New Year’s resolutions I: How to achieve your goals

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I’m just back working for the first week this year.  If you are in the southern hemisphere like me, where Christmas and summer holidays coincide, then you’ll be aware that much of Australia and New Zealand closes for business from a few days before Christmas up until the end of January.

Like the rest of the world, we like to make resolutions about the new year.  Inevitably, something about our health creeps in – the one I hear most about is weight and getting and staying in shape.  Of course, that’s my job, so I might be a bit biased.  I’ll talk more in  my next blog (New Year’s resolutions II: why diets don’t work and what do about it) I’ll start a series on getting into shape with real food and more fat. But in this post I want to talk about my own resolutions for the year.

New Years’s resolutions commonly relate to well being, often something about simplifying and being more productive – having a defined work day – time for other things, unplugging yet achieving. For me this year, as usual, its about coming to work and actually doing some meaningful work, over and above the meeting, emails, and reactive work that over runs us all in the modern “connected in the cloud” workplace.

My big goal for the year is to write a book on nutrition. exercise, and well being, based on how the new science of metabolism we are starting to understand contradicts much of the advice we have given people for years. I want to help make a contribution to help people stay in shape without the deprivation and sheer will power that staying with “conventional wisdom” requires. So the book is about unconventional (but scientific) wisdom.

Yet to do this, I will have to somehow find the space among the reactive workplace to do this. What I am talking about is somehow developing the discipline to set aside defined, single tasking time to achieve. I’m talking about proactively creating time and space to work consistently on projects which are important to me and I think can change the world.  That’s great, but after a week of returning to work, that is still just what it was at the start of the week – a resolution!

I am going to have to do something different.

First stop – I reflected on when I have been highly productive and proactively engaged.  For me, that was writing “Buck Up, the real men’s guide to getting healthy and living longer“.  It turned out to be a really enjoyable and focused project.  For anyone who has ever written a book, it’s really a litmus test of whether you are actually capable of focused work.  If you are not, then you can’t write, simple.  For that project, I blocked out everyday until 1 PM.  No appointments, no emails, no phone calls.  Just set myself up in the same place (the public library in Takapuna, Auckland) and I started.  I had no goal of a word count.  I just had a goal of writing. The book was finished  in three months.

What can we learn from this?  And what can I try and get back toto  recreate this?  Here are a few tips and what I am now road testing:

  1. Eliminating multitasking –  especially email. Multitasking is destructive. If you can create an oasis of time and space to single task then, and only then, can you proactively achieve. Despite what we’ve been lead to believe about multi-taskers being more efficient, there’s been good research on the destructive power of attention shifting (also known as cognitive multitasking) for decades. Science can tell us about our own human fragility. At least turn your phone and email off, probably move somewhere where you won’t be interrupted, if you want to do any actual work.
  2. We way overestimate what we can achieve in the short term, but way underestimate what we can achieve in the long term with persistence. So don’t get too carried away with sorting the whole world in one go – just get started and do something to make it a better place!
  3. Create start and finish times. We need to have the hard edges of this to define successful application to a task.  I suggest this is best done for most people in the periods of the morning where you are most alert – and most of us squander on email and meetings. Creativity and achievement isn’t so much more than a good idea.  The reality is that we have to apply and implement that good idea and that requires day to day work and actual persistence. Structure, not will power, is the way to do that.
  4. Understanding how the human “ultradian rhythm” cycle works is crucial to understanding the frailty of human biological limits to concentration and achievement. The ultradian rhythm is a biological cycle within the 24 circadian rhythm cycle. It means we cycle in and out of peaks and troughs of concentration and brain activity every 90 mins or so, with most people having higher overall peak in the first couple of cycles upon waking.  You can manually override this system but at a cost of reduced productivity and greater overall stress.  Stick with concentrated periods of work with plenty of breaks for best results.

I’ll leave you with a short passage from an excellent book by Mark McGuinness:

Now I start the working day with {several} hours of writing. I never schedule meetings in the morning, if I can avoid it. So whatever else happens, I always get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.

Yet there wasn’t a single day when I sat down to write an article, blog post, book chapter without a string of people waiting for me to get back to them.

It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago….!”

By definition, this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations and the pressures they put on you. It takes will power to switch off the world, even for an hour. It feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset. But it is better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to surrender your dreams for an empty Inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing your potential for the illusion of professionalism.”

So two good resources….

One comment

  1. Ann Brown · · Reply

    And don’t forget to block out a few days on Waiheke again to meet the Editor’s deadlines. Looking forward to the book. It will make a great Christmas present or two.
    Ann

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Richard David Feinman

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