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5 Agile Ways to Achieve your New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are a tradition: Many of us make them, many scoff at them. They actually improve your chances for behavior change, but many people still fail to stick to their resolutions. Whether you have already written a set of 2015 resolutions, or are just starting now, this article will show you how agile practices, now used frequently with project teams, can help you, as an individual, achieve your resolutions.

Writing resolutions improves your behavior change success rate by a factor of ten. Scranton University researchers found 40% of adults planned to create a New Years resolution (resolvers), 31% wanted to change a behavior but were not planning to make a resolution (non-resolvers), and 30% could not think of a behavior they wanted to change. Six months into the year, 46% of resolvers remained on track to achieve their resolution, while only 4% of non-resolvers did. In other words, New Years resolution plans were 10 times as effective in helping people change, over a simple desire to change.

Though resolutions correlate with success, the long-term success rate of resolutions is well below 50%. Perhaps we can use recent advances in software project management to get that success rate higher. Traditional software development efforts last one to two years and are managed by planning everything up front with what are called “waterfall” management practices. According to the Standish Group, the failure rate for waterfall projects from 2002 to 2011 was 29%. The costs for these failures can be measured in billions of dollars wasted. Agile management practices, which introduce frequent inspection and adaptation, have succeeded in reducing project failures to about 9%.

Only 19% of resolvers were able to maintain their resolved change after a two-year period. Is it because most New Year’s resolutions are like waterfall software projects, with a one-year timeline attached? Agile management advocates, like me, would argue yes. What can we apply from agile management to help us achieve our goals?

1. Resolve to help others

Craft every resolution as something you do to help someone else, because it will make you happier. We gain happiness when our goals serve others, according to research from the University of Wisconsin. By identifying an external beneficiary, we gain a more complete perspective. We should understand the 3 W’s: who, what and why. Who does my improvement benefit (other than me)? What new thing can they do because I improved? Why does it benefit them?

Many people have a tough time crafting “other centered” resolutions. It should be easy: humans are social animals, and virtually everything we do revolves around social approval. Let’s try it with “exercise more.” Who is an external beneficiary for this? If you have a family, your improved health gives them a more stable income, fewer times taking care of you when you are sick, and less time lifting you out of a bad mood. A romantic partner might become happier (and more amorous) around you. If you invite friends to come exercise with you, they gain health improvements. So here’s an other-centered resolution for “exercise more”:

  As a friend of <yours>,
    I get involved in more outdoor and aquatic sports with <you> and enjoy being around <you>,
    so I’m happier, healthier and having more fun.

Agilists will recognize this as a “user story”. The “user” in this case is not someone who uses a product feature, but someone who uses you. It’s unusual to think of things that are good for us as things that are done for others, but to change your attitude, queue up Bill Withers, who sang, “If it feels this good getting used, oh, you just keep on using me... ‘til you use me up!"

Exercise: Try it now. Pick one of your goals for 2015, and write it as an other-centered user story. Think about how it forces you to think about others, and how it motivates you differently. Craft your goals as contributions to others to lift your mood while you pursue your goal.

2. Measure what matters

“What gets measured gets managed.” —Peter Drucker.

Some goals lend themselves to measurement, such as “lose 50 pounds," while others seem to defy it, such as “be a better father.” But according to decision analyst Douglas Hubbard, virtually everything worth achieving has a measurement that reflects its value, even if partially completed.

You can capture your goals as objectively measurable completion tests that drive progress over time. So if your goal is to lose 50 pounds in 2015, you can express a verifiable test, such as, “lost at least 1 pound per week."

A couple of years ago, I resolved to reduce the amount of stuff we owned. Owning unimportant stuff made it hard to find important stuff, reduced our mobility, and cost us money in the form of a rented storage shed. The goal became

  As a family member,
    I can easily find stuff I need at home,
    so I don’t waste time finding things, I can travel more easily, and I pay less in storage fees.

  Completion Tests

  • The amount of exposed floor space in the garage has increased by at least 2 square feet per week
  • A car has been parked in the garage at least once
  • We stopped paying storage fees

Notice how the completion tests become more stringent with each bullet? That’s by design, to focus our attention first on items that can be measured and achieved early. Even the partial completion of the first bullet would be a win.

Notice that someone else can objectively assess whether we achieved each item? By forcing ourselves to choose an objective metric, we avoid problems of interpretation. Some may assert that “a car has been parked in the garage at least once” is not an objective metric. In fact, it’s a binary metric: it either happened or it didn’t. I suggest that your first completion test, at least, be a progressive metric.

Exercise: Try it now. Pick a goal for 2015 and write a set of completion tests based on objective measurement. Consider if you make progress: would your completion tests show that? If only some of your completion tests pass by the end of the year, would you be better off? Could someone else verify your completion tests?

3. Set achievable goals

Make your goals challenging but achievable. Lean product development expert Don Reinertsen argues you gain the most information from efforts that fail about 50% of the time (but to learn, you must objectively explore what happened). Your efforts should generate more value (including learning from failure) than they cost.

To create achievable goals, it helps to reflect on your previous success rate. How did you do in the past? If you can’t remember, you can extrapolate from the Scranton University results, and find that on average a person succeeds in maintaining a New Year’s resolution between 19% and 46% of the time over a one year period, much lower than the desired 50% success rate.

Your resolutions will be more likely to succeed if they require only your efforts. I decided “We stopped paying storage fees” might not be achievable, because a lot of stuff in our storage shed wasn’t mine, requiring the agreement of other family members. So I took it out of my final resolution.

Exercise: Try it now. Pick a goal for 2015 and contemplate seriously whether you have at least a 50% chance of achieving it, based on past experience. If not, consider how you might improve your odds.

