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Seven Steps to Setting New Year’s Resolutions that you Can’t Not Keep

“No Trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently” — Agnes de Mille

New Years is a collective moment of aspiration. So many people make hopeful goals in the midst of the sound of the New Years celebration. We take advantage of the energy of the metaphorical trumpet that’s playing in the new year, and hope that we can sustain a new vision for who we will be after we’ve forgotten the tune it played.

The simple truth is that most New Year’s goals are given up within a few weeks. Our vision of who we might become gets superseded by the habits and quirks of who we are. Its this conflict that causes 80% of resolutions to be abandoned by February.

When we learn how to turn our resolutions into meaningful goals and action, that number could be drastically lower. Here are seven steps to ensure that your New Years Resolutions sustain you long past February, and well into the year, helping you become the person you really know yourself to be.

And, to make this experience most useful for you, I want you to participate as you read. Before going on, grab a sheet of paper, and write out at least one resolution that you want for 2018. Write it out however comes to mind: first thought, best thought.

1. Turn your Resolution into clear action

The first problem that tanks most resolutions and New Year’s goals is that they are vague. We want to “lose weight” or “learn a language” or “write a book”. These goals sound clear, but the problem is that they lack a specificity to help us understand exactly what to do. And when we don’t know exactly what to do, our brains default to old patterns of behavior — the very behavior we want to change.

Instead, we need to take the resolution we wrote down and define at least one clear action that we can knowingly complete. So, instead of “lose weight”, we need to state “go for a 20 minute run twice a week”, or “drink 5 glasses of water every day.” Instead of “learn a language”, we need to state “listen to our ‘learn spanish’ CD for 20 minutes 3 days a week.” Instead of “write a book”, we need to specify “write 500 words, 2 days a week.”

We need to define our action so clearly that we can review at the end of a week and ask “did we do it,” and have a ‘yes/no’ answer. Bonus points if you also block out the days and times you will take action, so that its even easier to determine when you will take action.

2. Make “habit” your ally

A habit is an unconscious process that we automatically do without thinking about it. Every time I walk by a chocolate bar, I break off a piece and eat it. I have seen myself do this all hours of the day, and there have even been times when I’ve done that and then realized that I wasn’t even hungry. A habit is a behavior we’ve encoded deep into our brains, much like the groove on a record.

The idea of a habit is often seen as something bad, but habits can also support our personal growth goals. For example, if we want to lose weight, we can intentionally create a new habit of drinking 2 glasses of water before every meal. If we want to learn a language, we could create a habit of listening to a “learn the language” podcast during our morning commute to work. If we want to write a book, we could create a habit of editing our writing between Monday and Wednesday, and using our writing time from Thursday through Sunday for pure writing.

A habit takes typically 21 to 28 days to really encode it as a pattern. Sometimes, it may be challenging at first requiring extra energy. But, if we are intentional with practicing the habits we want, within a short time it will become unconscious, making the “right choice” the easy choice.

One of the biggest reasons why we abandon our New Year’s Resolutions is that they are often in opposition to our habits. If we want to lose weight, we need to fight against our habits of drinking 3 beers with every hockey game we watch, or our habit of snacking on cookies before we go to bed. So, it can also be just as important to take a look at the habits we have that are currently impeding the goals we have, and find a new habit to replace the old one.

So, in addition to defining clear action that we will take to achieve our New Years Resolution, write out one habit that you want to establish that will support you in achieving that resolution. Give yourself 28 days of intentional effort, and you can feel good that after 28 days of mindful intentional practice of that habit, you will have encoded the new behavior into your brain so that it will be easier to maintain.

3. Set goals to give room for progression

Often when setting goals, we envision our end-game. We see ourselves having the ripped body, or fitting into our skinny jeans. We see ourselves having the perfect conversation with a stranger while on vacation. We see ourselves holding up the printed book and showing our friends. When we start our efforts and then measure ourselves against an end point that is far away, we are creating conditions that Buddhist Philosophers refer to as “suffering.” Well, we all call that suffering…

What’s happening is that we are judging our current self against what we wish we were, and inevitably focus on the “gap”. The experience of that gap is emotionally painful. It brings on shame, guilt and remorse. Those feelings are massively demotivational, causing us to want to give up even if we are making progress.

Instead, what is very powerful is to set our goals lower so that we can achieve them knowing that we will move on in the near future. What some researchers have observed is that we need to anticipate at least a 70% probability of success. When we experience that, and are close to achieving that goal, we experience a boost of energy making it easier to accomplish our goals.

So, take a look at the initial actions and habit you wrote down. How likely do you feel you can achieve that this week? If you feel you have anything less than an 80% probability of success for taking action and making meaningful progress on establishing your new habit, adjust them until you feel a sense of motivation. It’s no use to set a goal of writing 1000 words a day for a book, if you know you’re going to be lucky to write 100 words two days a week. Likewise, saying you’re going to work out for 60 minutes, three times a week, when you know that you don’t really have that time, is going to set yourself up for failure. If you can commit to ten minutes of exercise, two days a week right now, and that’s more than you are currently doing, AWESOME!

The point here is to acknowledge that you are human, you have limitations. You can’t be in two places at the same time. You can’t split your attention into two different tasks at the same time. So, set your action goals so that you feel confident that you can achieve them. You’ll see shortly, that by creating sustainable action now, it will be easier to increase that action later (if it’s right for you).

