You Don’t Need Resolutions. You Need Momentum.

The start of the New Year provides an opportunity to sit back, think about what you really want, and to set a plan towards the achievement of those things.

Most resolutions are things like, “get in better shape,” “lose x pounds,” “earn more money,” “launch my business,” “be less resentful.”

These are better than nothing. Poorly-formulated-and-though-out goals provide more to go on than no goals. At least with poor goals you have something to measure your progress against.

Yet most people fail to achieve their New Year’s Resolutions. Even when the resolutions are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timely), the sands of time drop on by and they barely lose a pound, earn an extra dollar, go to the gym, or acquire a customer.

What gives?

The Failure of “Resolutions”

Resolutions are opportunities to “resolve” to get something done. You resolve to lose more weight. You resolve to get a better job. You resolve to launch a business. You resolve to study more. You resolve to be kinder to your friends and colleagues. You resolve to be less resentful. You resolve to grow your business.

Resolving is a verb. It is something you do and you decide to sit down and “make resolutions.” You may write them down, verbalize them to yourself, or even broadcast them publicly.

This is where resolutions turn out to be so deceitful and enticing.

By being an action and a verb, resolving is something that feels like we are moving towards goals without actually moving towards them. Sure, the first step towards a goal is actually making it clear, but there are plenty of people in the world with unfulfilled goals because they never actually took real, substantive action on those goals. They tricked themselves into thinking that they were making progress.

Have you ever had to do an assignment for school or work, like write a research paper or a proposal, and instead of actually sitting down to write the paper, you opened up a document, put the header on it, and spent the next two hours “researching” for the paper before actually writing?

You feel like you made progress without actually making real, substantive progress.

Don’t do this. (giphy)

This is how most people treat their resolutions.

They sit, think, write down, even make SMART their resolutions, and then, if they’re particularly on top of things, put something on the calendar to make progress (e.g., “Buy gym membership on Tuesday.”).

New Year’s Resolutions can trick us this way into thinking we’re making progress when we’re really just Spongebob sitting at the essay table.

Luckily, we can fix this pretty easily.

The Power of Momentum

An object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.

Most people set resolutions around things that they are “at rest” on in their lives. They’ve hit a threshold and want to lose the weight, want to earn more money, want to stop being a jerk, or want to be a better parent.

“No more!” they tell themselves. They settle down and write out a resolution.

From here, most people think about how they will achieve that resolution. Maybe they’ll try to be kinder, or they decide to go to the gym, or they research how to start a side-gig.

But this thinking is often unorganized and undisciplined. We lead ourselves down rabbit holes where we think about all the things that can be done to achieve the resolution. Little action is then taken.

If we’re lucky, we rely on our motivation. But then one day we wake up and feel sick, or tired, or like we just don’t feel like getting that thing done today, or that the kids need taken care of before ourselves.

For whatever reason, the willpower is not enough.

The wheels spin. The New Year trudges on, cold and careless to your so-called resolution.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I have a few clients who love to analyze things. This makes them fantastic analysts and gives them a depth of understanding that decision-oriented people often crave. But this also has a dark side where they will work for hours “researching” ways to approach new clients and customers instead of going out there to approach them.

The solution is creating momentum.

When they start out their weeks going door-to-door, doing phone calls, setting up meetings, and sludging their way through rejections to the eventual closed deals, they get 80% closer to their weekly goals by the end of Monday. They get the most important and hardest stuff done first.

This goes against productivity common sense that tells us to start small and work our way up through the work day. “Start your day by clearing your inbox and returning calls, not sales calls!” this advice says.

But just like the Resolution-er, fires pop up, things drag on, energy wanes, and those most important items — in their cases, usually outbound sales — get pushed to the back of the agenda.

When you start with momentum, the smaller items get done even faster and the bigger items lend themselves to more success.

For the clients, this means new potential sales pop up, they get calls with prospects, and, eventually, cash starts rolling through the door.

Creating Momentum for the New Year

This isn’t just theory.