4. Focus on important stuff

You don’t have to have just one resolution: people have 1.8 on average. However, if you want to achieve success, keep the number of resolutions few and related. The top three resolutions people tend to choose—weight loss, exercise and smoking cessation—happen to be highly related: they all improve health and longevity. Consider how you can connect your goals. Body builders, for example, combine controlled eating with weight training to build muscle and reduce fat. However, in combining them you may move weight from fat to muscle. Should your completion tests emphasize waist measurement or body fat percentage instead of weight?

To identify candidate goals, consider brainstorming—writing down every goal you can think of—then organizing them into a backlog, an ordered list of work items. Every work item has a value (to you and your “users”) and a cost (the effort and time you must invest). You can think of value divided by effort as “personal profit”. Good backlogs tend to put the most valuable, least difficult things at the top.

Once you’ve ordered your list, combine related goals until you have created no more than 5 to 9. This is called “chunking”. Psychologist George Miller discovered that humans can accurately compare no more than 5 to 9 things. If you have more than 5 to 9 candidate goals, it will be hard to decide between them. If you want to be safe, pick the lower number and chunk your list to 5 or less. If you are worried you might not be able to accomplish a big goal, break it up.

Throw out low-profit goals, toward the bottom of your profit-ordered list, so you can increase your likelihood of success on the most important items.

Exercise: Try it now. Make a list of your existing goals, then brainstorm other goals. Order them with the most personally profitable first. If you have fewer than 5 goals, consider breaking up your goals. If you have more than 9, chunk your goals down to 5 to 9. Then revise the ordering to reflect how chunking changed their “personal profit”. Check your ordering: If you could only accomplish one goal, would the top goal be your choice? What about the top two? If these items aren't the most profitable on your list, you should fix your backlog order.

5. Learn from feedback loops

You should review your progress periodically, at least every 4 weeks. Schedule time for this in your calendar. While you can review your own progress in isolation, you will find much more motivation if you involve others (your “users”) in your review.

Since you have written verifiable completion tests, you can ask others to verify your progress. In 2013, an overweight friend decided to lose some pounds. He asserted he wanted to do it gradually, without relying on radical efforts or fad diets. He bought an elliptical trainer, he started walking everywhere, he reduced his consumption of carbohydrates. Every week, he posted a front and side picture of himself in a bathing suit, along with his weight, his body fat percentage and his waist size. He asked people to help him continue losing weight by providing encouragement. His friends encouraged him on Facebook, and in person, to keep with his plan. He lost 86 pounds over a one year period.

Be sure to reward your friends for their feedback. If they feel partly responsible for your improvements, they will keep giving you the feedback you need. I looked forward to every post my friend made, because I thought my encouragement might help him. (And, to be honest, he inspired me to improve.)

Educator John Hattie has identified four types of feedback. Task feedback tells you how well you achieved the goal. Process feedback tells you how well you conformed to a recommended process for achieving the goal. Self-regulation feedback tells you how well you researched approaches to achieving the goal and incorporated your discoveries into your process. Personal feedback tells you how people perceive you as a person.

Different types of feedback motivate you differently. Personal feedback—such as “you are awesome” or “you are brilliant”—is negatively correlated with success. In other words, you are more likely to succeed if people never praise or criticize you as a person. Task feedback—such as “you did a good job achieving the goals” or “you didn’t quite make your goal”—improves your likelihood of success. However, process feedback—such as “It was good that you recorded all your exercises in your smart phone log” or “it’s great that you have posted your progress every week, but I noticed you missed last Friday” is much more powerful. Self-regulation feedback—such as “it looks like consulting with that weight trainer really helped improved your form” or “next week, use online searching to help guide your approach to low-carbohydrate meals”—is another very powerful form of feedback.

These feedback discoveries highlight the benefits of coaching. Coaching emphasizes process and self-regulation feedback. When you use friends to help you achieve your goals, thank them when they provide process or self-regulation feedback. In this way, you are providing effective feedback to them to be better coaches. If you hire a coach to help you achieve a personal goal—such as a weight trainer, a diet counselor, a golf pro or a psychologist—try to figure out whether they will likely provide process and self-regulation feedback. When you meet with people providing feedback, be sure to ask them about your process and your efforts to learn more about how to achieve your goals; do they have suggestions?

Exercise: Try it now. Armed with your list of candidate goals, talk to family members and friends. Would they be willing to provide feedback on a scheduled basis? Are there friends who would be especially helpful with process and self-regulation feedback? Make sure to contact them. You may find, as I often have, that the most accomplished friends are honored to provide this type of help. And finally, schedule calendar invites with them.

Bring it to fruition

Your rocket is on the launch pad. You now have a short ordered list of important and achievable goals expressed as benefits to others, a progressive set of completion tests for each goal, and a strategy for obtaining periodic feedback.

Now that you have scheduled meetings with your friends, follow through. Whether you feel good or bad about your achievements, keep your meetings with your friends. Get feedback from them to improve your process and your self-regulation.

The principles we used to create this plan are agile principles, but we relied on little agile jargon to get us here. Agile principles have led to dramatically improved software project success rates over the past 20 years and can help you with your own personal goals. If you happen to work in a company that has agile teams and apply these principles to your personal goals, you will gain intuition in working with agile teams at work that will help the company succeed.

About the Author

Daniel R. Greening, Ph.D., is Managing Director of Senex Rex, a management consultancy operating in the US and Europe. He led agile coaching at Skype and Citrix. He has trained and coached hundreds of executives and teams in agile and Scrum practices. Previously, Dan was a serial entrepreneur, statistician and computer scientist, developing the first collaborative recommendation systems for Netflix and Dan is currently researching, coaching and writing about organizational values, behaviors and structures that produce and support agility, for enterprises, executives, product managers and engineers. He can be reached at

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