You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything

You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything

December 23, 2015

As I have been researching successful new year resolutions and talking to people about their own plans for self or business improvement in the new year, I have encountered an interesting trend. Many of the people who write or call me, folks who are enthusiastically approaching the new year and their resolutions, lots of them seem to have a laundry list of resolutions. What do I mean? Well, very few people I speak to have a single, overriding, compelling and inspiring goal. Instead, they have a list — not unlike the proverbial “honey-do” lists of lore — but instead of chores, these are lists of changes, improvements, projects, hopes and so forth.

One client wrote that she is so excited about her plan for the new year because she has been meaning to “lose 35 pounds, make much more money without working harder, travel more, have better sex and get fit”.  I had to work hard not to fall off my chair in peels of laughter; not because each and every one of these isn’t a great goal, but because doing all of them at once is a disaster in the making.  I love her inspiring energy and her drive to transform every aspect of her life.  But without honing the list, as brilliant as this particular woman is (and she is), she probably won’t succeed at any, no less all of them.


There is a great deal of research showing that we are profoundly weak, as a species, at multi-tasking.  Many of us know that, and regularly try to limit our moment-by-moment activity and focus on a single thing at once.  Hopefully you know that you cannot talk on the phone and read email, or be on a conference call (and be present) and read Facebook feeds.  I will write about this phenomenon in more depth another time.  But for the sake of this conversation, take my word that it doesn’t work (for anyone). And before you bring up Sherlock Holmes (who seemed to do this effectively) let me remind you, he is fictional, and was usually on heroin!

It turns out that the same limitation holds true for our personal operating context, not just our momentary behavior.  What do I mean by “personal operating context” (POC)?  I am using this term of art to describe the sort of general state of mind governing our days over time. Your POC dictates specific choices you make in the moment (do I have cheesecake or fruit?), your willingness and freedom to designate time (every day at 6 AM I exercise) and your over-arching navigation through the week, month or day (Farmer’s market with BFF or attend financial planning course during Wednesday half day off).  So over the course of a three month period, our POC can really only be in 2 or 3 states.  Imagine you are in a committed relationship and actively cultivate being romantic attentive and loving.  That is one element occupying your mind, intentions, and general governing orientation. It makes you set aside time for dates, plan trips together, text sweet nothings during your lunch hour and so forth.

Now add to that your commitment to your job.  You think about your work goals, attend to your office relationships, manage your client relationships and meticulously meet and exceed expectations including deadlines while anticipating the requests of your boss, following news alerts of competitors and jot down notes for tomorrow at dinner.  That is a second occupant of your POC.

I would suggest that just two more will max out your ability truly  to deliver the goods. One of those might be the big resolution goal to get fit. Or it might be a commitment to coaching your daughter’s team. Or it might be your desire to transform your business and earn more money while working less hard.  But our human brains cannot switch tracks often enough  truly to focus adequately on more than 3 or 4 significant POCs that dictate our actions, choices and time allotments.

What does this mean for the resolution plan? It means that, like every good business strategy, your resolution involves choosing something and choosing NOT something else. At least for now.  So as you plan your new year reinvention, start with the resolution that you feel is most auspicious, or compelling, or scary, or hard, or whatever — it doesn’t matter what criterion you employ.  But whatever device you use to choose one, do it, and make that THE ONE!  Bear in mind, it’s not the only one forever. But it should be the only one for January 1, 2016!

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