By Clare Flynn Levy  |  17 January 2017

How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions?

Your answer to that question says a lot about how you approach self-improvement, whether in your work or personal life.

Now that we’re two weeks into the year, it’s been pointed out to me that New Year’s resolutions are “over”. The academic research on self-change supports that, insofar as it shows that:

25% of resolutions are given up within the first week, and, on average, people make the same resolution 10 years in a row without success.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to improve.

At the end of 2016, I asked a small number of thoughtful investors what one aspect of how they work they would like to change in 2017.

Their answers were varied, and there were plenty to do with improved investment decision-making (our area of expertise at Essentia). But there was one clear recurring theme which can be paraphrased as:

“I want to be more focused on fewer things.”

We’ve all read about, and in many cases, experienced fleetingly, the benefits of taking time to focus deeply on one thing that really matters. It makes sense that we want to find ways to do more of this on an ongoing basis.

And yet, we could have (and may well have) made the same resolutions at the start of 2016, and the start of 2015, and every year that came before it – and we didn’t actually follow through.

Why not?

I have some theories. One is that when we structure our resolutions as rules, rather than iterative processes, many of us are doomed to break them.

As Gretchen Rubin’s research on habit-forming points out, there are some people who respond well to rules at face value, whilst there are others who need more than that to make them change their behavior. I know I’m the latter, and I suspect the same can be said of most senior finance professionals.

One reason for that might be because our resolutions err on the side of radical. No matter what our “habit nature” (to steal a phrase from Rubin), our brains are universally wired to resist radical change. Radical change evokes fear, which causes us to start sabotaging our chances of success.

We’ve explored before how, in a work context, it can be difficult for senior managers trying to implement change within a team; there are virtues in starting out with the smallest possible change we can make in aid of our goal, measuring the impact of that change, reflecting on the data on that impact, and iterating. In other words, applying the concept of Kaizen.

In the same way – and at a personal level – treating your resolution as an iterative process toward a goal (and perhaps abandoning the word “resolution” altogether), has a whole different vibe.

In an iterative process, you know going in that the first version is probably not the ultimate solution. And in an iterative process, failure is a learning experience, not a humiliation.

When it comes to the goal of being “more focused on fewer things,” there are a lot of ideas out there worth considering for that smallest starting point – this podcast interview with “The Organized Mind” author Dr. Daniel Levitin contains some useful ideas.

But there’s one behavior that I can vouch for personally, and that I have observed works for Essentia’s portfolio manager clients, too:

2 minutes of daily reflection

Reflection is both the most underrated and the most valuable part of any learning process. Academic research, such as the 2015 study by DiStefano et al, supports the theory that people and organisations with reflection built into their processes get better results:

“…individuals who are given time to articulate and codify their experience with a task improve their performance significantly more than those who are given the same amount of time to accumulate additional experience in the task.”

But DiStefano et al also found that when given the choice, between using time to just gain more experience with the task and using it to reflect, we largely prefer “doing” over “thinking.” Reflection isn’t our natural preference.

Are you capable of taking two minutes a day to ask yourself a few specific questions about how you’ve spent your time, what you’ve achieved, what you’ve decided, and what’s frustrating you?

If you already keep a journal and ask yourself similar questions when writing in it, great. If you don’t, it’s easier to get in the habit than you think.

While the act of asking yourself the questions that matter to you is useful in itself, as a behavioral analytics specialist, I of course recommend capturing a time series of data on the answers, ideally in a structured form.

And as someone with zero faith in my own ability to remember to do anything new of my own volition, I highly recommend using technology to remind you to answer the questions each day, at a time when you typically check your messages anyway. If you need help with this, just ask us – it’s part of the service we provide our clients at Essentia.

Once you start capturing that data, you’ve got a massive head start on achieving your goal. As the management gurus say, “what gets measured, gets done.” That works just as well for the individual level, where you’re the only one who sees the measurement, as it does at an organisational level.

After a while (I recommend once a quarter), it’s worth reflecting on your reflection – ie. looking for patterns in the answers to your daily questions, and considering whether you feel that the process of reflection is actually helping you to be more focused on fewer things.

In my experience, it definitely has, but it’s taken a couple of iterations on the questions I ask myself and the time of day I ask – and I expect the iteration to continue.

The good news, according to DiStefano et al, is that those who succeed in keeping their resolutions usually do so after five or six annual broken promises.

So if you’ve made (and already broken) your resolutions for 2017, don’t give up – there’s hope for you yet.