You can apply it to your 2018 goals starting now.

The key is to find the one or two things that will create the most momentum and are the most important to get done. What things, when you accomplish them, will create the most opportunity, open the most doors, and make it easiest for you to get a foothold on your goals?

This should be a thing that, even if you fail to achieve it, you still make progress towards your goal. Good goals (and mini-goals) allow us to experience a feeling of growth and progress even if we fail to hit the goal. The Dilbert creator Scott Adams calls this building “systems” instead of building goals.

Here’s a useful exercise you can run to reframe your resolution to create momentum for 2018:

  1. Write down your #1 resolution or goal for 2018. If you accomplish nothing else all year but this, what would it be?
  2. What things need to happen in order for you to hit this goal? For example, if your goal is to get into medical school, you need to take the MCAT. If your goal is to launch your own business, you need to do customer research. If your goal is to lose 50 pounds, you need to lose 25 pounds first (and 10 pounds before that, and 5 pounds before that…).
  3. Write out as many prerequisite milestones and write them out in reverse order. So, the milestone that happens closes to achieving your goal comes right after the goal. You want to get so granular to that the last milestone you write out, you can do right now. You don’t need to study, you don’t need to network, you don’t need to rely on others for this milestone. This is something that, as soon as you are done with this exercise, you can accomplish. 
    For example: Goal: Get into medical school by December 12, 2018. Milestone 1: Apply to medical schools by [Date1]. Milestone 2: Get an MCAT score of at least XXX by [Date2]. Milestone 3: Take MCAT by [Date3]. Milestone 4: Study for MCAT by [Date4]. Milestone 5: Talk to current first-year medical students about taking the MCAT and get their advice by [Date5]. … 
    For example: Goal: Launch my own online course about my trade by December 1, 2018. Milestone 1: Email potential customers about course by November 15, 2018. Milestone 2: Build course on password-protected web portal by November 1, 2018. Milestone 3: Build out email list to at least 100 potential customers via guest blogging and outreach by October 1, 2018. Milestone 4: Launch website with at least 4 queued blog posts by September 1, 2018. Milestone 5: Learn how to build an appropriate website to host an online course by August 1, 2018. Milestone 6: …
  4. Find the nearest milestone you can achieve right now and get started on it. For example, with the medical school example, you might find that the nearest milestone is reaching out to current first-year medical school students and asking them about their experience applying to med schools. If your goal is to lose weight, your first goal could be to immediately trash all of your junk food. If your goal is to gain strength, your goal could be to immediately test your one-rep max for an exercise. Yes, you’ll want to sign up for the MCAT, sign up for the gym, or get a personal trainer, but you want to do something that when you are done with it, you have more knowledge and momentum than you have now.
  5. Repeat this exercise as many times as you need to until you get actionable items that you can immediately apply after finishing the exercise.

Some tips for making this process easier:

  1. Models: If you have an idea of what you want to do but you are not sure how to do it, find people who come from as similar a background as you as possible and figure out how they did it. Then repeat their steps at their level or better. Many of the successful people I’ve worked with or interviewed followed this process of reverse induction.
  2. Start big, work to small: It’s really tempting to make the goal or resolution and then act on the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t do this. Work backwards from the achievement of the goal. Imagine yourself achieving this thing and then work through how you achieved it. Make note of the pivotal moments in your achieving it — the things that, had they not been done, the goal would have never been achieved. These are your milestones. As you work further and further backwards, you’ll develop more granular milestones. Go as far as you can until you get to, “Sit down and figure out what to take action on.” That’s what you’re doing right now! Do the next thing on the list.
  3. Don’t be a slave to the milestones: The purpose of putting this map together is not to enslave you to it. As you achieve your milestones, you may find that you missed one or that you added one that wasn’t necessary after all. That’s okay. This exercise is designed to help you create momentum towards your achievements and give you the understanding that you are working towards something meaningful.

Put this story down.

Go list your milestones.

Take action.

Create momentum.

The New Year will trudge on regardless. Might as well trudge with it.