You can tell a lot about a person by how they feel about New Year’s Resolutions.
On one hand you have the self-development junkies (like yours truly) who love any excuse for self-betterment and goal-setting. We get warm fuzzies at the idea of a fresh start and get off on setting intentions that will guide us throughout the year.
And then you have the New Year’s Resolutions haters. They scoff at setting goals on an arbitrary date and believe resolutions set you up for failure. They point to the drop in gym attendance in February as proof that the whole endeavor is ridiculous.
And you know what? Both sides are right.
Studies show that 60% of people who set New Year’s Resolutions don’t achieve them on the first try. Done wrong, resolutions can turn into a disheartening, demoralizing dead-weight. One more thing you didn’t do.
Done right? Well, they can be literally (and I don’t use that word lightly) life-changing.
Here’s how to do New Year’s Resolutions-- and goal-setting in general-- the right way.
How to Set Goals the Right Way
Step 1: Throw out all of your New Year’s Resolutions and start from scratch.
Yes, I'm serious.
If you are a resolutions-junkie with 17 different changes you want to make this year, grab the journal you wrote them in on January 1st and haven’t picked up since, and cross out all of those resolutions. I know that sounds harsh, but the fact is, this article is called, “New Year’s Resolutions Not Going So Well?” and you clicked on it.
I know I sound like a judgey a-hole, but just hear me out. Before I learned how to set goals the right way, I was the one who would list alllll of the changes I was going to make starting Jan 1st and be super excited about how much better my life was going to be. Seriously, one year, my "resolutions" included, among other things, "Take more baths."
And every year, one by one, all of those good intentions would get pushed aside or forgotten until I gave up on them completely. And then I would feel like a failure because I couldn't even keep a resolution as simple as "take more baths."
So, the harshness? It's coming from a place of understanding. Trust.
Step 2: Get a piece of paper and a pen, and get ready to write.
Studies show that people who write down their goals are far more likely to achieve them than those who just think about their goals.
Step 3: Choose ONE (and only one) goal.
Yep, you heard me right: you have to choose only ONE change or improvement you want to make this year, or ONE thing you want to achieve. Since you can only have one, make it big and ambitious, yet achievable. You can be a little vague here, we’ll get more specific later. For example, “be healthier” is fine.
(Ok, ok, ok- if you really want more than one, you can have one personal goal and one professional goal. Are you happy now?)
Step 4: Define the why.
Why is your goal for the year important to you? Identifying and internalizing your “why” will help you stay motivated when things get hard. Get really honest with yourself and get specific.
Step 5: Define the what.
Now we are going to define your goal and start getting specific. What does success look like? List the outcomes of a successful year and what your goal actually means to you.
I love examples, so here’s what I mean:
Now, so many people get to this point and say, “Whelp, there's my New Year’s Resolutions. New year, new me!”
And then they fail.
Why? Because these aren't goals- they're outcomes. They're vague and open to interpretation. The most effective goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timebound-- and these aren’t.
So we need to make these puppies SMART.
But not quite yet.
First- we need to make them manageable.
Step 6: Break down your outcomes into 3-month SMART goals.
Remember that you are working towards your yearly goals, not doing them 100% starting tomorrow. Trying to go from nothing to 100% on January 1st (or Jan 2nd if you were hungover on New Year's Day) is exactly why so many New Year’s Resolutions fail. We go from running once a month to “I’m going to run every day.” And then it's too much, we can't do it and we quit completely. Believe me, I'm speaking from experience here: it doesn't work.
Setting mid-term (90-day) goals is key to achieving your long term (one year) goal. Three months is a long enough time frame to allow us to test and adjust, but short enough to create a sense of urgency. So look at your goals and ask yourself: "By April 30th, what do I want to be doing on a consistent basis that would get me 25% of the way to my yearly goal?"
And now's the time to get SMART. Define each of your outcomes to turn them into Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timebound goals.
Something else to keep in mind: you don’t need to make progress in all of your goals right now. Be realistic about what you can achieve and prioritize what is most important based on your “why.” I generally recommend to my coaching clients to pick three goals to focus on each quarter.
Step 7: Define the How.
Now we get into our action plan: how exactly are you going to achieve these goals? What strategies will you use to make it happen? Hint: “I’ll just do it” is NOT a strategy.
See the difference?
To make your strategies easier to stick to, make them positive, not negative. Focus on what you will be doing, not what you won’t be doing.
For example, you want to stop drinking Coke. Your strategy shouldn’t be: “Stop drinking Coke at lunch,” it should be, “Drink water or no-sugar-added juice at lunch instead of Coke.”
The best way to change a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit.
Step 8: Set weekly goals.
Now that you have your mid-term goals and your strategies to achieve them, we are really going to dig into what you need to do today.
To start, choose 1-2 goals for this coming week that are in line with your 3-month goals (remember: they shouldn't be your 3-month goals. You are working up to those.) Choose 1-2 strategies to achieve the goals and then break them down into specific actions. Make your actions SMART. Now you have your 3-4 goals for the week.
Step 9: Schedule it.
So you have your list of actions for the week. You know exactly what you need to do and how you are going to do it.
Now, here is the most crucial step: schedule each action in your calendar. It sounds arduous, but you’ll thank me for it when you blow through your weekly to-do list in a blur of organization and self-congratulations.
As you look at your calendar for the week, ask yourself:
Are any of my actions dependent on other actions? For example, before you can make your lunch for Monday, do you need to go to the store? If so, add it to your action list. Don’t let your well-thought-out goals get side-swiped by bad planning.
When exactly will I be able to do each action item? Are you going to make your lunch the night before or the morning of? Will you be able to go to the grocery store beforehand? Are you really going to eat in 5 nights this week when you clearly have 3 dinner engagements on your calendar?
Are my goals realistic? Set yourself up for success by being realistic about what you will be able to do. The best rule of thumb is that you should be at least 70% confident that you can achieve your goals. If you have less than a 70% chance of success, adjust your goal.
I can’t say it enough- scheduling is KEY. It’s so easy to have good intentions, but then life happens. Without planning ahead, it’s easy to be unrealistic about our goals and then get frustrated and demotivated when we don’t achieve them.
Step 10: Get started!
You have your action plan, you have everything scheduled out, you know you can do this, so go do it!
Step 11: Review and Repeat.
At the end of the week, ask yourself: how did it go? What do you need to adjust or change? Repeat steps 8-11 until you’ve achieved your 3-month goals. Set new 3-months goals every-- you guessed it!-- 3 months. Every quarter, assess where you are compared to where you want to be. Add or remove strategies. Test and adjust. Don’t give up. You got this.