4. Set Progress goals to be short-term, no longer than 3 months

One of the strange quirks of the human brain is that while we can anticipate out into the distant future, we make decisions based on short-term desires. This is why even when we want to lose weight to support our long term heath, we still struggle to say no to chocolate and doughnuts.

Try breaking your action into smaller chunks that are easy to track. Have daily, weekly, or monthly goals. The longest period that we can really anticipate out is three months. Beyond a three month window, we actually begin to lose motivation and find it harder to take action.

Personally, I like to have weekly goals, along with a three month aspirational goal. The weekly goals are easy to track, and they add up to the three month goal. Having only one or the other, at least personally, has lead me to often give up on the weekly goals when things are busy (because if there’s no bigger loss of time, the who cares if I skip a week). Or, if I only have the larger goal for three-months out, I am far more likely to procrastinate.

So, for your resolution: what will you do every week? What day of the week will you check in to confirm that you’ve taken action? What do you want to achieve within three months? Take a moment to confirm that you see how the weekly goals align with the greater goal, because unless you can clearly see how the weekly goals will naturally lead to the three-month goal, somethings likely to fall apart.

Then, after three months, you can evaluate if the weekly goals are serving you. Were they easy to fulfill? Do you want to modify them, and increase what you are doing? Did you find them hard to sustain, and need to decrease what you are doing? You will often find that by creating new habits that are achievable, you’ll find that you can more readily push yourself later harder, and sustain the effort after you’ve built up some initial stamina.

5. Tie actions and goals to your natural source of motivation

Gretchen Rubin has a few helpful books on habits, such as “Better Than Before”, and “The Four Tendencies.” What I have found most helpful from these, is the realization that people sustain motivation from two possible sources — external, or internal. This isn’t that some people are good (i.e. those who can make commitments and always follow through), and that some people are bad (i.e. those who make commitments and forget). There seem to be certain facets of personality that help us take action differently.

Rubin even has an online quiz to help you determine where you source your most useful motivation from (external or internal). Check it out here, if you don’t already know.

So, now that you know whether you are internally or externally motivated: what do you need to help you sustain your action? Do you need an accountability buddy? Do you need your partner to check in with you weekly? Do you need a coach, someone you’re paying to hold you accountable? (Coaches do far more than hold people accountable, but sometimes paying someone can be a strong motivator for action, because we don’t want to waste our money).

Write out: what do you need to keep yourself accountable?

6. Tie your goals to bigger and more meaningful things in your life.

At some point you will have to make a difficult choice — do I want to really go to the gym today, or would I rather just stay home and rest my tired body. When we’ve tied our actions into a deeper purpose “I’m getting healthy so that I can play more actively with my kids”, or “I want to be able to run my first race to prove that I can do it”, it helps us make the right choice when we don’t want to.

Write out: how will achieving this goal help you live a more fulfilled life?

Then, if you can, put up an inspirational quote that excites you, or a photograph (or anything) that helps you think about the bigger reason why you want to take this action near where you are when you have to make the decision. For example, near where you put your running shoes, have a photograph of you playing outside with your kids. Cut out a photograph of the destination you want to visit when you’ve learned the language, and place it in the room where you practice the language. Print out a quote from your favourite author and place it near your computer so that you can see it before you take time to write. This will be a reminder to you why you are doing the work, making it easier to sustain the effort.

And, even beyond personal purpose, if we can tie our goals to how we impact other people, the motivation becomes even stronger. Positive Psychology research has found that people are more motivated in a sustained way when they believe that their work has a positive impact on others. This isn’t to say that personal goals are bad, but just to acknowledge that if the resolution you have is in service of something bigger than yourself, it’s much easier to sustain.

7. Make the goals as fun as you possibly can

When we are doing things that are enjoyable, it’s a lot easier to want to participate even when we are tired or discouraged. Often we make our New Years Resolutions out to be things we “should” do, with a background of guilt and shame. No matter how much effort we are putting towards achieving our goals, if those two emotions are in the background, they will sneak up on us making it harder to pursue the actions we really do want to do, but don’t feel like participating in.

Instead, if we intentionally bring fun, play and joy into the actions we want to be taking, it will be much easier to sustain them well into the year. No longer will we have to force ourselves to go for a work out, but we will be excited about the next opportunity to participate.

Write out: How might I bring fun or play into the actions I take?

So in summary:

What’s a change you want to bring into your life?

What’s One Action that you can regularly take that will support brining that change into your life?

What’s One Habit that you can commit to for the next 28 days?

What’s a small goal that you can commit to in the next 90 days where you feel like you have a 90% probability of achieving it through the daily habit, and weekly action?

How will you leverage your natural tendencies to sustain motivation? (Do you need someone else to hold you accountable?)

What’s your bigger reason behind committing to this change? Put up a photo or a quote near where you are when you have to take that action (i.e. by your door you walk through as you go for a run).

How will you include fun and play regularly into your actions?

The important decisions are the small ones we make regularly to take real action. These are the ones that come without fanfare, that sometimes are hard to make. But, if you practice this routine four times this year (every 90 days), making regular decisions to take real action, you may not perfectly achieve your visions, but I guarantee that you will create far more than you have before, and work towards a sustainable change that will last.

I would love to know — what’s your resolution? How will this process help you achieve your resolution?