Eight Ways to Make New Year's Resolutions Stick

medium_80007118 This week marks the end of 2013, the beginning of 2014, and my 42nd birthday. (Yes, as of Thursday my age is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.)

What with the convergence of New Year's and my birthday, I've always been a fan of taking stock, looking forward, and making resolutions. Sometimes I make specific goals. (I've even kept one or two!) Other times I have vague resolution-ish thoughts but nothing concrete, and that's OK too.

Resolutions get a bad rap. There's a lot of guilt in play, as people feel like they should make them. Other people make them and quickly break them: more guilt. Still other folks genuinely want to follow through but don't know how.

Here are some tips that have worked for me and other people I know when making plans and hopes for the New Year:

  1. Set an intention instead. Resolutions have always felt too brittle for me. (After all, when we don't follow through, we say we broke them.) Intentions are more flexible. Listen to the difference between "I resolve" and "I set the intent." The former feels like one of Harry Potter's Unbreakable Vows; the latter points you in a worthwhile direction. Maybe you need the force of the former, but I like the latter because it can bend as our lives shift. And we can set intentions again and again. There's a reason people in 12 step programs take things one day at a time.
  2. Make it a story. Most resolutions are vague goals that lack context. Donald Miller suggests we come up with stories instead. Stories are compelling, and they take us somewhere. According to Miller's definition, a story involves a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. What could be a better framework for a New Year's improvement project? "Lose weight" is a worthy goal, but without a concrete story to hang it on, it's too easy to give up. So instead of getting in shape, a story-based resolution might be to complete a road race or do a big hike with friends.
  3. Explore the 5 W's. In ninth grade journalism class I learned the basics of a news story: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. (Also How.) If you want your resolutions to stick, you need to spend some time with these questions. So you want to cook at home more instead of eating out. Who will support you in this effort, and whom will be impacted by this lifestyle change? What will you do to make this happen? When will you plan, shop and cook? Where will this happen---do you need to de-clutter the kitchen? stock the pantry? And most importantly, Why is it important that you do this? [Update: another way to look at this is to focus not on making goals, but on refining your systems.]
  4. Take things monthly. Gretchen Rubin is a pioneer of this approach. Her book The Happiness Project chronicles a year-long self-improvement project with a different emphasis each month (money, home, family, etc.). Why not pick something modest to work on in January? Then on January 31 you get to celebrate your success (or shrug off your failure) and move on to something new in February.
  5. Pick a word. My friend Ruth Everhart chooses a word or phrase to guide her for the year. And many of my pastor friends hand out stars with words on them to their congregations on Epiphany Sunday---I've done it myself. These words become a prayer or meditation focus. For folks who find self-reflection tedious, there's something serendipitous about being given a word to live with for a whole year. (My 2013 word was breathe.)
  6. Let the resolution grow out of a deeper reflection. Ideally, a resolution, intention, or story will grow out of a period of reflecting on the year to come. In other words, don't go for the same knee-jerk resolution you pick every year---it may not fit your life right now. If you're about to move across country or get a promotion at work, it's probably not the right time to take on a new hobby or join that CrossFit class. Or because of those changes, it may be the perfect time to take care of yoursef. But the point is, your resolution needs to grow out of a realistic assessment of the year to come. I've been using this tool to say goodbye to 2013 and hello to 2014, but there are tons of tools like this on the Internet.
  7. Build in some No with your Yes. I'm convinced that a lot of resolutions fail because people add on habits or practices without taking other things away. So you want to spend 20 minutes each morning in prayer or meditation. OK... but what are you willing to give up in order to make that happen? (Additional sleep? that bleary-eyed early morning Facebook session?)
  8. Tell people. Every December my Writing Revs get together for a Christmas luncheon, and we always go around the table and share our writing goals for the coming year. Stating our goals aloud in the company of trusted friends is powerful. We are communal creatures---only the most disciplined among us can make a major life change without any support, encouragement or accountability from friends and family. If you're one of those rocks or islands that Simon and Garfunkel sang about, congratulations. If you're like the rest of us, tweet or Facebook your goals. Blog about them. Tell a friend. Heck, tell me in the comments---I will cheer you on!


One of my resolutions in 2014 is to make better use of my email list---sign up here to receive a free preview of my next book before it is released, information about a Lent online retreat, and other goodies.


photo credit: Kanko* via photopin cc . I'm told the image says "I wish you a Happy New Year". And I do.