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Thoughts on New Year's Resolutions

by cory on December 31st, 2012

Like most people, I have historically sucked at keeping my new year's resolutions. I used to be heavily goal-oriented around late December and (when I'm procrastinating -- bad start already!) early January, but recently my thinking on goals and goal-setting has, as a politician would say, evolved. I'm approaching this a little bit differently this year. Here are some of my thoughts on how to make good goals and, if you're still inclined after reading to the end, new year's resolutions as well.

For some context and an alternative viewpoint, skim Leo Babauta's "No Goals" post. Then, if you have time, watch him debate goals with Tim Ferris for some counter-points.

Until a few weeks ago, I wasn't planning on making any resolutions at all this year. I was down with the No Goals manifesto. But I've changed my thinking and instead I am going to work on introducing some small habits and align them with the goals that those habits reinforce.

Make SMART Goals

See Paul J. Meyer's SMART goals definitions. It's an acronym, and the letters stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable (within your abilities to achieve), Relevant (this the least important component, imo) and Time-Bound.

For example, "Lose weight" is a bad goal. How much weight? That's not specific, and it's not time-bound.

"Lose 10 pounds": Better, but not good enough yet. There's no time-limit.

"Lose 10 pounds by the end of January." Ok, now we are talking. The best goal is one where a friend of yours can objectively say whether or not you succeeded. In this case they'd need to see you stand on a scale but you get the idea -- if it's not something that an external person can say that you've completed, the goal is too ambiguous or subjective. If your friend can see the scale and it shows 10 fewer pounds than when you started, and it's not February yet, they can give you a big high five and say that you are #winning.

Use short time frames. AKA ABR (Always Be Resolving)

The thing I dislike most about the new year's resolution concept is the idea of making a resolution for a whole year. That's a long time! Humans on the whole are bad at knowing what we want today and worse at predicting what we'll want tomorrow -- forget about predicting what your priorities will be a year from now. We also suck at knowing how difficult it is to simply do one small action (such as ordering a salad instead of a burger) day in and day out. It's hard and your motivation waxes and wanes over time -- sticking even with something easy is quite difficult when you extrapolate that over a large period of time.

Long time frames are bad for another reason common to all humans: We procrastinate. In reality a 12-month deadline mostly just gives you about 11 months to not really think about your goal, by which time it will be next December and the goal's urgency will seem far away, and you'll be too busy with another holiday season to do anything about it.

For this reason, I think the maximum time frame that makes sense for any goal is a month. This doesn't mean you shouldn't make loftier goals. Just break them down into human-sized timescale components. For example, if your goal is to do 100 push-ups in a row in a year, break that down into a goal of 30 push-ups by the end of this month, 40 by the end of next month, and so on.

Because we are bad at knowing what we really want and whether it will still be relevant in the future, don't over-commit. I recently read Steve Pavlina's Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth, and he is a big proponent of doing 30-day experiments, the idea being to try out a new goal or behavior for only 30 days and see how you feel at the end of that trial. If it's something that is a good fit for your life you will naturally stick with it, and if it isn't you can freely drop that goal after the trial.

I like this approach because another thing I dislike about typical new year's resolutions is their implication that you are committing yourself to sticking with whatever goal it is for the entire year. As I said above we're pretty bad at understanding how difficult that will be and how important that goal will be to us in a year's time. Not to mention that committing to doing something for an entire year is daunting (and psychologically quite intimidating). Steve's 30-day trial idea is a good compromise.

Update: I just randomly came across a Ted talk by Google Engineer Matt Cutts extolling 30-day trials.

And really what you want to do anyway is Always Be Resolving -- in other words don't let this one time of the year be the only time you stop to think about what you want. Make that a part of your daily or weekly rhythm, to ask yourself whether you are getting closer to whatever goals are important to you. And then freely course-correct as you go along. Don't stick with things that aren't working or that are no longer important to you, and reinforce/tweak goals that are working for you.

Recognize that Goals are reinforced by Habits

Goals are the finish lines on the horizon, but daily and weekly habits are the footsteps needed to get there. You achieve a goal by doing something (or avoiding the doing of something) on a mostly-daily basis between now and the end of your goal. Something you do every day like this is a habit. So when making a goal, think of what habit(s) you'll need to pick up in order to achieve that goal, and plan accordingly.

Creating (positive) habits is far more difficult than most people realize. BJ Fogg at Stanford has a free one-week program called Tiny Habits that will get you thinking in more detail about habits than you probably ever have before. I highly recommend it. Learning how to create and grow your habits is key to making bigger changes in your life and achieving your goals.

Hold Yourself Accountable

Good goals are measurable, so measure your progress frequently to ensure you're moving in the right direction. BeeMinder is a good website to check out for this.

For added motivation, state your goal publicly. Tell friends and family and encourage them to check up on you. Update: Derek Sivers disagrees in this short Ted talk. (My take: The research is flawed. I still think publicly stating your goals is a good idea.)

I'll take my own medicine and state a current goal here:

For the thirty days ending January 29th, 2013, I am going to try being a vegetarian. I'll still eat dairy and eggs, but no meat or fish. I want to see how difficult it is and whether I feel any differently at the end.

Be Gentle on Yourself

Improving oneself is hard stuff. Motivation has valleys in addition to peaks, and from time to time you will fail to keep up with your goals. This is normal and not really a bad thing. You should be making goals that are hard to reach, which means you will fail to achieve them sometimes. That's ok. Rather than getting frustrated, use those failures as a learning opportunity -- figure out what didn't work, adjust the goal, and try again.

If you've ever tried meditating, one of the things you'll hear is that when your mind inevitably gets distracted and you realize you have lost your focus, don't dwell on your loss of focus. Instead, gently acknowledge that your mind wandered and try again. Habits and goals have a similar sort of zen: Keep trying, don't be too hard on yourself when they don't work out, and over time you'll enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

From → general, habits

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