The Management Consultant's Guide to New Years Resolutions

How do you pick just one resolution for the new year? Exercise more? Save more money? Spend more time with family? The list of potential resolutions is quite overwhelming. And the thought of picking just one -- only to abandon it in February defeat -- is demotivating.

Really, I think the question "What's your resolution?" is asking something different: "What's your strategy for a better life in the new year?" And when it's posed this way, as a strategic question, it can be approached like any other strategic question. Businesspeople everywhere, rejoice!

I'm a former management consultant at McKinsey & Company. My corporate training was in tackling complicated strategic questions for some of the world's largest companies and non-profits. I think in terms of structure, analytics, and ... PowerPoint.

At McKinsey, I helped large multinational banks solve their credit risk issues at the height of the banking crisis and had advised multinational firms on org structure changes. So, it should be no wonder that a few years ago, when 2010 became 2011 and I was in my third year as a strategy consultant, I thought I could apply the same McKinsey frameworks to my new years resolutions. If anything, my new years resolution questions would be a whole lot easier to solve than any of the truly complex problems I saw at the office.

And the new plan worked. Not only did I have a better grasp of my goals in 2011, but I also was able to accomplish more of them.

Every year since, I have followed the same framework to articulate my strategic plan, if you will, for a better year. And by creating this portfolio of resolutions in PowerPoint, I'm able to send it to my friends and family, who can keep me accountable. After initially making fun of my nerdy methodology, some of them have started following my approach for themselves.


My strategic approach involves asking three questions

1) What different dimensions of my life matter the most to me and should be prioritized?

These are the broad categories of the things I worry about. I try to be as comprehensive as possible, with limited overlap between the categories. My dimensions include my physical health, my finances, my personal life, my career, and my extra-curricular passions. I think these are broadly relevant to almost anyone, but they can and should be customized. If I were retired, I'd probably have a whole section on traveling abroad. If I were a parent, I might have a section for each child. There are no right or wrong categories.

2) What are the goals I have for each of those different dimensions?

When I get to this point in the exercise, the real hard work of introspection takes place. I have to think about each dimension and the specific goals I have in each. What specifically do I want to have in my life at the end of the year that I don't have now? For example, for the career dimension, I've had the goals of "Expand network of contacts in my field", "Better educate myself about competitors", and "Perform well at my job". On the financial dimension, I've had goals like "Build an emergency fund" and "Pay off student loans".

3) What specific actions can and will I take to reach those goals?

In answering question 2, I articulate my goals. But strategic plans are about actions. Answering this third question well will result in a list of concrete activities for each goal that, if completed, will accomplish the goal. It's important I come up with activities that I can and will do. For example, a goal of "Build an emergency fund" might have the following associated actions: "Save money by packing a lunch two days a week", "Open an online savings account", and "Set up a direct deposit of $200 a month into the account". If the actions aren't specific, it's easy to ignore them.

Reflecting on the past to inform the future

I've now been constructing this new years strategy for four years. Going over strategies from earlier years is an enlightening exercise in confronting that some things won't get done, even if you do write them down. (Those books aren't getting read.) The exercise also forces me to accept what is within my control and what is not. (Job searches involve a lot of luck.) And I realize that, despite a robust plan, life will throw curveballs. (Health issues of family members can come about unexpectedly.)

In 2015, don't just make resolutions. Instead, make a strategy for a better life. Think about the most important dimensions of your life, the many goals you have, and the realistic actions you can take. And share it with friends and family - who might publicly laugh at your PowerPoint slides and then go home and do the same exercise themselves.