How to Make New Year’s Calibrations

You read that right. Calibrations, not resolutions. Until you know a) exactly where you are, b) where you are already going, b) with how much momentum, c) and how much discretionary steering authority, resolutions are just rituals. For New Year’s party drunkards. You, of course, are a paragon of follow-through, but forward this to all those friends of yours who clearly need help. It’s an illustrated five-step program. If you start right now, you might actually be ready to make real resolutions by first-drink-time on December 31st.

Step 1: Calibrate PERSPECTIVE

Resolutions are supposed to be significant, even lofty, life-course-changing intentions. The only way you’ll know what counts as significant for you is to look back as far as you can, until your memories vanish into the foggy cloud of babyhood. For me, that means late 1974 foggily, late 1975 practically.

HOW: take a single sheet of paper and title it Perspective Calibration Scale. If you are over 30, draw a line down the middle to create a two-column blank. Now list every truly significant turning-point event in your life (should be roughly 1 per year on average). Include big ‘road not taken’ regrets as well as stuff that just happened to you that you didn’t drive. Do this systematically starting with the year you were born. This is easy, because if it was truly significant, the main symptom is that you remember it. If your list runs over 1 page, you are dragging in insignificant crap. Now, find the most significant event on the list and put a rank of 10 next to it. Put a 1 next to the least significant one, and a 5 next to one of the middle-y ones. Done? Now put a rank number next to all the rest.

Your perspective is calibrated. When you make your 2009 resolutions on Jan 1, you’ll know by comparison whether you are setting a modest level 3 intention, or “most significant yet” 12-pointer.

Grab a manila folder. Label the tab Resolution Prep. Put your perspective calibration sheet in it.

Step 2: Calibrate MOMENTUM

Your resolutions don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell if you don’t get yourself aware of everything already in your life that is, well, snowballing away. It’s called momentum, and it’s what makes steering difficult. The holiday break will naturally cause a pause in all your existing activities, which will give you a good opportunity to measure it. Maybe that’s why the New Year’s resolutions tradition started. In this step, you will define what it means to “hit the ground running in January,” thereby naturally measuring momentum.

HOW: Take another sheet of paper and title it Momentum. List the FIRST concrete action you will need to take to restart/start all of your continuing/known-new activities in January. Write small. If you count all moderately significant activities that have more than 2-3 actions left to finish, you should end up with about 20-30. For extra credit, take an hour to lock-in your January commitments as much as possible in concrete ways. For me, this meant scheduling my critical January meetings now, creating Powerpoint templates for some presentations I have to do, and quickie back-of-the-envelope placeholder project plans for my stuff.

Advanced tip: if you use a more sophisticated system like GTD (David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”), you may want to attempt a more comprehensive mind-sweep and update of your GTD lists, and recalibrate the way I described in my article How to measure information work. If you are good at the GTD sweep, you’ll capture more than amateurs will, and end up with a seriously cathartic 50-70 item list. For GTD’ers, Momentum is really just a subset of the ‘Projects’ list.

Put this list in your manila folder.

Step 3: Calibrate GRAY SPACE

You have all the spare bandwidth to execute on your intentions right? Yeah, right. If you are normal, you are already overbooked for 2009, and this is a good thing, as I have argued before. As Parkinson’s law says, work expands to fill the resources available, and you are currently in this state. The bad news is this: there is no obvious “spare” whitespace time in 2009 for you to fill in with execution of noble resolutions (“June-July: write novel” anyone?). The good news is that there is plenty of gray-space stuff. Stuff that expanded because you were dumb enough to let it. Stuff that can be delegated, dropped, wriggled-out-of, scaled down, simplified or superseded by a higher priority. You can trash-compact your way back to some serious available bandwidth if you are bloody-minded enough.

HOW: Look through every item in the momentum sheet, and give it a ranking according to the scale in your perspective calibration scale. Next, guesstimate the level you think you might be shooting for in your resolutions list, say 8. Make a note on the margin of the momentum sheet saying: “2009 target level: 8.” For anything on Momentum that you marked less than an 8, try to note down next to it what it would take to get rid of the activity. Delegation, cold-turkey-stopping, hiring, firing, setting a building on fire. Whatever. Now you have stuff to bump to make room for stuff you want to do. You don’t need to figure out how to drop the activity instantly on Jan 1. You just need to know that it is dispensable, if you could find a way. If you are trying to create a month of room to start a new novel in 2009, you’re probably good to go if you are able to maneuver a significant delegation by October 2009. So you have time.

