Goodbye 2017, thank you for the lessons…

For a New Year’s resolution to stick, I have found:

  1. it needs to be meaningful (you have to visualise it clearly and really care about the outcome);
  2. you have to be able to take small realistic steps every day (so you feel like you’re making progress);
  3. you have to enjoy the process and frame it positively (the brain avoids negative/painful things);
  4. you need a back-up plan to get on track again every time you slip (because you will slip); and
  5. you need to share it with others around you to motivate you and keep you accountable.

I have really benefited from making a public New Year’s Resolution each year since 2013. I also have valued the clarity of having decided what the single most important thing is the start of the year. One improvement I’d like to make to this is to review what is the single most important thing I want get done each day, including weekends and holidays, not just centered around work goals.

The past 5 years has been the most incredible period of growth, learning and change for me. Whilst I haven’t always achieved my goals each year, I find the process of reflection invaluable. I am still working on all the resolutions from the past 5 years, whilst building on them as I go along (discovery (2013), focus (2014), sacrifice (2015), vulnerability (2016) and balance (2017)). I’ve enjoyed going back and reading my thoughts from the previous year/years to be able to see where I have moved forward and where I’m still struggling.

2017 in review

At the start of 2017 I said that “my overarching focus was going to be to experiment with daily hacks, habits, systems, routines and overrides that will help me give time and attention to my family, my health and all the things at work and outside of work that are most important in the long term”.

Having had an incredibly fulfilling and challenging year at work, I wanted to invest wholeheartedly in other important areas of my life (that were at risk of being neglected) including: Marriage, Children, Health, Family, Friendships, Charity, Learning and Spirituality.

I had defined what success would look like “at the end of the year, I want to be able to look back and know that I tried to invest passionately in each important area of my life. Whenever I fail to get it right, as no doubt I frequently will, I need to analyse, review, iterate, adapt and try again…”.

When I honestly ask myself how I’ve done against this definition of success, I have to admit defeat.

I cannot look back and say I invested in each area of life in 2017. Work was my overarching focus, effort and attention.

It’s ok. I don’t need to dress it up, or make excuses.

It wasn’t just me but a lot of my senior team also struggled with balance this year.

So, what can I learn from this failure?

I work with really smart and interesting people, together we are doing meaningful work, we have taken on some huge projects/changes, we have been learning exponentially and I get huge satisfaction from my role. It’s not hard to see why it has been so hard to walk away, to switch off and to have enough energy and enthusiasm for other areas of life.

Together, we have had an incredible year of achievement. 2017 saw a lot of firsts/big changes. We:

  1. ran our first Returnship program and hired 4 awesome senior women into our firm.
  2. designed a framework to assess new products, services and business lines, used it to approve a new pipeline of ideas.
  3. developed a 5 year business plan and outlined the KPIs for the whole firm to align their objectives to.
  4. kicked off a process to seek a long term strategic investor for the business.
  5. designed an amazing new office space and moved into 1 Angel Court.
  6. developed and launched a new brand and website.
  7. strengthened all our corporate functions, with awesome new hires that have enriched our culture.
  8. started experimenting with self-management, empowering employees to take ownership for making the firm better.
  9. prepared for and conducted our first hearing with the Competition Markets Authority.
  10. invested significantly in our technology and innovation.
  11. A few other exciting things that I can’t disclose yet!

I couldn’t understand how I finished the year feeling deflated, given how much we had achieved collectively. My colleagues were also concerned about why I was feeling this way – it was no reflection on them. I am very grateful for the amazing team of people around me, with both character and capability, which is rare to find and to be cherished.

It was only upon reflection that I realised that my disappointment was in myself, that despite all our successes, I had failed against my own goals and promises to myself and my family this year.

I knew going into the year that it was going to be a busy year ahead, but I was wary of the oft’ used narrative – “It’s just this week, this month, this project, this year… then I’ll get my life into balance…” – especially when we start new jobs, roles and projects. I’ve seen so many of my colleagues and friends struggle with this too.

Despite knowing what to do, I simply hadn’t done enough of it! I knew that “we are tempted to invest our resources in things that offer more immediate rewards and feedback like work, and that family and friends rarely shout the loudest for our attention. It will always be tempting to defer health, family and friendships, because you are busy with your career right now, but you have to invest in these long before you need them”.

Evidently it is not enough to know this, or to write it down, without cultivating the habits and making the difficult tradeoffs.

