Welcoming 2016, New Year’s resolutions and achieving your goals

As we approach the start of 2016 I have been reminded that I began to set up this blog two years ago and got no further than the introductory page. I have been meaning to get started but I guess life just got in the way. Or did it? I have been thinking about how people make grand statements of intent around about this time of year and then often fail to deliver. I have been wondering why so many people set themselves goals which they fail to achieve and whether or not there is a better way of achieving one’s goals and ambitions during the year.

It is not just the idea that I started a blog and didn’t really get cracking that has me puzzling over this. As a careers adviser I was often responsible for asking young people to commit their intentions to paper in a ‘career action plan’ in the belief that if they did this and had something to refer back to then it might help them become effective career planners. Recently I have wondered if that is really the most useful way of helping young people to achieve their aspirations. I have wondered whether or not young people’s career action plans go the same way as so many people’s New Year’s resolutions.

Where does the idea of New Year’s resolutions come from?

The idea of making a promise at the start of the year is ancient. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. Many religions have customs, festivals or ceremonies which involve a period of reflection such as the period of Lent before Easter in the Christian calendar and there are other religious parallels. However, whatever the creed, the idea is to undertake a period of self-reflection and self-improvement annually.

How to make successful New Year’s resolutions

The NHS has created webpages with helpful guidance on achieving New Year’s resolutions. It notes that only 10% of people achieve their resolutions and signposts research and recommendations to make achieving a healthier lifestyle more achievable. It notes work by Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire who has undertaken research into motivation and making and sustaining life changes. Wiseman’s research reveals that having a plan and managing and reducing procrastination are routes to successfully making changes (Wiseman 2009). More recently Wiseman (2013) suggests ten tips for making successful New Year’s resolutions.

1. Make only one resolution. Your chances of success are greater when you channel energy into changing just one aspect of your behaviour.

2. Don’t wait until New Year’s Eve to think about your resolution and instead take some time out a few days before and reflect upon what you really want to achieve.

3. Avoid previous resolutions. Deciding to revisit a past resolution sets you up for frustration and disappointment.

4. Don’t run with the crowd and go with the usual resolutions. Instead think about what you really want out of life.

5. Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable and time-based.

6. Tell your friends and family about your goals. You’re more likely to get support and want to avoid failure.

7. Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.

8. Give yourself a small reward whenever you achieve a sub-goal, thus maintaining motivation and a sense of progress.

9. Make your plans and progress concrete by keeping a handwritten journal, completing a computer spreadsheet or covering a notice board with graphs or pictures.

10. Expect to revert to your old habits from time to time. Treat any failure as a temporary setback rather than a reason to give up altogether.

Wiseman has created a simple quiz which will help you to discover whether or not your approach to making and keeping New Year’s resolutions will be successful. Here is the link if you want to try this. http://www.richardwiseman.com/resolutions

Do these tips work when applied to achieving career goals?

Career action planning and developing a career plan has been an approach to effective career development advocated by policy makers for many years. An action plan is a review and target-setting document summarising an individual’s plans in relation to personal, academic and career development and listing the steps the individual intends to take to fulfil those plans (DfEE 1996). The notion of a career action plan is not dissimilar to some of the approaches to New Year’s resolutions advocated by Wiseman (2009): focus on one goal, break it down into small steps and commit it to writing so that it can be referred to. The UK’s National Career Service website advocates career planning. The website notes that ‘a plan helps you focus on what you should do when thinking about a new career. It also helps if you would like to progress in the career you are in.’ It also suggests that planning ‘takes time and careful consideration’ in much the same way that Wiseman suggests that one should not wait until the last minute to make New Year’s resolutions. The National Career Service website even has a handy action planning tool which can help people get started. The template is a tick box activity which takes people through a systemised approach to committing to change and setting targets and goals to implement the goal.

Is creating a career action plan the most effective way for all people to achieve their career goals?

Research by Hodkinson and Sparkes (1993) noted that young people make career decisions in different ways and that the formalised, technically rational career action planning processes can be discordant with the approaches to career decision making regularly used by many of the young people in their research sample. The technically rational approach to career planning assumes that young people’s career decisions are sequential, context free and based on having reviewed all information available. The approach is based on a traditional model of career decision making which assumes a simplistic approach to matching skills and attributes to available opportunities. The technically rational approach to career planning results in a formulaic action plan which often serves the needs of others as a monitoring tool rather than the career development needs of young people.

