It’s the start of a new year, and with it comes the incomparable feeling of a clean slate. Whatever the failings of last year, now you can start fresh. This year, this year is going to be different.
Overcome by motivation, you make big plans. You’re going to learn a new language, get in shape, read a book per week, and even start a business or two.
But by the time February 1st rolls around, you’ve already abandoned most of your goals. At best, you’re making half-hearted progress and decide that there’s no point; you’ll try again next year, and for now, you can leave things as they are.
If this situation sounds familiar, you’re far from alone. Indeed, it’s not even your fault. Making New Year’s resolutions, at least in the traditional way, is a doomed endeavor from the start.
Keep reading to learn why most New Year’s resolutions fail, and what to do instead.
Arbitrary as it is, the start of a new year naturally feels like a time to set bold new goals.
The busyness and chaos of the holidays have passed, businesses are working on Q1 targets, and everyone is optimistic. Even the most slothful among us can’t help making some plans for self-improvement.
Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with using the start of a new year to set goals. The motivation is there, so you might as well put it to good use.
The problem arises from how literally people take the idea of New Year’s resolutions. You pick a goal (or two, or three) and resolve to work on it for an entire year. But as you’ve probably experienced, that goal is unlikely to be around for long.
This happens because a year is far too long and vague of a timeline for completing a goal. Not only is your motivation likely to falter after a few weeks or months, but your priorities could also shift.
For instance, you might think that training for a marathon is your dream, but then realize that you far prefer swimming to running. Life is simply too unpredictable to accurately guess about your interests or priorities a year from now.
Furthermore, New Year’s resolutions tend to be too vague to be useful. Resolving to “get in shape” doesn’t give you much guidance for what exercises to do or food to eat, for instance.
And even if you phrase your resolution more specifically, you’re unlikely to make progress without breaking your year-long goal into bite-sized milestones.
However, this doesn’t mean you should give up on New Year’s resolutions altogether. You just need to shift the way you make and execute them, which we’ll discuss next.
If our current system of New Year’s resolution is broken, then what’s the alternative? Here’s what we recommend to make New Year’s resolutions that stick.
Be Realistic About Your Goals and Limitations
“I was so motivated, I demotivated myself” – Martin Boehme, CIG Podcast Ep. 245
The clean slate feeling of a new year makes it tempting to set ambitious goals. And while there’s nothing wrong with thinking big, setting goals that are too ambitious (or numerous) can be counterproductive.
For instance, let’s say you set the following daily goals:
- Read for an hour
- Rock climb for two hours
- Practice ukulele for 30 minutes
This all sounds great in theory, but do you really have that much uninterrupted free time? This many goals could leave you stressed, deprive you of valuable sleep, and ultimately cause you to give up.
Instead, be realistic about what goals you can accomplish within your current limitations. Potential limitations include:
- How much time and energy your job requires
- Caring for family members and pets
- Travel time required for certain activities (such as driving to the gym)
- Time for classes and homework
- Financial resources (if your goals require expensive equipment, training, or travel)
If you structure your goals around these limitations, you’re less likely to give up and more likely to succeed.
Divide the Year Into Smaller Chunks
As I mentioned above, a year is far too long of a time scale to make useful plans. That’s why we recommend breaking your year into smaller chunks and then dividing your goals accordingly.
The precise division you use is up to you, but there are a couple that work well in our experience.
To start, you can plan in 3-month increments. This division works because 3 months is long enough to accomplish something impressive but short enough to give your year variety. For instance, you could set four goals for the year and focus intently on each for 3 months at a time.
If 3 months feels too long, you could try the approach that Martin (our web dev and operations lead) uses.
He works on his goals in 2-week “sprints” that he tracks in a paper notebook. After 2 weeks have passed, he’s free to continue working on his existing goals, set new ones, or abandon ones that no longer interest him.
One of the best parts of this system is that instead of getting that clean slate feeling once per year, you get it every two weeks. To learn more about this system, read Martin’s full explanation.
And of course, you can use a different division if it makes more sense to your brain. Just try to choose a timeline long enough to make noticeable progress but short enough to keep you motivated.
Mix Input-Based and Output-Based Goals
Sometimes the problem isn’t the quantity or ambition of your goals, but rather the type of goal you set. In general, we can divide goals into two types: input-based and output-based.
Input-based goals require you to put in a certain amount of time. For instance, “practice free throws for 20 minutes.” These goals pay no attention to the outcome (such as whether you made the free throws).
Output-based goals, meanwhile, require you to produce a particular result. An example of this would be “write 1000 words.” For these goals, the time or attempts it took to reach the outcome don’t matter.
Both types of goals can be useful, but it’s important to choose the appropriate one for your situation. Input-based goals can be effective when you’re starting a new activity or working on something that’s mentally and physically demanding. Output-based goals, meanwhile, can be useful if you’re attempting to “level up” an existing skill or win a competition.
If you’re struggling with a goal, consider if changing it to input-based or output-based could make a difference in your motivation and progress.
Choose a Goal Tracking System
Keeping your New Year’s resolutions in your head means they’re unlikely to become reality. If you want to make progress on your goals, you need a system for tracking them.
Your tracking system can be whatever you want. But here are some common systems that work well:
- Paper notebook
- To-do list app
- Habit tracking app
- Desk or wall calendar (a.k.a., “Don’t break the chain”)
Experiment with the above systems and see what works best for you.
Reevaluate Your Goals Periodically and Adjust As Needed
One of the main advantages of dividing the year into smaller chunks is the chance it gives you to periodically reevaluate your goals. Reevaluating your goals matters because your priorities, limitations, and interests can change through the course of a year.
Let’s say your New Year’s resolution was to learn to ski. But then halfway through the year, you get an opportunity to work in a tropical location without a snowflake in sight.
If you insisted on sticking to your skiing goal, you could miss out on a chance to advance your career and see a new place. So instead, you pivot your goal to something better-suited for your new environment (surfing, perhaps?).
Far from being wishy-washy, evaluating and changing your goals over the course of a year is intelligent and mature. It recognizes that life is unpredictable and short, so there’s no point sticking with goals that no longer make sense.
You probably know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men, and you can be sure it applies to you, too. Despite our good intentions and careful planning, setbacks are inevitable in any goal.
Instead of abandoning your goal at the first sign of difficulty, you should assume you’ll have setbacks and respond accordingly.
Often, responding to a setback is as simple as altering the scope of your goal. For instance, if you discover that your goal of practicing guitar for two hours per day is causing you wrist pain, you could scale it back to 30 minutes while you build up strength and good technique.
Other times, however, setbacks can be far more serious and totally beyond your control. With physical goals, this could mean an injury or even unfavorable weather conditions. With goals that are more cerebral, new responsibilities at work or the unexpected illness of a family member could get in the way.
In some cases, the best response may be to set your goal aside for now. We prefer to think of it this way instead of as “abandoning” your goal since it leaves the possibility of returning to a goal in the future. A future that, as always, remains unpredictable.
As you can now see, this was really an article about setting better goals disguised as an article about New Year’s resolutions.
Whether you’re reading this at the start of a new year or halfway through, remember that the best time to start making changes is today. You don’t have to wait for a new year, semester, or beginning of another arbitrary time period.
For great advice on making the changes you want any time of year, check out our free course on building habits that last. It covers the material we discussed in this article in greater detail, plus much more:
Building habits isn’t just about discipline; there are real-world steps you can take to set yourself up for success! In this course, you'll learn how to set realistic goals, handle failure without giving up, and get going on the habits you want in your life.
Image Credits: fireworks