New Years Resolutions: A Recipe for Success

New Years Resolutions: A Challenge to Yourself

"Lose weight," "save money," "become more organized," "read more books." Do these sound like the kinds of New Years Resolutions you've made and failed to keep in the past? They're straight off of my list of resolutions from years gone by-- and they're terrible resolutions! Why?

They're vague, un-measurable, and not very fun. Each one is an admirable path to a goal,but it's not an actual goal in itself. Not only do these "resolutions" have an undefined outcome, they lack a reason for existing.

In this hub, I'll help you frame your New Years Resolutions for success. And as I finish them, I'll be linking several related hubs for achieving some of the more common New Years Resolutions, so join my fan club and get updates when I post those hubs! 

Measure Twice

You'll see in every self-help book and productivity guide that having a measurable goal is key to achieving it. Without a measurable goal, you won't know when you've succeeded at your resolutions, nor when you're slipping. 

What's a measurable goal, though, and how do you measure it?

A measurable goal is something you can identify. You can stand back and point to it and say "THERE is my achievement." "Lose weight" can be turned into a measurable goal by the addition of three words "Lost fifteen pounds of weight."

Some goals are harder to figure out how to measure, though. "Get in shape" is a goal that you might be thinking "how do I know?" Well, what do you consider to be "in shape?" Is Arnold Schwartzenegger "in shape"? Is Oprah Winfrey? The aerobics instructor at the gym? What is the difference between you and someone you consider to be "in shape?" Is it that they have muscles? A lean body fat ratio? Can they run 5 miles without stopping to collapse? Can they walk up a flight of stairs without triggering an asthma attack? If you need to, look around you for examples of "in shape" and also look around for examples of "too much," so you'll know what is a reasonable goal to aim for.

You can also use generally-accepted guidelines as measurable goals. For instance, if your goal is to "Save money," you can use some of the guidelines that suggest having a savings of 6 months worth of expenses is a good safety net. Then you'll need to do a little homework-- track your expenses for 1 month and multiply by 6. You'll wantto save that amount, or reduce your expenses and save less.

When you state your New Years Resolutions, make sure they have a number in them-- that number is what will tell you when you've achieved your goal. 

Record it

You absolutely must write down your New Years Resolutions. You don't have to show it to anybody, but you have to do it. If you don't,if you leave your resolutions in the vague space called your mind, then you will forget. Your mind will make you forget, because all of us, every one, to some degree or another, fears change.

There's a reason the Declaration of Independence was written down. There's a reason why agreements are most binding when they are written contracts. Writing it down codifies it and makes it "real." If you are a religious person, remember that the first word of the Bible is Logos: the Word. If you want your resolutions to stick, you have to give them at least as much weight as you would an item on your grocery list. 

You can write your resolutions on a sticky note if you like and tuck it into your wallet. Or you can make a poster and hang it on your wall. You can set up a recurring message on your computer screen. However you do it, you must create a visible reminder that you have made this decision, a contract with yourself that you want to achieve this goal. 


Limit your resolutions to no more than 2 or 3 items. 2 if they're huge, like starting a business, getting married, losing more than 10 pounds, running a marathon, writing a book,etc. Basically, if the resolution will take more than 3 months of your "free time," limit your resolutions to 2 things.

You need to look at your resolutions and decide how long they will take, given that you have to work, take care of yourself, maintain your home, and keep up relationships with friends and family. Given your other commitments, how much time do you really have each day? I found when I was commuting 2 hours a day, working 8 hours, and maintaining a home (but no children), I had about 2-3 hours at the end of the night that were "mine," and some time on the weekends. Parents generally have a lot less time, and no parent can ever count entirely on time being entirely their own.

When you've figured out how much time you have each day and multiply it by the number of days in a month, you'll find yourself delighted. Look at how much time I have! I can easily accomplish these 6 things in a year--!

No. Stop. You are forgetting that life throws things in your path. And when I mean life, I mean everything, including self-sabotage, will stand in the way of you changing. Friends may respond poorly to your decision not to go out for dessert and coffee every week. Family members may resent your insistence on an hour of solo writing time every day. Illnesses happen. A single car accident can derail many of your plans.

Looking at how much "free" time you have, multiply by the weeks and months, but only up to 6 months. You are only going to "fill" one half of the year with your activities. This is first because you can't possibly account for every obstacle to achieving your goal that might come up. But it's also because, once you start to change one aspect of your life, other things will change, too. You want to leave room in your schedule and your life to accommmodate those changes. 

