How to Ask Yourself Better Questions in the New Year
I’m a bit of a professional development junkie, and at the end of every year, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should start doing -- or, for that matter, stop doing -- in the year ahead. Most people return to the same themes year after year. Entire industries are based on the common, hopeful pledges to go to the gym more often, eat healthier, spend more vacation time with family or amp up productivity at work.
But after years of making resolutions, I’ve come to realize you can dramatically enhance the quality and relevance of the promises you make if you start by analyzing the previous year, rather than immediately launching into wish-fulfillment mode (“2016 will be different!”).
Here are four questions you can ask yourself now to help identify resolutions that will actually make a difference -- and which you’ll be far more likely to keep.
What outcomes surprised you this year?
It’s true in business and in the rest of life: one of the best ways to learn is by analyzing why your predictions went wrong. You thought you’d sell 10,000 widgets, lose 25 pounds or finally learn Spanish. If those things didn’t happen -- either because you exceeded all expectations, or failed miserably -- it’s worth understanding why, so you can refine your resolutions for next year.
When I moved to New York City in 2014, I assumed it would affect my social life and possibly my business -- but not my health. So I was astonished to discover that without dieting, I lost nearly 10 pounds this year and am at my lowest weight since college. I like to walk, and living in the country’s most pedestrian-friendly city inspired inadvertent healthful behavior. That’s an unexpected benefit I plan to double down on in 2016.
What are your unique circumstances -- and how can you take advantage of them?
Everyone has certain unique advantages that, if you’re strategic, you can leverage. As I discuss in my book Stand Out, if you live near an academic research center, as technology thought leader Robert Scoble does, you can make a point of connecting with that community and staying on top of nascent trends. Or you can leverage alumni affiliations that help you build immediate rapport with others.
You can take advantage of geographic clusters by doubling down on (for instance) aerospace connections if you’re in Southern California or in finance if you’re in New York. Regardless of where you live, can you become actively involved in online communities or discussion groups, and gain unique insights from that. Ask yourself what geographic, psychographic or demographic advantages you possess, and what you can do with that opportunity.
What behavior that has been successful in the past now needs to be abandoned?
The green tech company Solar City built a successful business for years by purchasing solar panels produced by others, and then installing them. Why tie up capital creating their own expensive plant? And yet, in 2014, they decided to acquire a solar panel manufacturer and get into the game directly. Why? According to their CEO, they made the change to address “not the lay of the land today…but how we see the future developing.” We need to do the same thing in our own lives. As Marshall Goldsmith famously noted, what got you here won’t get you there.
It’s a major professional risk when we coast on "successful" behaviors too long and don’t realize they’ve become habitual and are no longer relevant to our goals. In nearly a decade of entrepreneurship, I’d never had a full-time employee; while I used contractors and various part-time helpers, I didn’t want the responsibility of managing someone every day. But earlier this year, I realized the volume of my work had increased to the point where that was no longer feasible, so I hired a full-time assistant in March. It was time for a change -- without the extra help, I’d be drowning.
What’s been giving you disproportionate pleasure or grief?
We learn the most from anomalies. Of course a wedding, a promotion or the birth of a child will be exciting. Of course a breakup, illness or professional setback will be distressing. But what’s happening in your life that provokes an outsized response, either positive or negative?
Author Ramit Sethi recently blogged about his passionate hatred of his garbage can, and the small but glaring items around his house that frustrated him, like the lack of a hook for his blow dryer and the awkward placement of his lamp. Fixing these annoyances -- which took very little time and money -- has dramatically enhanced his life satisfaction. If you can identify areas in your own life that spark major reactions, that’s likely where you can get a huge return on your investment.
For me, on the positive side of the ledger, I’m a reading fanatic -- it’s my favorite way to wake up, go to bed and procrastinate in general. So my plan for 2016 is to lean in to my proclivities and tether it to a broader goal -- becoming less one-dimensionally focused on my business. Specifically, I’m planning to read at least one book per week that has nothing to do with business, so by the end of the year, I’ll be a fount of wisdom about random and diverse subjects. Because I love reading, I know it’ll be a pleasure to undertake.
According to some estimates, nearly 50 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions. Yet, success isn’t easy -- only 46 percent report keeping up their pledges for at least six months. To increase your chances, however, it’s important to start asking the right questions. The change of a clock dial won’t erase the reasons why past resolutions failed. Instead, look to your 2015 -- what worked particularly well or badly, what surprised you and what annoyed or delighted you -- in order to create a brighter 2016.