Chuck O'Dell remembers with digital clarity the day when, as president of a division of Marriott, he stared out his window and said to another manager that he felt he'd lost his entire year.
It was only Jan. 4, but he was upset that he had not already taken the time to set career goals and resolutions for the new year.
"I felt I wasn't prepared for it. I vowed I would never let that happen again," he said.
Since that epiphany, O'Dell, once the chief executive of Sodexho Marriott Services and now president of WJM Associates, an executive coaching firm in New York, has set goals and resolutions every year well before the arrival of January.
With six children, he found that September was a good time to generate his workplace and career resolve. Once the children embarked on another school term, he could really "kick into the planning process."
He assesses the year to date -- what has been successful, what hasn't been. And he begins to write things down, such as what he hopes to accomplish in the next year and how he can be more efficient.
This is why, on that day 10 or 15 years ago, Jan. 4 seemed so late to him. He needed enough time to think, plan and replan. When he realized he hadn't reflected on the new year, he and the other manager, who was head of strategic planning, sat down for hours "and worked like crazy to catch ourselves up from the strategy and planning viewpoint."
Although many of us may not realize we are doing it, making career and workplace resolutions at this time of year is relatively common. A friend mentioned to me in passing the other day that she will start freelancing more come the first. Another mentioned she would be ready to find that new job after Christmas. And I notice many comments from readers as January approaches that they want to get more out of their careers.
When is a better time to reassess and start anew? To toss out the things that didn't work and create a challenge or two for yourself that you didn't think you had the energy for last year?
The next 365 days are a big, empty space, waiting to be filled with great things. Improved things. You may not realize it, but you probably have set some New Year's resolutions for yourself -- ones other than (1) start a new gym membership, and (2) floss more.
William J. Morin, chairman and chief executive of WJM Associates, said the holidays often bring on thoughts about resolutions. "We start looking at our lives, evaluating what we've done with our lives, what were our childhood goals. It stops us to think, 'Hmmm. Am I really happy?' "
O'Dell found that planning a new year before the old one is over is like shopping for the holidays in advance. Every year, you wish you had, but then you find yourself with just a day or two left before you have to give that perfect gift.
That Jan. 4 realization has spurred O'Dell to step back much earlier in the years since then to look at the year coming up. It gives him time to think seriously about his life and work, and how the two should intermingle successfully.
Although O'Dell's September planning deadline may seem a little early for most of us, taking the time -- any time -- to set goals and resolutions is key to many people's work life (or at least to a happy work life). It's easy to fall into the comfortable trap. You earn a decent paycheck, don't have to work too hard and really don't have to stretch. It's not easy to keep motivated in that situation. And how many of us are happy when we're comfortable but not challenged?
One career coach, Ane Powers of the White Hawk Group, said people should go through career assessments on an annual basis, just as businesses do. Then you can give yourself your own performance review: Did I meet my own personal and professional goals? What did I do to contribute to the organization?
Morin is trying to spread that good advice, too, especially as so many of his clients want to talk about their overall career and workplace situations at year's end.
He has a list of tips for those who want to think about work resolutions. To start, ask yourself if you're gaining skills. If you're not growing "and you're just in a security situation, just hanging on, it's not a good situation," he said. "One should always be working on [one's] career every day, like a physical fitness situation."
Resolving to set up a network, call on old contacts, dust off the resume or just assess how happy you are is a great way to tackle the new year, he said. "It's good to dream and good to plan."
People regard their work situations like the weather: They assume they can't do anything about it, he said. But that's simply not true. This is a good time of year to assess "how happy or unhappy you are, rather than just complain."
E-mail Amy Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org.