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How have you got on with your New Year's resolutions?

by
01 February 2016, at 12:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

I STARTED the New Year with three clear resolutions: to have an alcohol-free January, to finish the book I’m writing and to make a clearer separation between my work and home life.

If I were a betting man (I learned many years ago that that was something else I wasn’t very good at!), I’d wager that most of us will have made a commitment to something similar and I can only hope you’ve done rather better at it than I have.

As I write this, we’re barely six days into 2016 and I’ve already had a drink on two nights in the very first week. Not only that but the gentler side of Management caught me answering e-mails on my phone last night when we were supposed to be enjoying a rare and precious evening in together and, to cap it all, I’ve been having some doubts about the work I’ve already done on the book.

I suppose 100% is at least numerically a good score even if it represents abject failure! Making a commitment to a number of resolutions to herald the optimism of a new year is an age-old tradition dating back to the Babylonians who made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and repay their debts.

Perhaps their gods were less benign than our own as we appear still to be here while ancient Babylon is now fairly ancient, but the custom has roots in many religious faiths – in Judaism, Rosh Hashanar culminates in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) where one is supposed to reflect on one’s wrongdoings and to seek forgiveness, while the Christian season of Lent causes us to reflect on our responsibility to others through a measure of sacrifice and, whatever one’s creed, the concept of making resolutions annually is a part of the process of seeking self-improvement.

Whether formally, by signing up to a shared campaign, or informally and secretly, most of us will make such a resolution – maybe to stop smoking, cut back on drinking, lose weight or simply to try harder at something important to us or our loved ones – but statistics suggest that only 10% of us will succeed even though more than 50% of us will be con dent of success at the outset.

Intriguingly, men found it easier to be successful if they declared specific goals rather than something more enveloping like “losing weight” while women were more successful if they shared their goals publicly and got support from friends. 

Maybe that’s not so surprising as men are, in general, far less likely to share personal details with friends for reasons associated with maintaining the stereotypical male persona while women often seek the cohesion afforded by being part of an informal group.

For all of us, psychologists have found that dividing up any resolution to change behaviour into smaller, manageable goals or units which are both measurable and time-based increases the chances of success.

Leaving any extended decision to the simple controls of willpower and aspiration greatly increases the opportunity for failure and, as most of us already know to our cost, fantasising about success achieves very little.

A recent online posting from the NHS suggests that certain tricks can help increase our chances of success and, while some of these seem blindingly obvious, I have to recognise that they were similarly obvious last year and I didn’t do that well then either.

Secrets of success

Choosing just one resolution allows us to focus more efficiently on achieving our goals and breaking up these goals into small, measurable steps greatly increases our chances of success.

Intriguingly, allowing ourselves a small reward when we achieve each goal is also considered to be helpful but, allowing myself a small glass of 15-year-old Balvenie each time I manage a week without having a drink seems to me somewhat counter- productive.

All this is well and good in the throes of everyday life and, to be honest, I’d have some difficulty choosing just one goal for self-improvement but the best bit of advice that I’ve read recently is to avoid previous resolutions where I’ve already failed and to find something new to focus on.

That got me thinking about what might be a suitable resolution for us to make in a work context. Someone of a more cynical bent might observe that members of this profession feel happiest when they can embark on some programme of academic self- improvement and, traditionally, when up against it, most veterinary surgeons take comfort in seeking an incremental qualification or achieving a new and rewarding skill.

However, our world is full of veterinary practices where there are several valuable pieces of kit that no one really knows how to operate properly and while mastering a do-it- yourself cryothermy kit or achieving a qualification in advanced understanding of the tga1 DNA sequence may do wonders for our own self-esteem, it may do little for our chances of developing our own veterinary businesses.

If we look at data from the US, the market for pet medications is experiencing some considerable activity with generic versions of long-term veterinary favourite products becoming more widely available both in retail outlets and online and nothing suggests that we will experience anything different here.

Indeed, 2016 will see the opening of several new veterinary practices as major corporate groups continue to develop but the increased number of veterinary practices which we are already seeing has not been matched by similar increases in active clients, active patients or a commensurate increase in average annual turnover.

If we are to make one business resolution this year, I would suggest that it should be to grasp the nettle and make far more effort to understand our consumer base and to increase our opportunities to directly interact with clients old and new.

If we want to find out what they want, what’s important to them and what would keep them coming back to us for more than emergency treatment, there is no alternative way to do that without a far greater degree of direct engagement.

If we tell ourselves we already know that and don’t need to up our game, perhaps the 2015 growth in internet and pet retail business is trying to tell us otherwise.

Now where did I put that bottle of single malt?