Editor’s Note: This article is from the Winter, 2023 edition of Chief Executive magazine. Learn more and subscribe >
Eat right. Exercise more. Nail the big project. Motivate the team. Whatever you’ve got on your resolution list for 2023 is great. But, if you’re anything like the rest of humanity, you know that many, if not all, of your big goals will soon melt away in the face of the endless tradeoffs and surprises that tend to dominate our actual lives.
And that’s okay, says economist and former McKinsey partner Caroline Webb, the author of How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavior Science to Transform Your Working Life (Currency, 2016). In life as in business, there’s nothing wrong with starting what psychologists call a “mental accounting period,” resolving anew to do better in the year ahead.
“New Year’s resolutions have got a bit of a bad rap because so often what we focus on is the fact that we don’t follow through on them,” she says. “We should be kinder to ourselves and recognize that setting any kind of intention is a useful thing to do.”
Still, Webb, who coaches many CEOs and other senior leaders, stresses that if you want to have a good year, or at least a better year, it’s essential to focus on a few vital areas—some of which may seem counterintuitive at first—that can have an oversized impact on your day-to-day wellbeing and performance.
Set Better Goals
One of the most important is how you construct the goals themselves, says Webb. That doesn’t mean thinking small. By all means, she says, set lofty goals, “but boil it down to something really practical that you can measure yourself or notice yourself doing every day, every week, but something that’s tangible, that’s a first step.”
Why? Research suggests that your brain’s reward system will give you a spike of motiving chemical pleasure from achieving your goals, but not achieving them does the opposite.
Also, avoid creating too many goals. “We are so stretched already that adding more goals to the list of things that you want to do with the coming year can make you feel really tired,” she says. “Pick one thing in the professional domain. Pick one thing that’s in the personal domain. Work on those. Be kind to yourself, and recognize that even trying to make progress is worthy.”
Every executive’s life has a number of built-in paradoxes of leadership, “this very vivid sense of being pulled in different directions,” says Web. Short term versus long term. Working on versus working in the business. Family versus the office. “These things, day on day make leaders feel quite stretched and pulled in different directions.”
Start your year by listing these tensions and labeling where you think you fall on each continuum. Then, she says, reflect on how you feel about where you are on each. Might you want to change the balance? If so, what is one thing that could take you in that direction?
“Don’t beat yourself up,” says Webb. The point here is just to step back and be more intentional about all the stresses you face and put some thought into how you might move to the middle on each—or at least be more okay with wherever you are.
Connect With Others
One underrated reason why Webb thinks so many CEOs want everybody back in the office is that they’re lonely. “I think this is a year when leaders are going to need to look after themselves so that they have the stamina, the mental, emotional, physical stamina to get through the year,” says Webb. “One thing that doesn’t get talked about an awful lot is the loneliness of senior executives.”
Here again, Webb stresses setting realistic goals. Focus on deepening one friendship, for example, where you don’t have to “be the boss” and can talk openly and candidly. She’s a big believer in professional peer networks as a way of cultivating new relationships in a structured way.
When it comes to friendships, “you’ve got to be deliberate about that as a leader because it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be chased out. And it’s absolutely essential in helping you get the space you need to in order to process a lot of what’s going on.”
Focus On Certainties
Many CEOs Webb talks with are struggling to deal with all the uncertainty in the year ahead. Her advice: Rather than try and manage uncertainty, manage the certainty first. Look at all the knowables in a situation and focus on how you can try and amplify them. The more you can manage what you know for sure—facts, processes, timing, strategic priorities, your attitude—the better off you’ll be.
“This will really help you do your clearest best thinking about the things that are uncertain and are nebulous and hard to wrap your arms around,” she says. “If you do this with your colleagues, it’s going to help them stay centered as they navigate uncertain waters.”
Retake Some Time
There’s no question that since Covid, many executives are seeing traditional boundaries fall by the wayside. Webb suggests working with your executive assistant to audit the last month or two of your calendar. Where did you really spend your time? Was it how you intended? Did you need to be in all those meetings? Recommit to boundaries and enforce them. Turn your one-hour meetings into 45 minute meetings and half-hour meetings into 15 minutes.
But to really find the time to be more effective, you’re going to need to do more than master Outlook. You’re going to need to focus on doing the work only you can do and delegating the rest. Most executives Webb knows tend to—despite decades of counseling to the contrary—still try and do all the work that they know they are the best on the team at doing. “The logical conclusion of that is you do everybody’s job,” she says. “Clearly you can’t.”
Make Room for…You
Finally, it’s essential that you make room in your life—no matter your schedule—for the things that give you energy and vitality. Sleep is on top of that list. “Running even slightly short of sleep hits your ability to solve problems, stay focused and remain centered in the face of provocations,” says Webb. “Getting even slightly better sleep makes it far easier to be our best selves, intellectually and emotionally.”
Creating a sleep routine—making sure that we’re getting at least seven hours a night—is perhaps the single most important tool you can deploy to make better decisions, think more clearly and avoid errors in judgement.
The other priority is joy. She stresses that no matter what your schedule, you must make the time to do something that gives you pleasure every week. How do you know you’re failing here? Over time you will find yourself depleted in subtle ways that show up as increased irritability and decreased tolerance for things not going as you hope.
“We can push through anything to a degree,” she says. “But everything just becomes harder.” And that’s no way to spend a year—or a lifetime.