Posted in Life

New Year’s Resolutions: My System that Actually Works

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Be willing to be a beginner, every single morning.

Miester Eckhart

Do you know someone who actually keeps their New Year’s resolutions? These people are few and far between, and they get rarer every year. According to U.S. News, about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail or are given up on by February of the same year. That statistic isn’t surprising, because most of us know we’re really bad at New Year’s resolutions. We’re used to not achieving our goals, and yet come January first, there we are again with our post it notes and motivational quotes.

This phenomenon is so interesting to me. Every year I see my friends and family set their sights high, and for a week or two they do so well. The gyms are full, kale is sold out at the local grocery, budgets are tightly kept, the sun is shining bright. But inevitably everyone misses a day, or doesn’t reach their first benchmark, and we all slide right back to our old habits. And we know it, and we tell ourselves it’s okay. When the new year comes, we suddenly believe in ourselves again and tell ourselves that now is the time, this time we’re actually gonna do it. But we usually don’t. It’s kind of sweet how we can start over and over again with such innocence, but sad how we so rarely succeed.

I’ve been this person, time and time again, until last year when I finally found a system that works.

First, here are the general principles that led me to this system.  These can apply to any goals you want to set, whether you want to try my system or not.

  • Break big goals into small goals. Part of the reason so many of us give up on our goals is that they are way too big to tackle. It’s okay to set this kind of goal, but it makes it much easier if you break it down into smaller pieces. Set small simple goals like writing before you turn on the TV, writing a chapter every two weeks, or writing for a half an hour each workday. These small goals should be easy, and achieving them will encourage you.
  • Set goals you can measure. We’ve all done them, but vague goals are quite honestly a waste of your time. These goals are bad because it’s hard to determine how successful you’ve been. How much “more healthy” do you want to be? What qualifies as “eating right”? Instead, translate this vague goal into something you can measure: eating a full serving of vegetables every day or avoiding sugary foods before lunchtime. The idea is to write your goal as something that you can definitively say “yes” or “no” to. That way you know exactly how far you’ve come and can’t make excuses.
  • Approach goals as a choice, not as something forced on you. Another reason we often fail is our whole approach to resolutions. Don’t think of it as “I need to lose weight.” Immediately that phrasing gives rise to stress, urgency, negativity, and even loss of self-worth. Think of it instead as “I choose to lose weight.” It’s a small change, but it makes a big difference. You are the acting agent. You are doing this because you want to and choose to, not because anything is making you. It’s empowering.
  • Have regular reminders/accountability systems. When you’re the only one keeping you accountable, it can be hard to stay on track no matter how committed you are. Your accountability system can be as simple as writing your goals down next to your mirror or having a friend work on the same goal with you. You can also set up a small fitting reward for each benchmark you pass, such as letting yourself buy a new running outfit if you go running every day for two weeks. Do anything that works for you to keep you from forgetting, keep you motivated, and keep you from cheating yourself.
  • Set goals over things you can realistically control. Of course, your goals need to be possible. It’s good to push yourself, but a new year has no magical power to make you Superman. Don’t set goals that depend on other people’s choices, or really that depend on anything but you. If you’re not sure how much you can handle, put your big goal on the back burner and try a smaller goal first. If you make it just fine, bump it up, and if you don’t, adjust. The goal is to succeed, no matter how small.
  • Avoid strict timelines on larger goals. This one is arguable, but makes a lot of sense to me. It’s okay to have a ballpark time you want to get it done, but it’s almost impossible to anticipate how your circumstances might change. Instead, set deadlines for your smaller goals and hold yourself to them. It’s much easier to meet a short deadline than a long deadline, and your short deadlines are adjustable if you have a sudden change in your pay, health, or free time. This flexibility allows you to keep your goals realistic, and still know you’re pushing yourself and will reach your goal as soon as you can.

Keeping all of this in mind, I came up with my resolution system last year.

It starts by identifying four main areas of your life that you want to improve or focus on. For example, last year my four areas came from a quote from one of my church leaders: listen, learn, labor, love. This year my four categories are spirituality, education, wellness, and creativity. Of course you can use as few or as many categories as you want, but try to keep it less than six so it’s manageable. It’s okay for these areas to be big and even vague. These ideas are what you want to work on for the whole year.

Then, explain what you want to improve about each of those big areas and brainstorm things you can do to make it happen.  This can be messy and slightly vague if need be. The goal here is to get all your ideas on paper, articulate your desires, decide what is most important to you, and start to think of realistic measurable actions you can take to improve your “categories.”

Each month, set a smaller goal for each of your areas and review the goals you made the previous month.  Make these something you can realistically do in a month (even if you have to break up something larger). This monthly approach lets you adapt your goals to whatever works best in your current environment, break up your big goals into something concrete, and keep yourself accountable by regularly evaluating your progress. A month is about how long most of us make it with your resolutions before we quit, so it’s the perfect space of time to pass between regroups and restarts. For example, one of my big areas this year is education, and my January goal to improve this aspect of life is to finish at least four applications for summer internships. This is something measurable, not too challenging, and appropriate for the time because most internship deadlines are coming up in February.

Each week, set five even smaller goals and hold yourself accountable to at least three of them. I know it sounds odd but hear me out on this one. I got the idea of setting five and holding myself to at least three from my sister who’s done it for years, and I absolutely love it. Having five goals gives me flexibility to include any random goals I feel the need to do that don’t really relate to my resolutions. For the crazy busy weeks, or for weeks when I overestimate myself, I only have to keep three of the goals and feel okay about letting two fall by the wayside. This system allows you to stay accountable and push yourself, but allows you to slip up without failing. Having these goals weekly lets you break up your monthly goals into bite sized pieces, and they’re very adaptable, simple, and hard to forget.

Rinse and repeat. Each month, look back briefly on your progress and then plan our your next steps. Each week, make manageable goals that move you forward and make yourself do at least a simple majority of them. If you have time and want to push yourself, these monthly and weekly goals can be big. If you’re very busy, they can be small as long as they are there and you are accomplishing them.

Remember, the goal is success. It doesn’t matter if it’s a very small success, it is still success, and it’s always better than aiming too high and accomplishing nothing. Start with small steps that you know you can do and do them. As you move forward, you’ll gain more confidence in yourself and your ability to succeed, and you’ll be emboldened to try bigger and better things.

Happy New Year everyone! I’d love to hear your resolutions and how you help yourself succeed.

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

Winston Churchill


I am a STEM student, aspiring artist, self-taught writer, and and lover of the natural world.

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