Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Resolutions versus Wishful Thinking

Happy 2024! I hope that you had a wonderful holiday season, whatever you celebrate and however you spent it.

Most Canadians observe New Year’s Day as a holiday on January 1st, and many also observe cultural or religious new year’s days which fall through the calendar. My sophisticated research—Wikipedia—shows new years occurring throughout every month except for May and August! By August, many Canadians are contemplating a different type of new year—the beginning of the school year (and in May, most parents are counting down the days until the end of the school year, so these months have their own observances and practices!)

The start of a new year is often a time of reflection and renewal, and often involves setting resolutions which we hope to keep for the coming twelve months. I am not a big fan of new year resolutions. They are usually honoured for a few weeks in January, at best, and then create non-productive feelings of guilt for a few months before being forgotten altogether. Many resolutions are more accurately wishful thinking, a thought about what would be better in one’s life without a plan of implementation.

We may resolve to lose ten pounds (a magic number!) or to work out more often—perhaps even signing up for a gym membership or ordering expensive home equipment--to show our commitment to our resolution. But if we don’t think through an action plan, which includes details, our gym membership, along with our best intentions, are likely to languish. We need to delve further and identify specific steps we can take, like bringing our own lunch each day to avoid consuming fast food, or to take the stairs instead of the elevator to our offices (provided we don’t work on too high a floor!) or plan what we are giving up to make time for formal exercise.

2023 was a very intense year for me (I am calling 2023 Two Weddings and a Funeral, a homage to an old movie called Four Weddings and a Funeral and I am thankful that only two of my three children chose to get married the same summer.) But instead of eschewing resolutions as I usually do on cusp of 2024, I looked around my house where I was valiantly trying to hide clutter behind holiday décor and realized that I needed to organize my home and my life. Usually when I have that thought, I just wait until other thoughts displace it. But that strategy wasn’t working, and I decided that I would break my traditional pattern and would make a resolution that might actually work.

In addition to not liking resolutions, I don’t really like corporate annual goal setting exercises. When I worked in corporate environments, we engaged in intensive goal-setting exercises. Some components were okay in theory, like setting SMART goals which were

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant (or Realistic) and
  • Time-based

But I felt that the larger exercise didn’t reflect my job very well. We used a system called RIOBs, where we set a big picture goal as a Result we wanted to see. We then supported the Result with Indicators (specific things we would see), Objectives (smaller steps leading to the Result) and Behaviours (specific things we would do). I would set my Result as something like Responding to Client Requests in a Timely Fashion or Reducing Liability and Exposure for the Corporation, only that these were not acceptable Results because they weren’t measurable.

I often ended up setting Results that related to discrete aspects of my role, like Pension Committee Meets Quarterly, supported by Indicators like Booking Pension Committee Meeting to occur quarterly, Objectives like Confirming Meeting Dates one month in advance, and Behaviours like Completing and Circulating Minutes from Previous Pension Committee Meeting. Sounds great, but this was 1 or 2% of what I did. Perhaps we were using the R for Realistic part of SMART rather than Relevant—these complied with the formula, but they just weren’t that Relevant to my overall portfolio where my true goal was timely completion of risk assessment and delivery of excellent legal advice on all issues relating to my portfolio. I think I got away with Returning all Telephone Calls Within 24 Hours as an objective (or was that a Behaviour….?  I was never sure!)

What happens when you take two things you don’t like (resolutions plus formalistic goal setting processes)? Usually, I end up with zero, but this year I was determined. Since the concept of de-cluttering looked rather daunting on December 31st, and I didn’t want to start the new year off in a worse deficit position than I had to, I spent most of New Year’s Eve afternoon cleaning out my pantry so I could get more items off my kitchen counter. It was really rewarding and felt good, and I liked waking up on New Year’s Day to a tidy kitchen.

I felt satisfaction from having set an achievable goal, so I wanted to break down my Tame Chaos goal into manageable bites. Imagine my surprise as I realized that I was envisioning a Result supported by Indicators, Objectives and Behaviours.

My plan is to set achievable goals (Results) on a monthly basis, to be set each month based on need. For January, here is my plan:

1. Cull shoes that I haven’t worn since the beginning of the pandemic (except for special occasion shoes). I wear 10% of my shoes and boots 80% of the time, so do I really need to have the remaining 90% cluttering my closets? Normally, the endorphin rush I get from buying shoes outweighs the reality that having shoes I don’t wear often causes stress down the road.

