Lots of people are going to come up with goals and resolutions in the New Year. Here’s my advice on how to increase your likelihood of success (and help you make one in the first place if you don’t know what you want to do yet).
1. What is the real objective behind your goal or resolution?
A goal by itself is like a horse head without a body. It knows where it wants to go but has no means of getting there. The objective behind the goal (whether it be to have more energy, more clarity, more human connection, more productivity, or more fun) is the heart, lungs, and legs that will motivate the whole horse (including the head) to get to where it wants to go. The objective is why you want more of something in your life.
So, this new year, when you settle on an initial resolution, step back and examine the objective behind it. Is it a drive that burns strong? Will it carry you through the mud and through the rivers and over the hills required to get to it? If you find that the objective behind the resolution isn’t generating a lot of energy on its own, you may not be able to follow through on it, no matter how much your head “wants” to do it.
2. What are the ambient environmental conditions that encourage or discourage this goal from succeeding?
We each live in highly complex, difficult-to-change environments that are unique to our situation alone. A cactus or rosebush can’t just grow wherever and neither can your goals and interests without the support of a cooperative set of environmental conditions (many of which you were born with or chanced into and may be invisible).
This is why goal-achievement is so difficult to prescribe from afar. The goal-achievement self-help industry cannot create personalized instructions for them to grow in 7 billion different environments, and so the instructions often ignore the environmental conditions entirely saying simply:
- Take goal out of box
- Water the goal every day for 21 days
- Make sure it doesn’t die
Step 3 is usually left purposefully vague — just commit yourself, they say. Go ahead and throw out any how-to manuals that you have (including this one). Growing a goal requires that you put on your own gardening hat and gloves and pay attention to the soil that you and you alone have to work with.
Make a list of environmental conditions and life circumstances that you believe will affect the chances of success for your resolution to succeed (either positively or negatively). Things like: I have a long-ish commute to work, I have weekends off, when I’m stressed about work I crave unhealthy food, there’s no gym near my house, I have a quiet room to myself and time to be in it every day, etc.
Consider swapping your original resolution with one focused on changing the environmental condition that has the most potential to prevent the success of your original resolution.
For example, if you want to bike more, and you live in a hilly neighborhood with no good bike lanes, and it rains all the time, do not ignore the possibility that these environmental conditions will work against you and greatly increase your likelihood of failing. This is where it’s good to go back to the source of your motivation, the primary objective behind the resolution, to see if this really is important enough to you. If so, it might make more sense to change the resolution to focus on moving to a new neighborhood or even city, where the circumstances for this goal’s success are in your favor. Switching your resolution from “ride my bike more” to “move to a flatter, more bike friendly neighborhood and buy rain gear” or even “move to a sunnier city” might seem less exciting, but that’s because it more closely represents the amount of energy and work that is required. The difficult part is no longer invisible. Making the invisible visible allows us to properly weigh the effort that needs to go in to make it happen.
Going back to the horse metaphor, if your objective and resolution is a horse, the environmental conditions are its pasture. Tending to the (green/brown/thriving/wilted?) pasture will not only benefit this particular horse, but all other horses that might come trotting by later on.
3. What kind of quality time does your resolution enable?
In my own experience, I’ve found that almost all goals, resolutions, and things worth living for in this life come down to 3 valuable end states: quality time with people, quality time working on interests, and quality time with yourself. A goal to exercise more and become healthier is valuable because it enables you to have more quality time with yourself, your friends, and your family. A goal to learn Spanish is valuable because it enables you to have more quality time conversing with people that you couldn’t speak to before, reading books you couldn’t read before, participating in a culture you couldn’t participate in before. A goal to write more is valuable because it enables to you think more clearly, know yourself better, express yourself more accurately, and share your thoughts with people you admire and respect.
Bronnie Ware  spent years in palliative care for the elderly, sick, and dying, and asked hundreds of folks at the end of their lives what they regretted. It came down to 5 basic things:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
In my opinion, these are all versions of the same regret: not enough quality time. Whether it was because they did things that they thought they were supposed to do, or because they spent time working instead of with their family, or never shared parts of themselves that they wanted to share, or let friends drift away, or just forgot to make the time to enjoy life as it was happening. The common denominator is that the time spent connecting with their true selves, their closest people, and their deepest passions was neglected or of low quality.
Think about your resolution in terms of how it combats these potential future regrets. By focusing on the quality time that it enables, you may find even more direct ways of unlocking this quality time with yourself, with your favorite people, and with your interests. Edit your resolution until it traces the quickest path to this end.
4. How will I remember to keep my resolution?
A goal, or resolution, above all else is intended to be a course correction. The years go by and we make resolutions in order to make sure we stay on track and end up at the right place (or at least, not in the wrong place). It’s important to remember this because if we can admit that they are course corrections, then we can let go of the necessity for perfection (a perfect course never needs correction) and just make sure we’re going in the right-ish direction.
Rather than try to make the perfect resolution now, and stick with it for a full year (we all know how that usually ends up), commit to revisiting your resolution on the 1st of every month (I usually tweet “Rabbit rabbit”  on the 1st morning of every month as a celebration of this ritual of course correction). Revisit your resolution, remind yourself of the course you were on, take what you’ve learned from the previous month and make your resolution stronger. The concept of getting stronger when things are chaotic has been termed “antifragility” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb  and explains how any number of seemingly fragile systems have survived for thousands if not millions of years simply by continuing to course correct when things go off course.
Set up redundant reminders: on your calendar, on your phone, on post it notes, etc. Make the monthly task easy and phrase it in such a way that you can say for sure whether it was done in a given month (“do X 3 times a week” is better than “do X more” or “get Xier”). Create a document with a history of your resolution’s evolution that you can review every month. Leave notes about what worked and what didn’t (pay special attention to environmental conditions or circumstances that you might have missed before). Make adjustments you think might help. Share it with a couple close friends every month so that the information is “out there” and can’t be easily brushed away. Then re-commit for the new month.
I did this in 2013 with a hundred or so other people and it was the first time that I actually had my resolution in mind all year long. Even better, my resolution got stronger over time because it benefited from learning from the obstacles, environmental conditions, and randomness that it encountered throughout the year. Here’s the current status of my resolution file from 2013 .
5. What should my resolution be?
After all of this, sometimes the biggest challenge is coming up with a resolution in the first place. If you’re completely out of ideas, here’s a good template to start from:
In order to have more [energy, clarity, productivity, human connection, or fun] in my life, I will increase my quality time with [self, interest, or person] by proactively doing [resolution] in the new [year, month, week].
The magic here is that you are connecting the dots between a resolution (which is action-oriented) through the quality time it will increase, and the end result in will give you in your life. When motivation for the resolution wanes, or new environmental circumstances pop up, reconnect the dots and get new motivation from the end result instead of from fleeting excitement or temporary check marks on a list. Finally, remember to mark your calendar for the 1st of every month, improving the resolution as you learn more about the best way to get the most out of it.
Good luck! If you feel inclined, please recommend this article to others that you think might like it. And if you do something inspired by this, let me know how it goes.