“New Year’s resolutions are pointless at best and discouraging at worst,”
person after person tells me,
“no one ever fulfills them, no one ever makes a change, and to say that this year is going to be different is just deceitful.”
“They aren’t for everyone,” I say as politely as possible (I happen to be working on my personal resolutions in these very moments; why else would anyone share their resent towards New Year’s resolutions?), “but New Year’s resolutions can be a very good thing.“
And unsurprisingly enough, no one has ever believed me or asked me to elaborate.
Fact: New Year’s resolutions fail
The statistics are not in favor of making resolutions. There are “other things” to try to improve your life in 2018 and anything but resolutions seem to be statistically more likely to work.
And yet people still seem to be making resolutions. Possibly as many as 40% of Americans do—or have some time in the past.
Now there are myriads of reasons why only 0.03% of people make lasting changes starting on January 1. It’s because we were never taught how to make achievable goals. It’s because we don’t understand habits. It’s because we resent the idea of New Year’s resolutions.
Undoing New Year’s resent
I guess the American culture resents New Year’s resolutions because it’s been presented as a false promise. The promise (in my understanding) is “Write down some stuff and become a better person.”
Alas, writing something down doesn’t magically improve your character.
I know (knew) people (a person) who were satisfied by just coming up with New Year’s resolutions. They intentionally never wrote their resolutions down so they would never be disappointed if (when) they didn’t achieve them.
Not a bad plan, I’ll admit. It certainly seems to be effective for the relationship between achievement, failure, and self-esteem.
And as that binary success-failure seems to be the crux of the New Year’s resent, changing the way we approach resolutions might help us to view them in a positive light instead of scoffing at the very idea.
That’s my problem: New Year’s resolutions are a great idea. I hate that people hate a good idea.
You see, most of the people in my life are dissatisfied with their lives. Hell, in a lot of ways I’m dissatisfied with my life. And that’s the brilliance of New Year’s resolutions.
Dream on, good people
I write down my New Year’s resolutions because, for me, January 1st is a chance to dream about living better. About being content with my life. About seeing the blotchy spots where I miss out and I “fail” (more on the misconception of failure later).
And honestly, 90% of my dreams never pan out. But I still write them down. To write it down is to keep a record of what I dream—and to me, dreams are hope for a better future. And as long as there’s hope, there’s a way to make better goals and do the things that I know I want to do.
Without a dream, you will never realize “I can do this.” Thought precedes action, even if it’s subconscious thought.
I integrate good habit-building practice with dreams and do more things that I know I want to than things I don’t care about when I write New Year’s resolutions for my year.
Too many of the people I know have given up dreaming for the same reasons that they resent New Year’s resolutions. If we don’t strive for things out of our reach (read: dream), we suffocate within the bounds of our comfort zones.
There is value in failing to achieve an impossible dream. There is value in succeeding at a realistic dream. But you will never do either without first having the dream, and then resolving to try.
There are two types of dreams we set on New Year’s: goals, and habits. Let’s take a look at how you can set yourself up to actually achieve your resolutions.
Good goal-setting practice
Dreams that are actually goals are one-time events or total skills. Some examples of dreams that are best thought of as goals:
- Publish a novel
- Run a marathon
- Speak a new language
- Play a new instrument
Make no mistake, in order to achieve most goals, you will need to change and adapt your habits. However, a goal is different from a habit because there is a measure of success/failure built into goals.
Either you publish the novel, or you don’t. Either you run the marathon, or you don’t. Either you can hold a conversation in Spanish, or you can’t. Either you can play a song on the guitar, or you can’t.
Note that with each of these examples I’ve inserted assumptions about what it means to speak a new language or play a new instrument. This is part of good goal-setting practice: establishing what it means to succeed or fail.
There are plenty of acronyms and tricks for setting good goals. You may have read some of them. I’m going to try my best to summarize all of them comprehensively.
One of the most important things about setting good goals is to be precise. Running a marathon is good; running the Star Wars Dark Side Challenge on April 21st of 2018 in under 5 hours is better. Playing piano is fine; playing Für Elise without mistakes at a talent show on August 6th is better.
Precise goals include these details:
- What you want to do
- How well you want to do it
- When you want to do it
… and include them realistically. Unless you’re setting goals like Elon Musk, choose the quality and the timing of your goals so that you can actually achieve them.
Maybe if you spent 40 hours a week writing, you could publish your novel in March. But you probably can only spend 3, maybe 15 hours a week writing, so maybe you should set your milestone at finishing your first draft by May, revising two more drafts by November, and submitting your manuscript in December.
The precise elements of your goals are truly yours, so only you can determine what it means to succeed or fail at your goals. If you only want to learn Spanish to sharpen your brain, not to communicate with your neighbors, then your goal can be to complete a 150-day Duolingo streak. If you want to learn Spanish to communicate with people, then speaking with people should be part of your end goal—maybe you join a Spanish club and go through an entire meeting without having to use English.
Break goals into manageable steps
One does not simply leap from point A to point Z successfully. Unless you’re Superman, you’ll be better off hitting B-Y along the way.
I mentioned milestones in the novel-writing example. Novel writing is a perfect example of creating a point-by-point roadmap to your goal because there are some very obvious, evident milestones you need to hit along the road in order to hold a published book in your hand.
- You flesh out an idea in a full first draft
- You go through the first draft and patch up plot holes
- You may repeat step 2 a couple of times
- You edit the latest draft so it reads smoothly and has no grammar or consistency errors
- You send that draft to publishers
- With each rejection, you repeat steps 3-4
- Once a publisher accepts your manuscript, you revise your manuscript again
- The publisher publishes your novel
Now, that is assuming you take an old-fashioned approach to publishing your book, but assuming you have to revise your manuscript minimally, you’ve got 8 huge milestones between you right now and you publishing a book.