Getting rid of shoes will be a bit traumatic for me so I am going to start small, aiming for a 10% reduction by the end of January, but perhaps I will be able to do more next year.
Result: Reduce closet congestion
Indicator: Shoe collection fits in the front closet, the back closet, my closet and the shoe stand and doesn’t spill over anywhere else
Objective: Place at least 10% of shoe collection in Goodwill box by January 31 (and deliver box to Goodwill without any last minute rescues)
Behavior: Identify and cull most shoes that haven’t been worn since the pandemic except for special occasion shoes.
There is an embedded task of counting how many pairs of shoes I have accumulated which is going to be embarrassing, but I can’t cull 10% without knowing what 100% is. I will not be reporting on the base number.

2. Cull small appliances I haven’t used since before the pandemic. If I can’t remember when I last used something and can’t foresee a specific occasion to use it again, it is heading to the Goodwill. This includes the collection of curling irons in my bathroom—they must have been multiplying in my cupboard under the sink since I couldn’t possibly have deliberately purchased all of those variations on a theme.

Result: fewer appliances cluttering up kitchen and bathroom cabinets
Indicator: More room for things I actually use
Objective: Remove all items not used since March of 2020 (except for special occasion items) by January 31st
Behaviour: Go through cupboards to box up all appliances not used in almost four years (this means you, Yonanas machine—I don’t even like bananas!)

3. Scan all documents relating to my dad’s estate. My dad passed away in May, and I am the executor. I have boxes of bank statements and assorted paperwork which is making my den almost uninhabitable.

I want to be clear that this is an issue of my own making: my dad was very organized and had wanted to ensure that I wasn’t left with a mess, but his move to hospital and long-term care was sudden and you wouldn’t believe the number of loose ends that got missed. My dad, like most seniors who plan well, had an Enduring Powers of Attorney to come into effect on loss of capacity, but my dad lost physical capacity while still mentally sharp. Banks –the worst offenders-- insisted that I had to bring my mobility-impaired father in person, even though we lived in different cities-- to execute their specific forms of power of attorney. I tried to explain to his bank that I was a lawyer and that I could ensure proper execution and witnessing of their documents (since they wouldn’t accept a general one—that is a topic for another day), but they weren’t open to that. In no time at all, I had a mess of documents languishing in piles. And here is something I didn’t know: when a long-term care resident passes away, you have about 24 hours to empty their rooms, so battling grief and a looming deadline, I stashed important documents into boxes out of desperation.

Side note for all of you lawyers who are named as executors or attorneys: it is worth taking time at the beginning of your engagement, if you have the luxury of time, to organize what you can—things spiral out of control very quickly!

Result: I can find electronic copies documents I need (except for original will etc.)
Indicator: No boxes of Dad’s documents all over my den
Objective: Boxes are inventoried, documents are identified and scanned or shredded
Behaviour: Scanning or shredding promptly
I am never sure it I have the Results, Indicators, Objectives and Behaviours completely clear but for the purposes of implementing my resolution, it doesn’t matter—there is no bonus waiting for me if I craft them properly and get them all done. But breaking them down this way should help me to see how I am going to get from here (complete chaos) to there (manageable home.)
I have been careful to choose three projects for January. If I set too many tasks, I know that I will have trouble starting because the project looks intimidating.
And if I apply the SMART rubric to my January 2024 resolution tasks, I think they qualify. My tasks are Specific, wit three areas of concentration as opposed to “look at all of this stuff everywhere!” They are Measurable—a 10% decrease or 100% scanned—they should be Attainable because my Time-basis is Realistic.
I even have a stretch goal--if all goes well, I am going to identify two more projects for February (it’s a short month!).
If you want to resolve to do something in 2024 but know that your resolutions usually don’t proceed beyond wishful thinking, please consider whether a structure like this would help you. I may make a chart to put on my fridge showing my progress—there is no magic as to how you approach implementing your plan and how to reward yourself! But I do well if different colours of highlighters are used!
Just a word for people considering Dry January or Sober February--great goals for many reasons-- may I suggest that you engage in a bit of planning? It doesn’t have to be as detailed as my RIOB and SMART goals, but you may want to plan what you will order during your dry month when you are out with friends and how you will explain why you are not drinking alcohol. Dry months (and lifetimes) are becoming more common, but be prepared that someone may challenge you, especially if they have already had a few drinks. I would love to plan Assist fun activities that do not involve alcohol to reinforce that this is possible. Does anyone want to try Sober Karaoke with me?
As we consider how we want to live our best lives, starting fresh in 2024, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by all that we have to do. It is hard to know where to start, and if you aren’t even sure where to start, you are unlikely to make meaningful progress. My plan is just an example of how we can operationalize our resolutions into attainable tasks so that my resolutions are more likely to be completed instead of just being wishful thinking.
Happy New Year!