4th January 2016 at 3:00pm
‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’. As it’s a new year I thought I’d open with a little Robert Burns, not just because it’s a time of year that lends itself to a line from the Bard but because in those prophetic words to a small mouse he doffed his cap towards a much wider issue. ‘Gang aft agley’ or ‘awry’ (to adopt a more recognised vernacular) is often the way many of our good intentions go; he could easily be describing our New Year resolutions.
Now’s the time of year we start thinking about things we want to change, new paths we wish to take and ways to improve our lives and finances. For some, resolutions might be a case of out with the old and in with the new but for many it’s a case of tried, failed and why bother – which is a shame.
The burning issue
So why do we bother? The tradition goes back a long way – 2000BC and the Babylonians to be precise. People marked the beginning of a New Year by paying off debts and returning borrowed goods. The practice carried over into Roman times with worshippers offering resolutions of good conduct to a double-faced deity named Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. When the Roman calendar was reformed, the first month of the year was renamed January in honour of Janus, establishing 1 January as the day of new beginnings.
And through to modern day the tradition has remained in some shape or form. A nice example is the small town of Biggar in Scotland where they hold a fire festival on 31 December. Some say the bonfire that fills the High Street dates all the way back to ancient purification rituals, it’s about heralding in change through burning out the old year. At any rate, the festival has been going on for hundreds of years. Even the prospect of war has not hindered the event. Through World War II, during the blackouts that protected against enemy bombers, the Biggar tradition continued with a candle covered by a tin, replacing the pyre. I suspect townsfolk found it even more significant that they kept up with tradition given the past year had been one of conflict and they wished for peace in the year ahead.
The rise of the resolution
These grander proclamations aside many of us now take a more personal and simpler approach, a promise to ourselves to start doing something good or stop doing something bad on the first day of the year: a resolution.
But keeping a New Year resolution can be difficult. In fact, according to a study from Cancer Research UK, just one in 11 people manage to keep their resolutions for at least six months and just under half break them within a fortnight, blaming a lack of will power. One of the reasons people don’t follow through on their resolutions is that change is hard. There are not only external obstacles at play but internal ones too. The reality is that life will always get in the way of our best-laid plans.
An important factor in building the determination you need to stick with something long-term is to find meaning in what you’re doing. In other words, why are you doing it? The German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.”
To create a strong why, it’s important to know what you’re working towards, in other words, what are your goals?
There are various ways and means of setting goals, however there’s one management technique specifically designed to help you set exceptional ones you will be more likely to stick to – it’s called SMART. The SMART method (an acronym for the five steps of specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based goals) is one of the most effective tools to reach goals — realistically and consistently.
Often we’ll set our sights on achieving something but don’t put enough thought into what it will take to get there. For example wanting to save money or lose weight isn’t enough, you also need to change your lifestyle and habits to accommodate. You need to set a clear objective and then have a series of firm goals in place to help achieve it.
Using the SMART technique can help you set these goals.
What do you want to achieve? The more specific your goal is, the easier it is to follow. A specific goal should cover the who, what, where and why.
How will you know when you get there? You must have a way to rate your progress to see if you are on the right path. It’s motivating to see how well you’re doing, and this will increase the likelihood of achieving your goal.
Is your goal attainable? That means investigating whether the goal really is acceptable to you. You weigh the effort, time and other costs your goal will take against the benefits and the other obligations and priorities you have in life.
Is your goal meaningful to you and your lifestyle? Efficient goals will relate to who you are, and your own personal responsibilities.
When do you want to have achieved this by? All goals should have a time limit. If you don’t have a time set, the likelihood that you will follow through with your goals decreases.
Taking a SMART approach to your objectives gives you a structured way of making resolutions and you’re much more likely to achieve your target rather than just a hollow statement of intent. So look at your resolutions, make a proper plan and take some inspiration from the rousing words of Winston Churchill and ‘Never, never, never, never give up’.