Be Reason-able

If you don't know the reason for your goals, you won't achieve them. We humans are great at rationalizing to ourselves all kinds of things. I was out with a friend recently, and she was having a hard time not buying an expensive handbag. We had to repeat together that she wanted to pay off her house and afford retirement, to remind her why she wasn't going to buy the hand bag. Saving money was the goal. Not buying the hand bag was a step to achieving the goal. But paying off her mortgage was the reason for saving money.

On the slip of paper with your resolutions, write down next to each one of them the reason for your resolution. Example: "I want to lose15 pounds because I don't want to have diabetes when I'm 50 years old."


Make the Plan

"Failure to plan is planning for failure." How many of us have heard that one before? But it's true! If you have no plan for accomplishing your goal, then your goal will languish. By Valentine's Day, you will have given up entirely.

Looking at the big goal you want to achieve, start identifying the steps along the way to achieving that goal. What are the mini-goals-- measurable, identifiable milestones you can point to and say "I did it"?

For example, if my goal is "have 6 months of expenses in a savings account" then one of my goals is to "reduce my expenses so they are less than my income." If I'm already deficit spending, then I need to get that under control first. Savings cannot be achieved until I'm already debt free and have more coming in than going out.

If my goal is to "lose 25 pounds," then interim goals can be "lose 5 pounds." Or I can frame my interim goals in non-scale terms: "lose 2 inches off my waistline."

If you really don't know the interim steps, start looking for some role models and learn about their backgrounds, how they achieved their success. More on that in a minute.

You will probably find this part of the process is easier with a pen and paper in hand. You'll be able to make messy lines as you envision the timeline. But whether you handwrite or use a computer, again, make a written plan that includes:

  • 3 measurable and relevant mini-goals that you will need to achieve on the way to your main goal.
  • The first 3 steps on the way towards Mini-Goal #1.

For example, if your goal is "to learn how to speak Spanish," then your first mini-goal might be "find someone who will help me learn Spanish." The 3 steps leading to that could be "research local classes," "look for Spanish tutors on Craigslist or at the local college," and "ask my friends if they want to learn Spanish with me." Just one of those can be broken into even smaller steps: "Get David's phone number from my address book. Call him. Ask him if he wants to take Spanish classes."

It can also help to draw a storyboard or timeline of each step as you achieve it. Visualizing yourself, even in stick figure form, accomplishing your goals is a powerful way to achieve those goals. Every action you take starts as an idea in your mind, a vision of it happening, before you take action and achieve it.

Recruit Cheerleaders

Most goal-accomplishment guides also suggest that you recruit friends and family as a support network towards achieving your goals. Humans are social creatures-- we are happier and more likely to continue our actions when we have other humans validating them.

Your best bet for finding cheerleaders are among those who are trying to achieve the same goals, and those who have already achieved them. People who have already reached their goals know how tough the road can be, and are often very encouraging. People who are at the same place you are,but who have no other relationship with you, don't have anything to lose by being supportive. They have nothing at risk. 

As you work on changing yourself, you will find resistance in unlikely places. Be alert to "friendly sabotage," like the friend who is so inspired by your plans to move to a less expensive place that she drops off five boxes of books at your house. Or the spouse who loves that you're exercising to lose weight-- so much that he takes you out for dessert three nights a week after dinner.

Friendly sabotage is when we have friends and family who mean well, and who want us to accomplish our goals, but who really don't realize or understand that they're harming our success. We don't want to hurt their feelings, but the truth is, they're hurting us.

Deal with friendly sabotage directly, but kindly, and suggest an alternative way for them to express their support. "Thank you so much for being so sweet with me, but I really need your help to resist these desserts. Could we instead go to the grocery store and get a bunch of fresh berries?"

Unfriendly sabotage is when a friend or loved one does not want you to change because they are happier when you are not. They don't want you to stop drinking because then they have to look at their own drinking. Or they don't want to see you lose weight,because they like being "the thin one." Or they want you to fail at writing your novel because they're creatively blocked and your success means they failed.

I once had a "friend" who, in the midst of her divorce, actually said about my marriage: "I can't believe their marriage is outlasting ours." It was such a petty, mean-spirited thing to say, and yet it spoke volumes about how she really perceived me. If my marriage had hit a rocky patch, I have no doubt she would have been encouraging me on a path that would lead to its ultimate destruction.

