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If you want to make some New Year’s resolutions for career self-improvement or improving your business, the resolution is the easy part. It’s implementing where things usually fall apart.

Start with considering the timing. Why begin on New Year’s? For many of us, September feels like the start of a year – dating back to our days in school or our children’s lives – so maybe that is a better time to initiate change. Or perhaps March, after the worst part of winter. There is nothing magical in Jan. 1.

Maybe you need more entry points: Not just a resolution for Jan. 1 but a follow-up resolution – on a different issue, or digging deeper into your main concern, for April 1, and similarly other initiatives as the third and fourth quarters of the year begin. Can you break your intention down into smaller slices of self-improvement, easier to attack and monitor?

Next, what to attack? Don’t start with the first item on your mind, something currently eating away at you. Write that on a piece of paper, along with other possibilities. Challenge yourself: Aim for 20 or 30 possibilities. You may still return to what has been gnawing at you recently but it will be a more informed selection.

Give some thought to triggers. Even if you are only intending to focus on your self-improvement goal for a few months, it’s easy to drift. What can trigger you every day – or several times a day – to place the issue top of mind? Let’s say you want to pay more attention to listening in meetings. A trigger might be to arrange for a pop-up reminder on your mobile – “Listen!” – just before the meeting begins. Jotting down a score – how good you were – after every meeting is partly evaluation-accountability but also a subconscious trigger for the next meeting. Perhaps your goal is to call more clients to check-in. A trigger might be to schedule it for 8:30 a.m. every day in your calendar. Or maybe getting your mid-morning coffee might be a trigger to make those calls every day.

Triggers are important. So are psychological nudges and rewards. Governments are increasingly establishing units to nudge us psychologically into better behaviours. What might you try? A simple trick: Rate your progress every week and if it falls below a certain level donate a penalty amount to your least favourite political party. Or perhaps no doughnut with the mid-morning coffee unless you make the requisite client calls beforehand. More positively, if you succeed reward yourself with a special dinner out.

If you establish metrics to gauge your improvement, lean toward leading indicators – markers that indicate progress or slippage. Trend lines may be more helpful than actual accomplishment. Think through whether it’s results that you want to measure or activity that takes you in the proper direction.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith has a wonderful form of accountability on his own self-improvement efforts. Every evening, he pays an associate to call and ask a series of questions that force him to grapple with whether he has been true to his behavioural intentions as he caromed through the day’s events. It’s accountability, big time. Not once a week or once a month – every day. In some ways, failing to adopt such a model may signal your lack of dedication to the effort.

The reminders can be posed by a friend, family member or colleague – in person or by phone or e-mail. They prevent excess slippage toward your goal. At the same time, his wording accepts the difficulty of the struggle. If you are trying to listen more, it would be, “Did I do my best to listen in meetings today?” He isn’t asking how well he performed but how much he tried – how much effort he put into it, on a one to 10 scale.

Mr. Goldsmith, when working with clients, also insists they bring colleagues into the equation. He isn’t paid unless those colleagues see measurable improvement. And they are invited to join in, where they can benefit, by also making a commitment to, say, listen more in meetings.

That’s an imposition on others, so I raise the idea gingerly. But maybe the more uncomfortable it is, the more likely you are to succeed.


  • What’s your Reckless Daughter, asks entrepreneur Seth Godin. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was an idiosyncratic 1977 double album by Joni Mitchell which – like Bob Dylan with electric guitar and then gospel – moved her in a direction that fans didn’t want but fulfilled her and later won plaudits. Says Mr. Godin: “Your Reckless Daughter might very well be the breakthrough you need to reach your true audience and to do the work you’re most proud to do.”
  • Talk that the current corporate approach will implode – the so-called burning platform, that everyone must leap from – doesn’t work to inspire organizational change, says leadership writer Gaurav Gupta, because it creates fear which in turn leads employees to be conservative. The burning platform appeal needs to be accompanied by assurance that a better future can be achieved through the proposed strategy (which can be a big challenge for leaders to sell).
  • After studying history and organizations for decades, management consultant Michael Wade concluded it’s very dangerous to assume that the leadership team knows what it’s doing.

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