Borgen and Maglio (2007) noted the complexities of career action planning, stating that the process is many layered and serving many purposes often in conflict depending on the function and ownership of the plan. They describe three approaches to career decision making including the more traditional approach of matching (Parsons 1909) a more developmental approach (Super 1990) and the more pragmatic and responsive approach described by Mitchel and Krumboltz (1996). All three theories suggest a level of rationality however they vary in the extent and timing of the use of information and are different in the extent to which they espouse a sequential approach to career decision making. The matching model assumes that career action planning is a one off activity in response to the need to achieve a specific career goal. Developmentalism suggests that career action planning is an activity which needs to be repeated regularly as an individual’s career needs change in response to life changes. Krumboltz model suggests that career planners need to have an approach to effecting career decisions which are responsive to changing circumstances outside their control. For each of these models, the role or purpose of a formalised, recorded career action plan is different. Where a career decision is based on a model of matching, a one off plan might be helpful in achieving the career goal. As career decisions become more complex and grounded in changing contexts and influences the extent to which a formal plan is helpful in isolation is less clear. Career decisions viewed through the lens of developmentalisim could be useful at each stage of an individual’s life journey however would be more useful if built into a guidance system which allows a level of reflection, self-review and forward planning. Mitchel and Krumboltz suggest that an individual needs to be responsive to circumstances the skills to set down an action plan skills as a part of a toolkit of career management skills is possibly helpful to achieve short term goals.

Pryor and Bright’s work on the Chaos Theory of Careers (2003) notes that career trajectories are complex, chaotic, non-linear and often unplanned in response to the ever changing context in which individuals enact their lives. The theory underlines the limitations of human control and knowledge. Bright & Pryor (2011) note that an individual’s career development is the ‘interaction of one complex dynamical system (the person) with a series of more or less generalised other complex dynamical systems including other individuals, organisations, cultures, legislations and social contexts.’ The implications for those developing career management skills is to develop responsive rational approaches which take account of the predictable whilst at the same time developing the skills to reflect on, use and adapt to unplanned life and career events. In this case to have the skills to set down a short term plan would be helpful. The plan might have a different content however and not focus on a specific career goal but rather the need to develop the skills required to be a flexible career manager operating in a dynamic system.

Bimrose and Barnes (2007) identified four types of career decision maker. The role and purpose of a fomailsed career action plan each of the first three is clear. Evaluative careerists focus on learning about themselves, their needs and what the consequences may be for the decisions they make. Their approach is grounded in a confidence about their skills and abilities and adopts a self-reflective approach to decision making. Career action planning for this group would ensure that all aspects of a making and implementing a career decision are considered in a systematic way. The plan would need to be part of a process of review and reflection rather than a one-off activity. Strategic careerists adopt a rational approach to decision making focusing on analysis, synthesis of ideas, advantages and disadvantages of options and are very goal orientated. Information is an important resource for this group in supporting them in making career decisions. A career action plan for this group would allow a systematic review of all relevant information in the context of specific goals. The notion of breaking down goals into separate focussed steps would be very appealing approach but again would need to be part of a cycle of planning and review. Aspirational careerists focus on distant goals and make career decisions based on current expediency while they pursue a longer term career aspiration. A career action plan for this group might be focussed on the long term goal however short term and expedient career decisions might form part of a stepped approach for example taking less desirable jobs to gain the resources required to support study.

The final type of career decision maker, the opportunity careerists utilise a planned happenstance approach (Mitchel and Krumboltz 1996) whereby opportunities which present themselves are exploited rather than proactively being sought out. This group demonstrates an intuitive approach to decision making and are comfortable with uncertainty. A career action plan for this group is less likely to have impact as a means of achieving a career goal given that this group are more responsive to opportunities as they arise. That being said, planning for this group could be a useful strategy as it could help them to maximise the available opportunities through a process of planning.

Research conducted by Borgen and Maglio (2007) finds that there are a number of facilitators of successfully implementing career action plans. These are support; financial resources; goal focus; and determination, seriousness, and motivation. These conditions align with the hints and tips set out by Wiseman (2013) who advocates the sharing of goals with friends and family members who will then offer support. Whilst he does not offer insights into financial resources he does consider the need for focus, commitment and the reviewing of plans.

