What if we switched to a different personal calendar? By adopting a 12 week perspective, we might finally abandon the futile, misery-inducing notion of “work-life balance.”

'It's a way of trying to make every day count.' Illustration: Demetrios Psillos for the Guardian

‘It’s a way of trying to make every day count.’ Illustration: Demetrios Psillos for the Guardian

At this very special point in the calendar – as a new year lies waiting, full of promise, undisturbed like freshly fallen snow – I like to indulge my contrarianism by pointing out that New Year is a completely arbitrary marker, with no meaning beyond any we choose to give it. The year begins on 1 January because the Romans decided it would – and isn’t it vaguely troubling that the rhythms of your life are partly determined by men in togas who cleaned their teeth with urine? Admittedly, the length of the year is less arbitrary: one year every four seasons makes sense if you’re a farmer. But for those of us who till the fields of the modern knowledge economy – we information farmers, to use a phrase I plan to trademark and make millions from – neither the New Year nor the year-long perspective need be seen as non-negotiable. Which prompts a question: what if you switched to a different personal calendar instead?

For consultants Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, thinking of life in 365-day units isn’t merely arbitrary; it’s detrimental. A year’s too big to get your head around, they argue, and there’s too much unpredictability involved in planning for 10 or 11 months in the future. Besides, it’s awful for motivation: the New Year surge of enthusiasm fades rapidly, while the feeling of racing to the finish line – that extra burst psychologists call the “goal looms larger effect” – doesn’t kick in until autumn. We should jettison “annualized thinking”, Moran and Lennington insist. Their book’s title reveals their proposed alternative: it’s called The 12-Week Year.

Much of it consists of exercises for clarifying your vision and setting goals, the sort of self-help stuff that people love or hate (though Moran and Lennington are more down-to-earth about this than most). But it’s the basic shift in viewpoint that really matters. The idea isn’t to divide your year into quarters, but to think of each 12 weeks as a stand-alone “year” – a stretch long enough to make significant progress on a few fronts, yet short enough to stay focused. The book is clearly aimed at those who aspire to hyper-productivity: the subtitle is: “Get more done in 12 weeks than others do in 12 months.” But I don’t see why the idea shouldn’t apply to more laid-back types: it’s a way of trying to make every day count, regardless of what “count” means to you.

In adopting this 12-week perspective we might also finally abandon the futile, misery-inducing notion of “work-life balance”. Nobody can devote enough time, every week, to work, family, sleep, staying healthy and the rest. Telescope your annual focus down to 12 weeks, though, and an alternative suggests itself: seeking balance across multiple “years”, focusing on one or two areas for 12 weeks, while deliberately dialing back on others, then shifting focus for the next 12, and so on. (Neglecting something as important as your career or your health for 365 days feels unwise, but when you know you’ll return to it after 84 days, that’s different.) “Let your priorities cycle,” suggests the blogger David Cain, “so that everything that’s truly important gets to be at the centre of your life for a time.” When something’s on the back burner, leave it there, with no guilt; its time will come. Anyway, happy new year! And look sharp, because the next one’s coming in April.