The Ultimate Guide to Setting and Keeping Better New Year’s Resolutions
In the seven years since I have been setting New Year’s Resolutions, I have never broken one. Not once.
I set five each year, and each year, five challenges are met.
To be sure, I cut it close. Two years ago, I forced myself to run a 5K alone on the last day of the year in single digit temperatures. But I did it. And I dedicated the whole of December to training for it (this was a decidedly out-of-shape period of my life).
I take New Year’s Resolutions very seriously. They are the promises I make myself to lead the year I want to lead, and they fundamentally set the tone for almost all my big and small decisions.
But I am the exception, not the rule.
Only 8% of people keep their resolutions. 80% of people who set them drop them by February. Jokes about breaking resolutions may actually be more representative of New Year’s Eve than the ball dropping in Time’s Square or a midnight countdown.
I believe there are two core reasons for this.
First, people abandon New Year’s Resolutions because they don’t follow an intentional, focused process to set them. They don’t spend the time on introspection or reflection to reach for resolutions that are specific and challenging, but still attainable.
Second, people fail to keep New Year’s Resolutions because they set the wrong ones. For a resolution to hold, you must want the change enough to forgo the sweet, comfortable pull of inertia. Feeling like you should go for a new promotion is not the same as wanting it enough to do something about it.
As Tony Robbins says:
“Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”
To set better resolutions and then actually stick to them, follow a thoughtful process and evaluate the product objectively afterwards.
Here are all the ways I do both.
Engineering the Ultimate New Year’s Resolutions-Setting Process
Different frameworks work for different people. You absolutely need a process that helps you identify what you want to promise yourself and why, but there is no rule about how you get there.
I use five different ones — sometimes interchangeably and sometimes, like this year, all at once.
Each one takes between 30 and 60 minutes and can be done at any time. Whether you use them for resolutions or not, I find them incredibly useful for self-analysis and general goal setting.
1) The “What I Want” Matrix
I recently launched a Udemy course called the Complete Guide to Designing and Getting Your Dream Job in 2018 with my co-teacher Megan Becker. The first exercise we make our change-seekers and career transition-ers do is the “What I Want in Work Matrix.”
You can’t design your dream job, or your dream anything, if you don’t know what it is. And you can’t know what it is unless you truly know what you want.
The matrix is simple and best used for thinking about career-focused resolutions.
You fill out the first four columns as quickly as possible. Then, you start crossing out items until you are left with the five things you cannot sacrifice.
These are your non-negotiables. They can be positive or negative, about your current job or about a future job. A positive might be your current flexible work schedule that you can’t part with, and a negative might be a hypothetical high-stress office environment that you would hate.
Once you settle on your non-negotiables, look at them and think about what resolutions would help you uphold them.
For example, if my non-negotiable is vacation time, then I am going to make a specific, detailed resolution around vacation.
Instead of the standard “travel more,” my resolution might be: use the entirety of my three weeks of paid vacation time by December 31st, planning at least one trip abroad each quarter.
The more concrete and focused the resolution, the easier it is to follow through because my actionable steps are built right in.
Good resolutions answer the “how” as clearly as the “what.”
2) Journal Reflections & Bucket Lists
My favorite and most standard method for setting resolutions is also my easiest. I keep five active journals (admittedly excessive). When the end of the year comes around, I skim them for three things:
· What Happened That I Wanted
· What Didn’t Happen That I Wanted
Reading through my journals, I saw that I frequently wrote about wanting to go to Los Angeles, teach career development and content marketing classes, become an expert in talent development, and build a stronger meditation practice. These went in my “Happened” list.
Similarly, I read that I wanted to keynote a conference, learn the ukulele, perform in front of a live audience, and read Don Quixote in the original Spanish. These ended up in “Didn’t Happen.”
Finally, I read for themes across the year, documenting how often they came up. My top three themes were taking on too much responsibility across all areas of my life, really enjoying mentoring and being mentored, and deriving more joy from reading than from virtually any other activity.
Making resolutions after this reflection is simple. I look at the “Happened” bucket to see what I would want to happen again or more so. In the “Didn’t Happen” bucket, I ask whether I have a burning desire to do any of those things in the coming year.
I set resolutions that reflect my top three themes, such as “Attend one or fewer work-related events not tied to core responsibilities each month,” “Set quarterly meetings with my most helpful mentor,” and “Read the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.”
If you keep a Five-Minute Journal (which I highly recommend), you can do this same exercise by writing down the top ten things you were most grateful for most often and the top 5 things you could have done to make your day better throughout the year. Afterwards, set your resolutions around those patterns.
If you keep a Bucket List Journal, look objectively at it objectively and think through whether there are items you don’t want to do anymore, ones you have done, or ones that are screaming out to you. Build your resolutions around achieving the latter.
