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February 13, 2023 (Updated )

I’m writing this piece in February — the month of the year when you question how it’s gotten to that point of the year already. Currently, I’m stuck between having an existential crisis about how time flies and being glad to see the back of January. The flurry of marketing centred around diet culture, Dry January, and gym memberships are finally beginning to subside, and spring doesn’t feel quite so far away anymore.   

It’s also typically a time of the year when we wonder what the heck happened to our New Year’s resolutions. But really, that could be any time of year. After all, who amongst us hasn’t accidentally flipped open the goals page in your notebook in July and wondered what when went wrong? So, how can we take a more effective approach to our goals all year round?

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“Be mindful of the fact that it’s okay to change. If it’s not working for you, it’s okay to let it go, if you have the freedom to.”
Winnie Tang, Career Pivot Coach

The Pressure Of New Year’s Resolutions

What gets me is the pressure of New Year’s resolutions. It sort of feels like writing in a fresh notebook. For some reason, I feel like the first page needs to be perfect, even though I know scribbles and spelling mistakes will soon follow. In reality, you end up with a wad of blank pages disguised as seemingly endless opportunities to get things right.

Perhaps it’s this pressure that explains why so many of us lose our way with resolutions and goals. According to YouGov data, just 28 percent of people managed to keep all of their New Year’s resolutions. A further 53 percent managed to keep some, and 17 percent admitted to not keeping to any at all.

However, flip those stats upside down and that’s more than 80 percent of people managing to make some progress on their goals. The discourse around resolutions tends to focus overwhelmingly on the negative — but could there be a benefit in embracing failure?

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Try It For Yourself Now

Last year, I became acquainted with Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast, a follow-on from her 2019 book of the same name. Day’s interviewees have included singer-songwriter Craig David, refugee Olympian Yusra Mardini, journalist Caitlin Moran, and writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

The premise is simple: failure is often necessary for our development as humans. Each guest is asked to bring with them three failures — from any point in their lives, however big or small, which the episode then explores in-depth.

Day’s logic is: “If you can remove your ego from a process, then there really isn’t any difference between success and failure. They’re just both parts of a process […] you shouldn’t look at a failure as something terrible, it just is what it is and you shouldn’t look at success as something great, it just is what it is.”

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Winnie Tang (L) and Jenny Holliday (R)

To put it another way, if you don’t achieve your goal, it’s not because you are a failure. If you “remove your ego”, this is just a part of a process. Your goal, or the way you have set or perceived it, was not right in some way, and you probably needed to realise that to move forward.

It’s the same ethos that Kim Liao follows in their piece “Why You Should Aim For 100 Rejections A Year”. Written for Lit Hub, Liao had asked a friend the secret to their impressive pitch success rate. And again, the premise was relatively simple: “If you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

Last year, I failed because my goals were overambitious and unlike Liao’s friend, I saw rejection as innately negative. I didn’t address the small incremental gains I needed to get there.

I also didn’t revisit them each month — only sporadically when prompted by, more often than not, social media. Then, before I knew it, January had rolled around again. That’s why I’ve begun 2023 with simpler, smaller goals, that encourage new things rather than avoid others.

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“If you can remove your ego from a process, then there really isn’t any difference between success and failure. They’re just both parts of a process."
Elizabeth Day, Podcaster & Author

Assessing The Motivation Behind Your Goals

Vanessa Moore is an emotional health specialist and has developed what she calls “naked philosophy”, which focuses on “stripping back the rubbish made-up stories we believe to be true about ourselves” to move forward.

According to her, “More often than not, we make goals that are motivated by something or someone we want to avoid or move away from”. Therefore, our goals tend “to be fuelled by a negative emotion to avoid feeling any worse.”

But goals shouldn’t make us feel bad about ourselves; in theory, they should serve to do the opposite. What if we started approaching our resolutions by thinking about what would make us feel positive — not what would make us feel less bad?

I haven’t set any work goals yet because to be completely honest, I needed January to just stop for a moment to gather my thoughts, and focus on the small wins.

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Em Stroud (L) and Vanessa Moore (R)

Career pivot coach Winnie Tang is all too familiar with wanting to do everything. “There are so many things to try, and there are so many ideas out there. But you can’t do it all, and time and energy are so precious,” she says.