Between each huge milestone, you may have smaller milestones, etc. Setting milestone goals may be as important to your success as setting a precise goal.
Grace and adaptation
April 21st has arrived, and you’re in your 5th hour of running the Star Wars challenge. You still have 4 miles to go. You’ve failed.
Except you haven’t. Sure, you failed to hit the details you set for yourself, but if you get so caught up in that, you’re going to miss the real value and beauty of goals: doing things you wouldn’t have and couldn’t have done before.
Sure, you messed up a couple notes in Für Elise. Sure, you always forget to conjugate that verb properly. Sure, publishers aren’t accepting any manuscripts right now.
We set goals is to do cool things and become better people. And the amount of work you put in to get this far is amazing. Give yourself a break if the time you set rolls by and you haven’t achieved what you wanted. Take a look at what you did do and be proud of that.
And if you really aren’t proud of it, use that feeling to help you do something that you are proud of.
And finally, if things aren’t panning out the way you wanted them to or if you are bored now with the goal you’ve set, change it. Life is too short to waste. If something isn’t working, adapt. Publishers may not be accepting manuscripts, but Amazon Kindle will always accept a self-published piece.
Good habit-building practice
We all dream of having good habits… especially good personal care habits. You probably wish you could do all the stuff science says makes you a happier person, like:
And while most habits can be broken down into goals (do 10 pull-ups, attend a meditation retreat, read 52 books in a year, cut sugar, paint a mural), you approach creating a habit differently from achieving a goal.
You know that you are already a creature of habits. You want to make yourself into a creature of better habits. How?
Cue, routine, reward
Charles Duhigg has clarified exactly how habits work. Something triggers you to an action, and that action produces a reward.
- Your stomach growls (cue) so you grab a Snickers (routine) and your stomach and brain feel happy (reward).
- You check the time on your phone (cue) so you open it and click on Facebook (routine) and get a dopamine release (reward).
Habits are automated processes that we have kept evolutionarily because they make our lives easier for our brain to process. You probably have some more beneficial habits (brushing your teeth before bed) and some less beneficial ones (eating dessert after every meal).
It may or may not be helpful to moralize habits as “good” or “bad.” I find it more helpful to determine whether or not a habit is more or less beneficial to my happiness and my goals because it makes it easier for me to not vilify or deify people who have “good” or “bad” habits.
Use your resources
It is certainly possible to create new habits out of nothing and to stop old habits cold-turkey. To create new habits, establish cues, routines, and rewards where and when you want them. To stop old habits, destroy cues, routines, and rewards where and when you don’t want them.
But instead of taking something from nothing and making nothing of something, it’s helpful to take cues you already have and swap routines for similar rewards.
- Your stomach growls (cue) so you grab a vegetable (routine) and your stomach and brain feel happy (reward).
- You check the time on your phone (cue) so you open it and click on Reminders to check your to-do list (routine) and get a dopamine release (reward).
If you have a less beneficial habit (smoking), identify the cue/routine/reward of your habit. Spend some time really thinking about the reward—some people just smoke to be sociable. Can you achieve this reward with a routine that isn’t smoking? Swap out routines.
If you want to start a new habit, adopt a pre-existing cue. For example, your cue to start the day may be getting dressed. So if you want to start your day with exercise, get dressed in workout clothes, and make the last part of your exercise routine getting dressed in normal clothes.
If you have a specific goal within a timeframe, you have to hit milestones in order to remain on time with your goal. Since the purpose of a habit is to craft a routine that you engage in on an unthinking, long-term basis, there’s no need to dive all-in with your habit.
Yes, going from exercising once a year to exercising 5 times a week might be “the best” thing you can do. But it’s only going to be “the best” if you actually do it—and making a change that big, that fast is why New Year’s resolution statistics are so abysmal.
Let’s say you want to start a writing habit. We’ll say that you ultimately want to join Stephen King and write 1000 words every morning. Which, by the way, is awesome!
If you want those 1000 words to become a habit, then don’t feel pressured to sit down in the morning and write 1000 words. Maybe try starting with 1 sentence, or 100 words.
The idea behind starting small is simply this: if you try to do something you can’t possibly fail, you’ll start gaining momentum. And if you choose something small enough, you can make it into a habit by sheer force of will.
That is if you choose a small enough action to start with—something so dumbly doable that even if it’s the last thing you do at night you can still do it—then you can build up the blind habit of doing something. And once you naturally reach for the pen and paper, then you can worry about adding volume until you’ve reached your ultimate goal.
On the flipside, you can kickstart a habit by committing to do it—rain or shine—for a set amount of time. The myth that it only takes 21 days to form a habit is based on this kind of a premise. While more recent studies have confirmed numbers as low as 66 and as high as 9 months to turn an act into a habit, the idea is the same.
Commit to a challenge—however many days you like—and focus on only changing that one habit during those days. At the end of the challenge, you’ll have a) done something awesome and b) hopefully developed a new habit.
To be quite frank, your best bet may be a combination of “start small” and “go big.” That is, once you’ve got the cue-routine-reward down pat with your can’t-fail tiny habit, take a 30-day challenge to up the volume to your desired end-result habit.
Ready to write some resolutions?
I have armed you with my best worldviews, practices, and strategies for writing meaningful and possibly even successful New Year’s resolutions. There may just be a simple fact that resolutions aren’t for everyone, and you may still resent the concept as a whole.
But if you do decide to write some New Year’s resolutions—tell me in the comments!
What do you think—do you resent New Year’s resolutions? What are some worldviews that make them more or less palatable to you? If you are/have written them, what kinds of resolutions have you made?