Successful Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions can help us exercise project management skills around a personal goal. Whether you are a CEO, a homemaker, a lawyer, or a student, good project management skills help you achieve happier outcomes.

How will you plan?

How you plan will largely determine whether you persist and achieve.

Most people choose a technique called detailed upfront planning. They plan a year or more in advance, with specific milestones delivered at specific dates, and forge ahead relentlessly, achieving success or failure by a deadline. If they miss a date, they have to make up the time somehow, usually by working harder at it. They face a bunch of risks: if they are trying to lose weight, they probably don’t know how fast they can safely lose, and whether they can maintain it. They probably don’t know whether their family will encourage or hinder their weight loss. Unpredictable events happen to all of us: they might have to move, deal with a friend’s health crisis, or find a job. Uncertainties torpedo many well-structured plans, and they can easily waylay theirs, and yours.

The best laid schemes of Mice and Men Go oft awry.

Robert Burns

The second technique, called adaptive planning, starts by setting a very general goal and then planning specific short-term sub-goals “just in time,” adapting the next goals based on experience from previous goals. Here, you thoughtfully sequence sub-goals to achieve useful outcomes related to your goal. You don’t plan a full year of sub-goals, otherwise you are planning upfront. If you are want to exercise more, you might first consider generalizing the goal to “improve my cardio health,” to give yourself greater flexibility. Then you could set a first sub-goal to “run 1 kilometer three times this week and measure my time.” The outcome of the first sub-goal can help set how far and fast to run next week in your second sub-goal. If a unexpected disruption interferes with your second sub-goal, you can substitute a different exercise, study sustainable running techniques, or measure your blood pressure. Those activities will help you with later sub-goals when the disruption is over, and they contribute to the general goal of improving cardio health.

The third technique, called no planning, waits for opportunities to fall out of the sky. Planning is easy: do nothing. You may have a bunch of goals, but prefer not decide between them all. You may have a goal so broad, such as “I want to be successful,” that you can’t figure out where to start. Or you might fear commitment or failure. Or you might like to drink whiskey and goof off all day. But even with no planning, you’ll get better results by preparing yourself to act rapidly when opportunities arise. We will talk about those techniques in this series. Laying the groundwork for opportunism is essentially a project. In many cases, it’s a great first step to success.

What works?

Adaptive planning beats detailed upfront planning in project success, based on a lot of data. In software projects, which combine the creative efforts of smart people, detailed upfront planning produces a 30% project failure rate, while adaptive planning produces a 9% failure rate. If you have worked with artists, architects, designers, or entrepreneurs, you can readily understand why upfront planning often fails: you are embarking on something you’ve never done before, and it isn’t very predictable. If you are trying to lose weight sustainably, previous efforts didn’t work, so mechanically doing what you did before is not likely to succeed. Something unexpected caused your plan to fail before, and some other unexpected thing could cause it to fail this time.

A nagging question might be, “Does no planning work?” On a personal level, many people believe operating “in the present moment” leads to greater happiness. Taken to an extreme, this philosophy might argue against college education, against taking initiative, against ambition. But a variation where we operate in the present moment most of the time, but recognize when the time is right to exploit an opportunity, could allow us to win, and win big. Don’t worry, if you don’t want to plan for a particular goal, this series will help you succeed, too.

Try it

Let’s try using adaptive planning together. I promise to help you out.

Give yourself a few days, hang out in a coffee house with some paper and a pencil, and think about the coming year. What would you like to achieve in 2021? The most common New Year’s resolutions are these:

  • lose weight
  • exercise more
  • quit smoking
  • managing debt
  • save money
  • get a better job
  • get a degree or certification
  • take a trip
  • volunteer

If you prefer no planning, let me suggest some options:

  • become happier
  • prepare to exploit unexpected opportunities
  • reduce stress
  • deepen my relationship with spouse or family


One of my pals recently shared her goals, and here’s what she wrote

What I want is to not feel overwhelmed any more, to not have a huge cloud hanging over my head, to stop holding my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What I DON’T want is to stop giving a shit, and to leave other people responsible for what I truly wanted to accomplish.

How to get there: I need to work on identifying all the commitments, prioritize them, let go of some things, and be able to make an informed decision about whether to say yes or no to new items.

I like this goal, because achieving it means my pal will be able to decide for herself what to do, instead of letting squeaky wheels and crises decide her future for her. There’s some great techniques that colleagues have developed to handle these issues.

If you’re interested in feedback, which helps tremendously when you are doing adaptive planning, please add your goals as comments to this post. I will happily provide feedback to anyone who posts their goals.

If you are interested in research related to goal-setting, you might check out

By Dan Greening

Dan Greening is a serial entrepreneur working on his fourth startup, where he leads implementation of two agile practices, Lean Startup and Scrum. Between the third and fourth startup, he was the lead agile coach for Citrix Online, Skype, Overstock, and other companies. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UCLA. He is a Certified Enterprise Coach with the Scrum Alliance, and a Scrum@Scale Trainer. He has published innovative work on agile management, parallel processing, and chaotic systems.

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