what you need to do today.
5. Break your plan into steps. One step might be getting a certain kind of education, or being in excellent physical condition, or meeting a particular individual, or anything else that helps get you from where you are now to where you want to be. It is useful to break your plan into steps that each have a time limit and a specific goal, for example “this year, I will find the best students in my level, join with them in a study group, and improve my grades by one point.” Once you have a year-by-year plan that will get you to your goal, break it down into smaller, more specific tasks that you can check off monthly, or even weekly. The point is that every day can bring you closer to, or farther from, your dream. It all depends on what your actions are each day. An old proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Find out what the first step is, and take it. Then take another.
6. Keep going. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step, but there are another 30,000 steps (roughly) after that. Don’t be discouraged; just keep walking in the right direction. Do something every day that brings you closer to your goal.
If you haven’t made a New Year’s resolution, you now have a good reason to do so! Make a plan for the next year that will help you achieve your dream. If you discover new goals and dreams along the way (and you probably will), plan for them too! Life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy it, and may your dreams come true!