New Year's Resolution: Focus on the Building Blocks for Your Goals

December 29, 2019, 8:24 PM · I recently heard the international bestselling author and happiness guru Neil Pasricha define happiness as “the joy you feel while striving towards your potential.” Yes, I thought, that’s what I want. This year, my New Year’s resolution is not to get suckered into goals as the end-all, be-all. I think that setting goals, in fact, can be a risky business: goals are often so vast and amorphous that they can be overwhelming. In that case, they don’t help us put one foot in front of the other. This year, I am concentrating on building blocks. What’s the difference? Building blocks are small bits of behavior in our day to day lives that might lead to meeting a big goal later. Building blocks are small, achievable, and habitual. In short, they are what constitutes the journey, not the destination.

building blocks
Image by Hannes Grobe.

Building blocks are the yellow brick road between the now and the distant future. Building blocks are concrete, and although not easy, not too difficult either. They are worthy in and of themselves, not only because of what they allow us to achieve, but more importantly because of how they allow us to feel, i.e. the confidence they instill.

Let’s go through an exercise of translating my musical goals into building blocks.

1) Goal: I want to perform better in public (don’t we all?)

My building blocks:

Perform once a month in a variety of settings, and anything goes as far as setting is concerned. At least half of these should be in low stakes/high joy settings, such as chamber reading party or performing at a hospital. Some should be with more pressure, like playing for a musician colleague. (I have found that having a mix allows us to have more positive impressions in the memory bank which we rely on when we perform publicly. Having high stakes/low joy experiences only creates an aura of traumatic stress around performing). Also, write or speak publicly once a month, again anything goes (I find this makes performing easier, because I’m “out there” in other mediums)

2) Goal: I want to practice technique more regularly.

My building Blocks: Make technique a more attractive and interesting by aiming for a new “flavor” every week. Examples:

3) Goal: I want to have a more regular practice schedule.

My building blocks: First, align my schedule so that whenever possible, I can practice, at least a little bit, before noon (I have found that this makes me happy and makes it much more likely I’ll go back to it later). Second, practice at least 15 minutes a day, even if it’s at the end of the day and I missed the morning (I have found that I suffer less from the binge blues when I can stick to this small intention, and once I have started I rarely stop after 15 minutes).

4) Goal: I want to become more both more daring and more resilient.

My building blocks: Do something once a week of which I am afraid, either because I am dreading failure, or dreading the perception of failure. It can be anything, as long as I am afraid of it, and I want to write it down. (By doing this I am working on challenging my beliefs and exercising my resilience musculature). Also, whenever I am frustrated by what I can’t do, write down what I can’t do, then add the word “yet”, as in “I can’t play my octaves YET”.

How might you create little building blocks for all the goals you are tempted to set as New Year’s Resolution? Improvise a list of activities that might help you get from the here and now to your goal. When you are working on a building blocks list, write down anything that comes to mind, and the more the merrier. Then pick a few (research shows the more you overwhelm yourself, the less likely you are to do anything….so three is better than six is better than eleven). Aim for small, achievable, and habitual. What we all need is this psychological little uplift from finishing something – that’s what a building block is when it comes right down to it.

If you are looking for some tools or inspiration for this kind of micro-work, I invite you to head to the favorites and tips sections of my website.
Happy practicing, everyone, and Happy New Year!

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December 31, 2019 at 06:12 AM · Good points Susanna.

However I would suggest that literal New Year resolutions (starting 1 January) are best avoided. They have a very high failure rate.

I usually set a modest goal, for a non-annual period, sometime in November. That way when 1 January arrives (tomorrow in fact) I have bedded it down.

Too late for this year if you haven’t done it, but you could try say, a 14 month goal beginning in mid-February.

In theory it’s the the same as a New Years resolution but psychologically it seems to succeed more often.


December 31, 2019 at 07:49 PM · I wonder if these "neuroscience-based" services that offer help for people trying to lose weight (you know the ones) would be the right kind of strategy for folks trying to practice more regularly and efficiently too. The aim there is to chop things up into really small goals. (Like the goals one's teacher is supposed to help one develop on a weekly basis, I suppose?)

January 3, 2020 at 05:25 PM · Thank you Susanna. These are such positive, helpful steps to take. You help bring the joy back into playing. :-)

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