It would seem that developing a rational, technical, one off career action plan is not an effective approach to supporting all career planners. What is required is an approach which is responsive to different decision making approaches. When used as part of an ongoing ‘plan, do and review cycle’ the production of a career action plan is more likely to have positive impacts for career planners. Where used as a means of monitoring individuals or where there is little ownership by a career planner, a one off career action plan is likely to be less effective. In a policy environment where the support for young people’s career planning lacks coherence and continuity there remains a problem with providing ongoing support for young people’s career planning particularly as for many a career action plan will only be effective if it is part of an ongoing process of review such as through a programme of career guidance.

Teaching planning rather than writing plans?

A career action plan would seem to have relevance for most types of career decision makers whatever their influences and contexts but the role purpose and process will differ. For some it will be a one-off activity but for others it will be a regular and repeated process, much the same as the making of New Year’s resolutions. What Wisemans research shows us is that aspiration by itself is unhelpful in that it usually results in failure. His research suggests that people can learn to be more effective in making changes in their lives by applying some simple rules to setting down, sharing and reviewing plans which are stepped, realistic and achievable.

Whan Marko and Savikas (1998) note the relevance of the perspective of time in developing a career construct. They note that the ability to conceive as having a career requires the linking of a remembered past and an experienced present to an anticipated future. This would suggest a process of learning which could be educated. In presenting the ‘career learning theory’, Law (1992, 2010) notes that career development can be educated. Law suggests that a programme which builds a cycle or cycles of learning, developing from sensing through sifting and focusing to understanding, will equip a person with an educated repertoire of capacities to support career-development actions. It is useful to note that as part of the new ‘Framework for careers, employability and enterprise education 7-19’ (CDI 2015) the CDI has included the need to learn the knowledge and skills to make plans in both predictable and unpredictable contexts.

‘Individuals need to know how to get information, clarify values and preferences, identify alternatives, weigh up influences and advice, solve problems, review decisions and make plans. It also involves being able to cope with chance events and unintended consequence.’
CDI 2015

So in conclusion

New Year’s resolutions and career action plans can be a useful way of making changes. Repeated failure can lead to demotivation but by taking some sensible steps failure can be turned into success. Teaching people how to plan is an important way of helping them achieve their goals in life. Creating and reviewing plans are life skills but people need to understand their preferred approaches and where planning and plans fir with their own ways of organising their lives. A prescriptive one-size fits all approach will be unhelpful for many and may result in failure and demotivation for some. An engaging and empowering approach to planning which reflects individual needs and approaches is more likely to produce effective life managers.

Practicing what I preach?

2016 is for me ‘year of words’. In practice this will mean:

• Maintaining my blog (12 thought pieces like this one);
• Writing a song;
• Developing and writing my shared family cookbook;
• Editing my dad’s Bestwood Iron and Coal book; and
• Writing work which will contribute to a PhD.

So I have been thinking about this for at least 8 weeks;
It is a new set of ideas;
I have written it down;
It is SMART;
I have shared it;

I think I will busy!


Bimrose, J, & Barnes, S (2007). Styles of Career Decision-making. Australian Journal Of Career Development, 16, 2, p. 20. Viewed 31 December 2015.

Borgen, W, & Maglio, A (2007). ‘Putting action back into action planning: experiences of career clients’, Journal Of Employment Counseling, 4, p. 173. Viewed 31 December 2015.

Career Development Institute (2015). Framework for careers, employability and enterprise education 7-19. Stourbridge.

Department for Education and Employment (1996). Effective Action Planning. London. HMSO

Hodkinson, P, & Sparkes, A. (1993), Young people’s career choices and careers guidance action planning: A case-study of training credits in action. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 21, 3, pp. 246-261, PsycINFO, EBSCOhost, viewed 31 December 2015.

Law, B. (1992). Career-learning theory. In A G Watts, Bill Law, John Killeen, Jennifer M Kidd and Ruth Hawthorn. Rethinking Careers Education and Guidance – Theory, Policy and Practice. London: Routledge

Mitchell, L. K., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1996). Krumboltz’s learning theory of career choice and counseling. In D. Brown, L. Brooks, & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development (3rd ed., pp. 233-280). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Pryor, R. G. L., & Bright, J. E. H. (2003a). The Chaos Theory of Careers. Australian Journal of Career Development, 12, 12–20.

Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In D. Brown & L. Brooks (Eds.), Career choice and development: Applying contemporary theories to practice (2nd ed., pp.197-261). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Wham Marko, K. & Savikas, M. (1998). Effectiveness of a Career Time Perpsective Intervention. Journal of Vocational Behaviour. Vol 52, Issue 1. 1998. Pages 106-119.

Wiseman, R. (2009). 59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot. London. Macmillan.