Brightspots

Whilst there were too many days when I worked for too many hours, and I was too often engrossed or exhausted to offer much creativity to other spheres of life, there were some real glimmers of hope. I find it useful to look at some of the brightspots and study them so that I can try and replicate those in 2018:

  • I had gone into 2017, knowing that I needed to carve out enough headspace, time and attention to make sure I could organise a 40th birthday celebration for my wife, the love of my life, something she’d never forget. Knowing this and scheduling it in advance meant that I was able to do this properly. This is important lesson for the future.
  • On the days when my wife/kids called me at 6pm to come home for dinner, more often than not, it was a great trigger to walk out and go home (even if there was work to finish off later at night).
  • Setting aside a day for thinking time (say each Friday, or every other week), even if it wasn’t always possible, gave me the chance to get tasks completed, think deeply, or prepare for the following week so I wouldn’t have to work over into the weekend.
  • Blocking time at the start of the day – a couple of times a week – for the gym, exercise or just thinking was really useful, otherwise I’d have meetings start from 7.15am. Managing my calendar in advance and every night, is key to communicating to my colleagues when I am and am not available.
  • Keeping a journal, the Self-Journal in particular (which I first discovered in Jan 2016), was really helpful. I wished I’d kept the discipline of it all year. It forces me to be grateful each day, to think about what the most important thing I am trying to get done, what I have learnt from the day, amongst other things.
  • Pre-booking scheduled holidays, provided quality time to read, reflect and recharge. I needed to book these regularly throughout next year.

There were some surprises that completely threw me, like my Dad’s diagnosis and subsequent operation. I was really grateful to be able to take time out from work, at short notice, to be with him for his appointments and to be by his side through this difficult process. I feel blessed that he recovered fully and our relationship is better than ever. When life throws curve balls at you, no matter how busy you are, you can and must make time.

One of the biggest changes of the year was that I fell ill and have since become intolerant to lactose, gluten and caffeine. Whilst this might not sound like a big deal, I am a real foodie, I love cheese, bread, flat whites, cakes, etc. Whilst this started off as an obstacle and curse, it has since turned into a blessing. It’s challenged some of my deepest held habits and addictions, and has shown me just how adaptable we are as human beings.

Making sense of it all

Now the four burners theory states (https://jamesclear.com/four-burners-theory) that:

“…life is filled with tradeoffs. If you want to excel in your work and in your marriage, then your friends and your health may have to suffer. If you want to be healthy and succeed as a parent, then you might be forced to dial back your career ambitions. If you divide your time equally among all four burners, you may have to accept that you will never reach your full potential in any given area.”

I’m not sure I fully agree with this view. However, it suggests that we have to live life in chapters, or seasons. For long periods of our life we have to focus on one or at the most two areas of life, if we really want to be successful in them. The challenge I have with this is seeing too many people sacrifice health, family, friendships, and other things for too long, burning those bridges and never really knowing how to go back. I also don’t believe that just giving more time to something makes you more successful at it.

I want to do this job, this role and pursue this mission for the long run, so I am determined to find a way of doing it sustainably for myself and those around me.

I still believe that making “deliberate choices each day, planning, scheduling, blocking out time, setting boundaries, managing distractions, compartmentalising, reviewing priorities daily/weekly, having an honest dialogue and creating a support network” should allow us to excel in each area of life. Maybe some days or weeks we focus on one area of another, but daily journaling, regular reflection and people to hold us accountable should stop us from getting carried away.

Looking forward to 2018

2018 is a big year: This year l turn 40. My wife and I will be celebrating 20 years of marriage. My eldest daughter becomes a teenager (between our 3 kids, we have a decade of teenager hell or heaven to look forward to depending on our mindset, how we prepare for it and approach it).

These are really significant milestones in life that I don’t want to pass me by, in the dizzying blur of work (as meaningful and satisfying as it is).

I want to begin the year with scheduled time to reflect, think, look back, plan forward, deepen relationships, be grateful and celebrate. I want to make sure my colleagues can do the same.

2018 has to be the year of recognising my strengths and weaknesses, asking for help, inviting others in, making my principles explicit and developing many other leaders around me.

My first step is going to be to write down and share my guiding principles (feeling inspired from reading Ray Dalio’s Principles).

Thank you to everyone who has supported me, pushed me and been patient with me this year – especially my wife, family, friends and colleagues.

Wishing you and yours the very best for 2018.

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