When setting goals, Tang underlines the importance of “understanding what you want to get out of it”. She adds: “It needn’t be stuff like writing ten pieces or making £10,000 — it can be, but it doesn’t need to be.” It is more about intention and knowing why you do the work you do, and understanding what you want.

“It could just be wanting to gain some clarity about what you hope to understand by the end of the week,” says Tang. The most important thing, she emphasises, is to “be mindful of the fact that it’s okay to change. If it’s not working for you, it’s okay to let it go, if you have the freedom to.”

Tang, who previously worked in software, also highlights how useful it is to think of goals within a software-building context.

She explains: “You set the score for two weeks with your team, and that is what you stick to. If you look at how developers work, you can’t just go and interrupt them, you have to have a reason.”

Therefore, making any changes must be justified as working for the business, which in this case, is yourself or your project. It aims to create a more streamlined approach to work rather than getting distracted by wanting to write about everything at once. For writers and journalists who often find themselves bursting with ideas, it can provide much-needed focus.

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Ask Why You’ll Do It Tomorrow

And what of the goals you keep putting off? Jenny Holliday, the founder of Freelance Feels, a platform for freelancers and the self-employed, admits to falling victim to the “I’ll do it tomorrow” mentality.

She recommends various productivity techniques like the ‘eat the frog’ approach that can be useful for short-term goals. Put simply, it means doing the task you’ve been putting off first.

However, before that, Holliday advises taking a step back and simply asking yourself why you might be avoiding the task. Prioritising quality goals over quantity is essential for her, and she recommends viewing goals as small, medium, and large, as well as short- and long-term.

She also advises questioning if your goal is actually actionable — or does it need to be broken down into the smaller goals that will get you there?

For example, if you want a byline in a national publication, she says: “Don’t just have that as the major goal. Perhaps have ‘connect with the editors from that publication’, or ‘subscribe to their newsletter and study their content’ [instead].”

Holliday also promotes ‘magic wand goals’, which encapsulate the ambitious things that we would absolutely love to have. Whether it is having a column or a top ten podcast, Holliday says these are good to have as “the dream” goals.

That way, she explains, you add the other, smaller goals in like a jigsaw. For creating a winning podcast, that might involve “listening to other podcasts, planning content, being out there on social”.

Holliday also warns against overlooking small goals because things like “‘send that awkward email’, or ‘meet a new freelance mate’ are also as valid as ‘edit The Guardian!’”

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“Covid has taught us that life is precious. So for me, it’s like, how do you live each life consciously, rather than just responding to others?”
Em Stroud, Author & Coach

Moore echoes this: “Often, we set ourselves up for failure with New Year’s resolutions, as the expectation for a whole year rests on this one decision at New Year,” she says.

“[It creates] too big a concept rather than appreciating the power and value in one day at a time, which is a far simpler concept to accept and apply ourselves to.”

Whilst it is “healthy to have a vision for our future,” it is also wise to “break the year into sizeable chunks and ultimately into a daily ideal so we can appreciate the power and value in each day.”

Always Ask If The Goals Serve You

“It’s important to remember that what we place our attention on is what we will experience more of,” says Moore. And whilst it’s “easy to be distracted and influenced by the outside world […] while we compare ourselves to others and what is expected of us,” a goal of any size has the potential to be fulfilling and healthy.

Author and coach Em Stroud has found a fulfilling and realistic organisational system: the ‘Rainbow Diary’, where each of her priorities is given a colour of the rainbow.

She explains: “In my weekly calendar, I know that there are seven colours on a week-by-week basis and that if I don’t see those seven colours, I know I’m missing out on something that I want to do within my life.”

Stroud recognises that her work involves frequent travel, so she might not see red (friends and family) all of the time. However, Stroud recommends having two non-negotiable colours in the diary: self-care and exercise. Self-care, she says, can be “anything where you are being looked after, you are not leading other people, you’re not worried about other people”.

The five other colours are “the things that fulfil you”. For Stroud, that is her work with businesses; her comedy, writing, and podcasting; and time with friends and family. Another is fun and curiosity, and the final one is time with her little boy.

With this diary system, Stroud can immediately recognise if something is missing. She reflects: “Covid has taught us that life is precious. So for me, it’s like, how do you live each life consciously, rather than just responding to others?”

Header image courtesy of Yellow Cactus via Unsplash

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Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines, and in 2018, was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by SPA. She was a BBC Sport Kick Off Reporter in 2019 and in 2021, co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day. Along with her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and freelance writing.