This step generated no new sheets of paper. Put your sheets back into the manila folder.

Step 4: Calibrate your FOLLOW-THROUGH

Unless you are a completely flaky moron or a certifiable obsessive-compulsive, you probably have good follow-through in some areas, bad follow-through in others. If you want an easy-wins year, you’ll want to pick resolutions in your strong follow-through areas. If you are up for a challenge, you’ll take on resolutions that involve behavioral challenges. You need to know which is which.

HOW: Look back at your perspective calibration scale list. With a different colored pen or a highlighter, mark out those of your significant events that came about because you intended them to. You have your ‘good follow through’ evidence areas. Your failures probably didn’t make the list of significant turning points because failures typically keep you in a rut rather than cause course changes. So on a separate sheet of paper, which you will title failed resolutions, list as many execution failures as you can think of. The easiest place to look is past failed New Year’s resolutions. But look elsewhere as well. Focus only on failures of your own follow-through, not stuff that crashed through acts of nature. For both your perspective calibration scale list and your new failed resolutions list, put easy, medium or hard next to each item.

I am teaching calibration here, so I don’t care whether you use this list to challenge yourself or pick easy wins. Do whatever. For the record, my biggest follow-through failures have been around intents to exercise. Yeah, that makes me average. The most visible broken resolutions in the world are unused February gym memberships.

Step 5: Reboot brain

Take a real vacation, either before, after, or (recommended) instead-of, extended-family. Your previous steps of calibration will nearly have prepared you to do so, but calibration is not closure. If you really want a relaxed vacation, first use whatever project management or ad-hoc methods you use to clear the decks as completely as you can. Create a real-and-expanded “hit the ground running list” from your Momentum list. Turn off the gas. Arrange for a cat-sitter/plant-waterer. Bring down the curtain forcefully on 2008. Really put it behind you. Your brain-rebooting vacation will ideally occur in temporal limbo between psychological-2008 and psychological-2009.

HOW: You really need me to tell you?? Sigh! Get away. Defragment hard-drive. Do physical activity stuff. Drink pina coladas. Read mystery novels. Discover a new muscle. Take a boxing lesson. Scuba dive with sharks. Subtle suggestions: go nature, not culture; make it a do-something-else vacation rather than a lay-around vacation. Idle bodies make for minds that wander back to your commitments, no matter how neatly you wrapped them up. Mind-clearing is for monks. Displacement for the rest of us.

I am off to the US Virgin Islands for a few days. If you can’t afford a real vacation or have been laid off or something, take a mini-vacation nearby. A change of scenery, physical to-fro travel, and distance from extended family are absolute musts. Go camp in a truck stop for a weekend if you must.

Don’t skip this step. Without it, the rest is useless. Steps 1-4 recalibrate your conscious, aware and rational brain. Step 5 recalibrates your subconscious and emotional machinery by letting the dust of 2008 settle.

Get, Set, Resolve

On December 31st, pull out your manila folder, review silently for 15 minutes, set aside, take a short walk to let situation awareness soak in. Then get, set, resolve. I don’t want to presume to tell you what to resolve, but try and list (on paper of course; well known that mental resolutions fail more easily) a concrete next-step that you can take in January, next to whatever lofty verbiage you choose for the main resolution. Example: “Be nicer to people (first step, resist first urge to bark at wife in January)”

Last clever tip: you may want to list twice as many resolutions as you think you can handle on January 1st. Then on January 31, cleverly drop the half that seem ill-formulated or just ain’t going to happen. You’ll be able to tell — it’ll be the half where you haven’t taken even the first step.

If you try this and it works (or not), post how you did as a comment in January. Happy Resolutioning! As a reminder, here are the five steps again:

  • Step 1: Calibrate PERSPECTIVE
  • Step 2: Calibrate MOMENTUM
  • Step 3: Calibrate GRAY SPACE
  • Step 4: Calibrate your FOLLOW-THROUGH
  • Step 5: Reboot brain

And remember to forward this article to those friends of yours! Am trying to make this post go viral :)

Added 12/17/08: Great way to keep yourself on track: schedule focused emails to be sent to yourself at; make ’em specific questions like “Have you lost 5 lbs yet?” and not too frequent (like once every 3-6 months).

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter