Make your 2021 a better year

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2020 is nearly done, and with that, we are preparing for the annual close-out and a fresh start into 2021.

For many, if not for all of us, 2020 has been a very challenging year. We all had to deal not only with the various lockdowns preventing us from living a life we were used to. We also faced uncertainty and stressful situations regarding the effects of infection on our loved ones and ourselves. We also have to deal with either working in a potentially infectious environment for those many who cannot work from home and keep the world turning. We cannot thank them enough. Those who could and can work from home have to deal with the additional burden of remote work, attending hours and hours of video- or phone conferences and keeping themselves going, while their partners and kids require attention and disrupt focus and attention. 2020 has been a challenge. While we all hope that 2021 will bring some relief and a return to what we considered a normal life, the chances are that we will continue in the current modus operandi, at least for a couple of months to come.

However, we cannot change the facts. As Marcus Aurelius puts it in his Meditations, Book VIII, Section 47: “When you are grieved about anything external it is not the thing itself which afflicts you, but your judgment about it. This judgment it is in your power to efface.”

What is your judgment on what happened in 2020?

Looking forward

Looking forward requires us to look backward. I don’t know about you, but I take the end of every year as an opportunity to look back over the past 12 months. In that process, I pull out my previous year assessment as well as my monthly journal round-ups and review the retrospection and translation notes I write at the end of each month. Then I ask myself a couple of questions, among which are:

  • Every year, I have two challenges accomplishing. How well did I accomplish my two challenges of the year?
  • How did I consistently act upon my retrospection and translation notes on a monthly basis, i.e. did I continuously adjust and improve? What went according to expectations and what didn’t? Why? What do I need to change?
  • Which were the topics that I didn’t address last year, and what were the barriers that made me decide to not follow through?

These reviews are incredibly useful for me to review that past period and the plan ahead. One could argue that why waiting an entire year before doing such a review? Good point. The yearly review for me is the culmination of the past sequence. I do daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews, all at different levels. The objectives and the principles are always the same, however the level of detail and the focus is different. As I do plan my year, month, week, and day ahead at different levels, so do I do the corresponding review, such as shown below.

This is an essential system in The DART Principle — How to claim back your life that will come out in 2021.

How to make 2021 your best year ever

With New Year’s Eve around the corner, who wouldn’t think about New Year’s resolutions? Bla. Most of them are abandoned somewhen in January. Gareth Mills from Strava explained: “Millions of us start the new year with the best of intentions, and by crunching the data from Strava’s community we hope more of us can get past the motivational hurdles we face in January.” (Source: Day that people most likely to give up their New Year’s resolutions — and it’s very soon).

What are common reasons for people giving in or giving up?

People confuse Goals with Objectives

A goal defines what you want to achieve. An objective is a precise action or a measurable step that will take you closer to the goal. Last December Jen came on a coaching call with me with a demand that I have heard oh so often: “Listen, Marc”, she said, “I need to lose 20 kg, I am so overweight.” I nodded and said: “Ok, so what’s your goal?” She looked puzzled. “I just told you, I need to lose 20 kg.” I smiled and said: “I am afraid not. What you told me is an objective, not a goal.” And it was a bad objective as well because losing 20 kg for most people I have worked with takes something like a year if you’re like Jen around 80 kg and want to go down to 60 kg. Formulating an objective that takes you a year to complete is nonsense. More on that later.

“Ok, Jen”, I pursued, “here’s the point: you want to lose 20 kg which is a valid thing to do. The question is: why? How will your life be different once you’re there? How will you feel different?”

I could see her thoughts racing, and kept quiet for a while, letting the silence unfold.

“Look, since our son was born, our sex life is a disaster. It’s not just because there’s the little boy requiring so much attention. It’s also because my husband doesn’t find me so attractive any more. But more importantly, I don’t find myself attractive when I look into the mirror. I don’t like my body any more. I want to like me again.”

“Hmmm …”, I reflected, “did your husband tell you that he doesn’t find you attractive?”

“Yeah well …”

“Jen”, I interrupted here making up of a story, “this is a very binary question. Did he?” Sometimes as a coach I can be very confrontative and very pushy when it comes to elicit fact versus fiction.

She looked at me. “No he didn’t. We don’t have sex as much as before, and I conclude that part of it is because I’m fat.”

“Ok, so we don’t know for sure what Tom (her husband) thinks, right? What we do know, however, is that you don’t like yourself in that shape and you want to like what you see in the mirror. Correct?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then this is your goal. You want to like what you see in the mirror.”

We then went on to identify two other related goals that helped Jen to sharpen the picture of success.

The important lesson is this: had I let Jen get away with that fuzzy pseudo-goal of losing 20 kg she would have given up within two weeks. Or three. For her, two important things happened.

First, she had a clear target state, a picture of success, a why she would be able to connect to when things got difficult (and they always do). She had three true goals rather than one bad objective disguised as a goal.

Second, we created iterative objectives.

Objectives that take too long to achieve

Remember, an objective is a precise action or a measurable step that will take you closer to the goal. Using Jen’s example from above, losing 20 kg is not only a bad goal but also a lousy objective. Why? It will take a couple of months to take that one single step. A couple of months before you can say “Yes, I did it.”

From my coaching practice I can say that any objective that takes more than a couple of days to complete is not a good objective. Despite all the motivation talk and all the discipline, we need to see progress. Otherwise, our little human brains and reward centres will seek another favourite hobby to pursue.

For many other topics, setting objectives to be reached within a day or a week is rather straightforward. You can break everything down into small steps. Losing weight is a tricky beast for that matter because a number of different factors come into play and I don’t want to write a body-recomposition manual here.

The strategy here is to create iterative objectives, i.e. to break the bigger objective (the 20 kg) into smaller steps that can be achieved within a week, e.g. 1 kg. (Again, for weight loss this is tricky because depending on what the weight is, we can gain or lose 2 kg on a single day because of hydration)

But you get the point. Make the steps small enough to be achievable within a relatively short period of time, and large enough to provide useful measures.

Wrong measures

We have a tendency to measure literally wrong things. Service desks measured by number of closed customer calls per hour (fortunately this has changed since) is a bad metric because it doesn’t consider whether the customer really had a satisfactory solution, nor whether the customer felt well treated.

Such as with “losing weight”. Weight in that case is not the right measure (and I just use this example because it exemplifies many flaws with goal and objective settings, not because I want to sell a weight-loss program). Most people want to lose fat, not weight. However, fat-loss requires physical activity, not only a change is nutritional habits. Physical activity will stimulate muscle growth. More muscle means more weight. Typically, on a body-composition change program that really works well, many people will gain weight in the beginning because the weight gain from building muscle mass often outperforms the weight loss from burning the fat tissue.

Is then setting an objective of losing let’s say 2 kg per week a good one?

It’s crap because you may or may not hit the mark depending on many factors.

Be careful what you measure: measurement drives behaviour. Measuring wrong indicators drives inappropriate or at least useless or counterproductive behaviour.

Leading versus lagging measures

Imagine you are on Jen’s quest for 20 kg less. You get on your scale after a week of eating less and eating healthy and working out five times for two hours. Your scale shows you didn’t lose a pound last week. How would you feel?

Besides using a wrong measure (weight as opposed to body composition), as explained in the previous paragraph, weight or even body composition are lagging indicators: we can only measure what has already happened. These indicators are not enabling us to measure how we can best achieve the objectives set, they just measure current performance.

The thing about lagging indicators is that they are easy to formulate and easy to measure. Lead indicators are dynamic, hard to measure and especially when it comes to individual performance they are hard to even define.

A lead indicator for weight loss would be workout energy expenditure combined with the carb vs fat burn ratio measured from breathing in a way to dynamically adjust your training intensity. It doesn’t matter what your scale shows at the end of the week, if you did measure and optimize your training, you know how efficient your training was and how much substrate you’ve burned. Along with appropriate intake measures this will allow a much more precise overall picture than getting on a scale. Plus you can dynamically adjust to optimize performance.

Reviewing objectives and their contribution towards the goal

A plan is what it is: a plan. Setting goals and defining objectives is what it is: formulating a goal in our imagination and taking the best guess on how we can best achieve that goal through objectives. Plans go wrong. Reality doesn’t turn out to evolve according to our plan. External factors influence our carefully invented future truth. In short: sh*t happens.

End 2019 I decided that I wanted to re-certify as a Strong First Kettlebell Instructor. I went through the certification in 2012 and didn’t re-certify since. As kettlebell training is what I do as part of my training routine, but for various reasons I have scaled back on my activities as a personal trainer, I didn’t apply for re-certification in between. However, I wanted to re-certify not to have a valid trainer certificate but because I wanted to go through the training process and reestablish my fitness level.

Having had a crash with my motorbike in 2017 that broke most of my left-sided ribs, I had to scale back my physical training and with that, my fitness level crumbled.

Passing the Strong First SFG certificate in a gruelling three-day long certification test would require me to pick up on the training regimen and reget in perfect shape.

Subsequently, sh*t hit the fan.

First, in March the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns hit, which didn’t impact me so much because one of the many advantages of kettlebell training is that it can be done anywhere, including at home.

Second, I took on a new corporate job in March that required me to work considerably longer hours which impacted the training hours I could slot into a week. I knew I needed about two hours daily to get up to the required level from January to October, as I did that before.

Third, I had a disc hernia in July that required surgery which went absolutely well (probably because I am still in good shape) but that also required me to rest until October.

As a result, even if I wanted, no re-cert this year. Sometimes things don’t work out as expected.

However, when I did the first certification in 2012 (at the time it was RKC and I passed flawlessly) the process to get there was not influenced by any external factors but anything but straight. I started kettlebell training in January 2012 and went to certify in October. That left me with 9 months of preparation time. Everybody told me that this is impossible and that even if you’re already trained with kettlebells it would take about 12 months to be in shape to pass the three-day exam.

“Doesn’t work” has never been an option in my vocabulary. Hence, I sat down and created a plan by breaking down the elements of the goal “pass the exam” into the individual required tests and the success metrics for each test. I needed to work up from where I started (nowhere) to being able to perform all exercises with a 24 kg kettlebell, including the snatch test (100 snatches in five minutes).

Subsequently, I defined the objectives to reach for every month so that I could work up from “nowhere” into “exam-ready”.

At the time, there was no certified kettlebell trainer in Switzerland, so my primary source of information was DVDs from Pavel Tsatsouline, who was leading the RKC at the time and in 2012 founded Strong First. Watch and repeat. However, it became soon obvious that this didn’t work out so well because you can’t learn complex technique without immediate feedback from a coach. Luckily, I found Tim who ran a personal trainer studio in Zürich and who had certified with RKC but didn’t figure as an active trainer. Tim taught me technique and conditioning principles, I wouldn’t have made it without him.

In August 2012, I still couldn’t pass the snatch test. I had fallen behind my objectives. I needed to change my training to further improve my endurance and conditioning. Plus my body was becoming a liability. I still remember showing up at Tim’s gym one day shaking and trembling. “Tim, what’s wrong with me?” — “It’s your CNS (central nervous system). You need to take care and supplement. And you need a week of rest, otherwise you’re going to break down.”

Reviewing objectives and their contribution to goals is critical. Rarely will reality unfold according to plan. That is why daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews are so important. No mid- to long-term goal can be achieved reasonably without retrospection (inspecting process and results) and translation (adjusting process and actions).

How you feel?

Many of our New Year’s resolutions are based on rational thinking, aren’t they? Quit smoking. Losing weight. Go to the gym. Become more focused. Bla. You name it. These are rational because we think we know that it’s good for us. What about a resolution to be happier, to laugh more often, to feel better, to feel more grateful?

Many of the rationally rooted resolutions are uncomfortable. All of them require a change in habits, and any change in habits makes us feel uneasy because … well, humans love habits. We love predictability, it’s easy to our brains that love automation. Changing habits is energy consuming, requires discipline, makes us feel out of our comfort zone.

Therefore, it is critically important that we do not define our goals in terms of measurable objective rational outcomes only. The equally, if not more, important question is “How do I want to feel when I have achieved my goal?” The more specific we are going to create an emotional outlook into our life after we have achieved our goal the more likely we are to pursue our objectives.

In summary

Nothing bad about New Year’s resolutions. However, do keep these simple things in mind to increase your chances to succeed in following through:

  • Define clear goals that define your picture of success: how will your life look like when you achieved?
  • Define clear actionable steps (objectives) that are your path towards the goal and ensure that reaching each objective doesn’t take longer than a week. If necessary, make objectives iterative.
  • Define measures for objectives and goals. How do you know that you have achieved an objective? How do you know that you have achieved your goal?
  • Include lead indicators into the equation that will help you dynamically adjust the process.
  • Regularly inspect the process and the results so that adjustments to the process become possible.
  • Create an emotional view on life after you have achieved the goal. Is a goal that will not make you happier worth pursuing?

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