Before You Make New Year’s Resolutions…

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

There’s an old story about a guy who walked down the street and fell into a giant hole. He yelled for help for a long time, but no one came. Finally he managed to scratch out some notches in the wall, and with some difficulty, he clambered out.

The next day he walked down the same street and fell into the same hole. He didn’t yell very long before he remembered the notches he had scratched before. He dug them out a little more, and then climbed out much more quickly.

When he walked down that street the third day, he caught himself as he teetered on the brink of falling into the hole again. He walked gingerly around the hole and went on his way.

On the fourth day…
…he walked down a different street.

When it comes to New Year’s Resolutions or goal setting, so many of us are like that guy walking down the same street, getting the same or similar undesirable results. We don’t assess our personal landscape or examine our old behaviors to identify what works or doesn’t work for us. At best, we focus on learning how to get out of the hole a little sooner. This year, do it differently. Start by taking a personal inventory.

What to Put On Your Personal Inventory List

Lawyers are trained to look for what went wrong and who’s to blame. We develop a perfectionistic bent because we are surrounded by opposing counsel and competitors who want to magnify and capitalize on our mistakes. You probably already have a list of your shortcomings lurking in the recesses of your mind. Don’t go there yet.

Instead, start by listing your wins, accomplishments and breakthroughs. List what you are proud of, career milestones you have achieved, the killer depo you took, or the big deal you closed. Don’t stop there, however. Give yourself credit for even tiny victories. You probably upbraided yourself all year for falling off your diet by February, but forgot the compliment a client paid you in March.

Look back over your calendar, time entries, journal, Facebook posts, and anything else that will remind you of your activities and accomplishments over the past year. Review the goals you wrote down last year or five years ago. Perhaps you have achieved them by now, but never stopped to acknowledge yourself. Give yourself credit for that one time that you actually emptied your email inbox or unburied your desktop. Revel in the number of times someone said they referred your name to a potential client, even if you never heard from half of them. Celebrate the unreasonable client deadlines that you managed to meet.

Don’t forget the special moments you had with your kids or the look of appreciation from your beloved when you gave them just the right gift. Remember how pleased your spouse was when you took care of that overdue oil change or out of date inspection sticker on their car?

Capture as many of these positive moments as you can garner. Try to fill the page. Add to the list later if something else bubbles up in your memory. Consider keeping a Success File for the coming year, in which you record your accomplishments and save those complimentary emails. It will come in handy at the end of the year as you prepare for your annual review. It will also boost your ego on the days when your confidence lags, or you forget why you wanted to practice law.

Look for Patterns

Once you’ve accumulated a robust list, go back over it and look for patterns. What do your accomplishments have in common? Do things work out better when you’ve planned ahead or do you thrive under the pressure of an approaching deadline? Were you successful because you persevered? Do you achieve more when you involve others? Are you happier and more loving when you remember to take some time out for yourself? Write down what you notice.

Now that you’ve really brought back to life your wins and accomplishments, you’re ready to look at your disappointments, losses, and breakdowns. You probably will recall more than is necessary. Reviewing them in light of your wins will keep them in perspective.
After you list those disappointments, review them for any patterns, too. Are you making the same mistakes you made last year? Could some of the problems be avoided by developing some systems? Would you benefit from partnering up with someone who has different strengths from you? Do you need to learn how to ask for help before you are at risk of drowning? Write down the patterns you see that keep you from getting the results you want.

Your Pithy Mantras

Distill two or three short and pithy statements from the patterns you identified in your wins and losses. I learned this tip from Some examples of some of my clients’ statements are:

Put your own oxygen mask on first.
Ask for help.
Delegate as much as possible.
Look for other options.
How important is it?
Start early.

Post your pithy statements where you will see them often, and let them be your mantras for the next year. They’ll help you avoid falling in the same old hole again, or at least remind you how to get out more quickly.

Now you’re ready to plan your goals for the next year, with a fuller awareness of where you are, and what you are capable of. Go for it!

Reprinted with permission from the December 9, 2010, issue of  The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2010 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.  All rights reserved.

Update (12/31): For a guide on assessing this past year and  setting goals for the new year, click this link or go to our homepage.


One Response to “Before You Make New Year’s Resolutions…”

  1. Tip to Help Lawyers Be Happier & More Productive on January 10th, 2013 5:33 pm

    […] accomplishments in connection with their annual performance review.  I ask my clients to scrutinize their successes and their disappointments for the year that is ending, before setting their goals for the year to […]

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