The List

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Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve (how did that happen??), which means every time I turn around I am surrounded by suggestions for my list of New Year’s Resolutions.  I got one this morning from my gym, with a list of goals I should set for 2012, and I just cringed.

I’m not sure why, but the mere mention of “goals” raises my hackles.  I’m perfectly capable of making a list of errands I want to run, or things I need to get done this week.  But goals??  Long-term objectives requiring planning and tracking?  Not for me, thankyouverymuch.  It takes most of my time and energy just to do the stuff I’ve already agreed to do.

I just looked at the list from the gym again, and it wasn’t just a list of goals.  It was a whole “end-of-year review:”  What did I accomplish in 2011?  What did I intend to accomplish?  What did I learn from all this?  Gah.

This used to bug me at work.  Every year we had to do The Performance Review, in which we set out our Goals for next year, and evaluated how well we did on The Goals for last year.  Maybe that’s why I hate this.  The Work Goals were never realistic, because at any time senior management could breeze by with a new merger, or a major reorg, or a new project, and whatever goals you had set up became instantly irrelevant – except that they were still there on last year’s performance review, waiting for you to be judged on how well you did against them.  Fortunately most of my bosses understood this (they had the same senior management) and judged accordingly.

I understand the emphasis on what-did-you-plan, how-did-you-do-on-the-plan in a job.  If you don’t have something formal like that, then your performance evaluation depends on whether your boss likes you or not, so a set of objectives and progress tracking against them protects you from being fired because your boss wants to hire his son-in-law, or because you wouldn’t sleep with him.  So I did the best I could with it.  But I don’t understand the urge to move that into your personal life, with endless written lists of What I Will Do.

For one thing, it’s commonly acknowledged that people mostly don’t do the things they put on the New Year lists.  It can be useful to write down something you want to do – putting it on paper gives it extra reality, somehow.  But a whole list, say, ten things that you Will Do in 2012, just sets you up to fail, because it’s too much.  If you were really going to do any of those things, you would have started already.  In general, the things you do are the things you find worth doing, and if you aren’t doing them, it’s because you’ve subconsciously made a decision that they don’t make the cut.  For goals like “Quit Smoking,” you may not be doing them because they’re really really hard.  But you may also have as much on your plate as you can handle right now, and to do any of the new things on the list, you’d have to stop doing something else.

I’m  not sure your life is something you can plan out like that, either.  John Lennon was right when he wrote that “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”  Mostly we all just go along, trying to cope with the stuff coming at us.  Mind you, I’ve undertaken major changes, and made them happen:  twenty-five or so years ago, I decided I wanted to change careers, and I did.  It took me about five years, because I had to keep paying the mortgage while I trained myself for a new job and then looked for one.  I don’t remember any list of goals; I decided I wanted to get paid for working with computers, and then tried a number of tactics until one worked.  I remember, every Sunday, going through the want ads and picking out the one or two ads I thought I could reasonably apply for, writing the cover letters and mailing them with a resume.  That was a goal I’d set, to do that every week.  But when it came right down to it, what got me a job in data processing was a friend of mine who worked in a company that had an entry-level training program for new programmers.  She told me how to apply, and I got in.  That’s what I mean by coping with the stuff coming at us.  That option wasn’t on any list because I didn’t know it existed.

I think the one useful thing you can Resolve at New Year’s is that you want to change some one thing, and then you can work on that.  As for evaluating your accomplishments from last year – wouldn’t it be better to work on that change you just decided to make??

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