This is an annual post, with a new bit at the end! 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.
As for me, I love setting a direction for the upcoming year. (I created a whole workbook-playbook for this purpose, called "Still Possible"! If you subscribe to my email newsletter you should have received it. It's available to new subscribers too; click here.)
If you want to make some New Year’s goals stick, here are some tips that have worked for me and other people I know:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Say 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?
- 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.
- Pick a word. 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.
- 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 yourself. But the point is, your resolution needs to grow out of a realistic assessment of the year to come. I’ll be using the workbook I created to say goodbye to 2016 and hello to 2017 (see above or subscribe here), but there are tons of tools like this on the Internet.
- 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?)
- Tell people. Every December my writing group would get together for a Christmas luncheon, and we would go around the table and share our writing goals for the coming year. Stating our goals aloud in the company of trusted friends was 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!
- Take two steps, not just one. According to the Journal of Consumer Research, people who take only one step toward an exercise or weight-loss regimen (like joining a gym) were more likely to engage in activities that were counterproductive (like bingeing on brownies). Meanwhile, their peers who took a follow-up step (working out right after joining the gym) were more likely to stick with their plan. So while Lao Tzu is right that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, don’t neglect the second step either.
- Focus on systems, not goals. I love this reflection from James Clear, in which he talks about the process as opposed to the destination: "I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress... Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win." For example, the one year I set a mileage goal for running (1,000 miles) I got injured. Coincidence? Perhaps. But since then I've adjusted my approach and set different kinds of intentions: to run three times a week and to participate in various races along the way. In James Clear's parlance, those are actually systems I'm putting in place rather than goals. I suspect they will result in a great end-of-year total mileage, but if they don't, the journey still took me to great places, and that's more important.
Do you have intentions or hopes for 2017? I'd love to hear.