Be on the outlook for supportive comments and actions and enlist their authors as your cheerleading captains. Also look for well-intentioned but counter-productive words and actions, and then outright sabotage. When your gut instinct tells you someone is sabotaging your success because they want you to be unhappy, cut them out as fast as you can. They don't belong on your cheerleading squad! 

My #1 Resolution in 2009:

What's the #1 resolution you want to achieve in 2009?

  • Lose weight or Increase fitness
  • Save money or Reduce debt
  • Improve relationships
  • Achieve a creative goal (write a novel, play in a concert)
  • Learn a new skill (language, technical skill, musical instrument, etc.)
  • Enrich my hobbies (read more books, travel more)
  • Tackle my addiction (quit smoking, get sober)
  • Something else (What is it? Leave a comment-- let us know!)
See results without voting

But where's the fun?

Adults who successfully change do so for two reasons: to remove pain, or to increase pleasure and enjoyment. If you want to achieve your goals, you have to make doing so pleasurable and fun.

New Years Resolutions are traditionally things that are not fun. Losing weight and saving money are not very fun. Getting organized is not fun.

Now, we can make these things more fun. Theoretically, exercise releases endorphins to make it enjoyable (this is true, but for some of us, the amount of exercise it takes is more than our pudgy, out-of-shape selves can handle!) Saving money might not be fun, unless you make it more fun by turning it into a game.

The best goals are ones that, by their nature, are open to fun. Learning to play the harmonica is a fun goal. It can be painful at first, but being able to play a whimsical and portable instrument is a fun thing to do. "Reading more books" is a fun goal (though there should be something measurable there, like "Reading 50 books next year") or it can be mind-numbingly boring, depending on the books you choose to read.

As a tip: when you complete a fun task, read a book you enjoy, or do something you liked, write it down, either in a blog or just a notebook, so you'll remember next year that you found that activity fun. Then next year, your resolutions could include "do more of that fun thing I tried last year!"

As you work on achieving your goals, invent games, make it a competition if you have to, or blog your progress and solicit some cheerleaders to help make it happen. As you reward yourself by enjoying the activities that lead to your goal, you will find yourself doing them more and getting closer to your goal. 

Keeping it Real

Keep your New Years Resolutions realistic by taking into account all the other things you have going on in your life, and where you're starting from. If you want to "run a marathon" (a measurable goal of 26.2 miles in one event), ask yourself if you've ever run before, if you like running, and if your physical fitness level is high enough to be able to run a marathon within the next 12 months.

Personal story: One year, I did run a marathon. I started training in 2003 with a walking/running program and did my first 5K in November of that year. In February of 2004, I picked up the exercise again with a walking program. In April, I joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training, which provides training support for volunteers raising funds to fight blood cancers. On October 3rd, I completed my first marathon, but I would be in physical therapy for 2 more months to treat the injuries I'd sustained while training for and doing it. So, it took me over a year to train for my marathon, and I still wasn't physically ready for it.

Now, that's an extreme case; I was very overweight when I started, and I was still overweight when I did the event.In hindsight, I probably should have done a shorter event, like a half marathon, for my first endurance training goal.

Look at what you want to achieve, and where you are now. Will it take more resources (time, money, physical resources) than you personally can command in the course of a year? If so, consider scaling your resolution to something truly attainable. It's good to dream big, of course. It's also great to really accomplish something.

Reward Your Achievement

When you accomplish a mini-goal or task, reward yourself for your accomplishment. Give yourself a gift, be it a physical gift, or a mental one. Rent a movie, read a book you like, or just make yourself a cup of really great coffee-- the expensive stuff you don't use every day.

Accomplishing your main goal should be its own reward, and you can plan an end-reward as well. But the mini-goals on the path to that accomplishment need to be celebrated, too. They are the steps without which you won't make it to the finish line.

Get Started Now!

There's nothing that says you can't start the resolutions, the plans, and even the first steps right now. Whether it's the end of December, or the fifteenth of March, a "year" doesn't have to be from January 1 to December 31. Students in particular find that, mentally, they are better off thinking of the year as starting in September.The academic calendar gives them an artificial year, but it also means that the end of the year has a lot more time open to catch up on goals.

So, figure out today what you can do to start on the path of reaching your goals, and then do it. You might need to research or learn about your goal, or you might need to do some personal evaluation-- measuring where you're starting from so you can get off to a running start. 

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