New Year’s Goals, Monthly Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are hard. Many people make them every year, and few actually succeed. I’ve personally never been successful at keeping a New Year’s resolution, primarily because the magnitude of the task at hand seemed so big, and “life got in the way” (ie. other things took priority to the resolution that was established.)

With that said, I thought about approaching New Year’s Resolutions as a design problem.


The problem with New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are often ineffective approaches to an end goal. New Year’s resolutions are about aspiration and behavioural change. The format of a New Year’s resolution is a statement that expresses a promise or a solution. It uses an arbitrary point in time, and an arbitrary length of time to do this. Most of them are also formulated in large, ambiguous ways (“I want to lose weight”, “I want to stop smoking” etc.).

To me, there are three major problems with New Year’s resolutions:

  • A New Year’s resolution is articulated as a promise or solution, and does not express the problem you actually want to solve.
  • Because of this, a New Year’s resolution does not express the motivation behind the resolution, or a “why”.
  • The time horizon is too long. New Year’s resolutions don’t account for unexpected changes, like jobs, travel, partners, interests etc.

Reframing New Year’s Resolutions to Goals

This is why, in the last eighteen months, I’ve reframed it for myself. It breaks down to two elements:

  1. Set clearly defined goals with an arbitrary time horizon (1 month, 3 months, 6 months, a year), and ask yourself why you want to achieve these goals.
  2. Use monthly resolutions to work towards, and check in on, these goals.

Set clearly defined goals

Over the last eight years, I’ve been reasonably good at consistently working out and not eating too many bad things. I would have periods in which I would get really in to running, or cycling, or interval training, but all slowly faded. There were triggers that have caused these positive behavioural change, but none of them lasted.

In June of 2015 I set myself one personal goal to finish the year with: Become more fit. How? (1) Work out more, in a consistent way, and (2) be intentional about the things I eat. Why? I want to reach and extend the peak of my fitness for as long as I can. (or: I’m getting older and I’m actively going to make sure I do it the right way.)

The tool of choice? Monthly resolutions.

Time-box a step towards the goal

For the month of June 2015 this meant:

  1. Work out at least 3 times a week.
  2. No bread, pasta, white carbs, processed foods etc.
  3. Not more than one alcoholic drink a night.

These were simple rules to follow, the one month time horizon is a small commitment, and this monthly approach allows for faster iteration and continuous success. If successful, these rules were going to roll over to July.

🚀💪🏻 → 😬😱 → 😎👌🏻

And they were successful. Yet halfway through July I had to help with a project in New York City. And while I could keep up the workout rule, the work priorities and distractions of New York got the upper hand. With monthly resolutions, July was lost, and I was able to pick it up again in August. Into September, then October. And whoops, because my birthday is in November, basically all the rules were broken again.

All time horizons are arbitrary. With New Year’s resolutions, I might have had more resolve. But most likely I would have folded on them completely.

Monthly resolutions are small commitments

Fast forward, I restarted the rules in January, but with a change to 4 workouts a week. I succeeded, and switched to 5 workouts a week in February.

Nowadays, it feels off when I don’t work out more than 3 times a week. Monthly resolutions have allowed me to change my behaviour in a flexible, iterative way throughout the year. Beyond the personal health and fitness changes, I’ve set goals for quality time spent with friends, consuming less things from the internet, travel, exploring hobbies, reading and improving my apartment.

The end result of all this is having done over 200 workouts, spending quality time with a small set of close friends, spending a couple of weeks traveling and (almost) completely disconnecting from work, picking up and getting halfway decent at tennis and tripling my reading (which is only an abysmal six books for the year, but still.)

Continuous Iteration

One of the key strengths of monthly resolutions is continuous iteration. If you don’t succeed for a month, that’s okay. Take a cheat day. Take a cheat week! Hell, challenge if you even should be doing some of your resolutions. Adapt.

If you are successful, consider if you’ve been challenging yourself enough. Maybe you easily cut the amount of time spent watching TV. Should you even be watching TV? Maybe you breezed through taking a 2 hour walk every weekend day. What about a hike every weekend? Maybe you have an extremely busy life and found a way to meditate for 10 minutes a day, what about making it 15 minutes?

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you failed. It means you need to reflect and consider what you should do different next time. If it does work, it doesn’t mean you didn’t challenge yourself hard enough. But it might be worth considering if you did.

I hope some of you try this. And if you do, please let me know how it is working for you.