3) Past Year Reviews
Resolutions don’t work for everyone. As John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo point out in The Time Paradox, not everyone is future-oriented.
Tim Ferriss recently stated that he doesn’t make resolutions because “blindly looking forward” is not as “informed, valuable, and actionable” as looking backward.
Instead, Tim recommends conducting Past Year Reviews (PYRs):
1. Grab a notepad and create two columns: POSITIVE and NEGATIVE.
2. Go through your calendar from the last year, looking at every week.
3. For each week, jot down on the pad any people and activities that triggered peak positive or negative emotions for that month.
4. Once you’ve gone through the past year, look at your notepad list and ask “What 20% of each column produced the most reliable or powerful peaks?”
5. Based on the answers, take your “positive” leaders and schedule more of them in 2018. Get them on the calendar now! Book things with friends and prepay for shit now! That’s step one. Step two is to take your “negative” leaders, put “NOT-TO-DO LIST” at the top, and put them somewhere you can see them each morning for the first few weeks of 2018. These are the people and things you *know* make you miserable, so don’t put them on your calendar out of obligation, guilt, FOMO, or other nonsense.
4) “Your Ten-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life”
Before they graduate, design legend Debbie Millman has all her graduate students complete the following exercise, pioneered by Milton Glaser.
Imagine your ideal life in ten years, focusing on both big and small questions. In particular, think through:
· What does your life look like?
· What are you doing?
· Where are you living?
· Who are you living with?
· Do you have pets?
· What kind of house are you in?
· Are you in the city or are you in the country?
· What does your furniture look like?
· What is your bed like?
· What are your sheets like?
· What kind of clothes do you wear?
· What kind of hair do you have?
· Do you have children?
· Do you have a car?
· Do you have a boat?
· What are you reading?
· What are you making?
· What excites you?
· What is your health like?
As you think through these questions, take a pen and paper, and write a story about one day ten years from now from the very beginning to the very end. This day should represent the dreams you have for yourself across your life.
Her admonition is to read this story every year for ten years and see what happens. Mine is to look at that perfect life, and ask yourself what you need to do this coming year to take a step closer to it. Your answers can serve as your resolutions.
Avoiding the “Should” (and Other) Traps
A good resolution design process will help you avoid flimsy, unattainable, or even undesirable resolutions.
However, don’t underestimate the seductive power of “should.” Humans are creatures of comparison, and highly suggestible ones at that.
An unskippable YouTube commercial might subconsciously convince us that the only way to feel joy is to have regular family game nights. A high school friend’s Instagram may implant the belief that veganism is the only way to get the social acceptance (and lithe frame) we so badly desire.
But we hate game nights and would rather drown than eat seitan. So any resolutions we set around what we “should” do won’t stick. We just don’t want the change enough.
To avoid “should,” do two simple exercises.
First, follow Danielle LaPorte’s example and ask yourself not what you want to do, but how you want to feel. Do you want to feel brilliant, loved, and held by the universe? Perfect!
Then, go to step two, and ask: what has made you feel those things in the past? What makes you feel them now?
If you want to take this further, journal about why you want what you want. If you’re seriously considering that conversion to veganism, ask yourself “why” and write about it. Read what you wrote and you may find other, better resolutions buried in your reflection.
The other core mistakes people make with their resolutions are setting ones that are too broad and setting ones that don’t play to existing strengths.
I touched on too-broad resolutions earlier. They should encompass “how” as much as “what” and set timelines, quantities, and specific details within themselves so there’s no ambiguity in achieving them.
Setting ones that don’t play to strengths is the trickiest of the bunch. For me, “lose weight” is a bad resolution not just because it’s too broad, but because it’s about subtraction, not addition.
I am not a good eliminator. I’m naturally additive. If I really want to lose weight, I can’t get there through reduction.
A better resolution for me is something I can add into my schedule that would achieve weight loss, like “Meet with a nutritionist monthly and log my meals on MyFitnessPal every day.”
This adds an action I can take while also keeping in mind that I am a person who responds very well to accountability. I will follow rules if someone else sets them for me and watches me to make sure I don’t break them.
To make resolutions that work for you, ask yourself what motivates you.
Do you respond well to rewards and incentives? Then your resolutions should contain them. Do you crave social environments? Then your resolutions should fit within a friend network.
New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for everyone. Some people just like setting goals when the desire for change strikes them. Others rely on milestone birthdays, major life events, guided courses, or even the coming of fall to reflect on the lives they want to have.
I choose the end of the year because it’s a neat, clean way to set year-long goals, which are so big and meaty I can break them down into the littler ones I need to structure my life. But that might not be you.
What matters is that if you want change, you have the tools you need to make it for yourself. I hope you can use these tools to do that whenever the mood strikes you.