Never Fail a New Year’s Resolution Again

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

I’m guessing you have grand plans for 2018. Yeah, me too.

Just like the grand plans we had for 2017. And 2016. And so on.

Not that those weren’t good years. And not that we didn’t grow. But we seem to fall short of those grand expectations.

So what makes us think 2018 will be any different?

If the past several Januaries have yielded promises that were made to be broken, what makes us think we’ll finally break that cycle this year?

Will we be more committed? Or are we just fooling ourselves?

And what can we do differently?

The Myth of Our Future Selves

We tend to believe our future selves will be better than we are today.

We believe tomorrow we’ll wake up early to exercise, even though we decided to sleep in this morning.

We think that next week we’ll buckle down and focus on our work even though today was spent watching three hours of Netflix.

And we think next year we’ll have the willpower to finish all our resolutions even though statistics show only 8% of people keep theirs and our own records aren’t much better.

This path — this thinking — will eventually lead to failure. And we keep setting ourselves up for it.

We can all make improvements. We can all practice more willpower and make positive changes. But these things take time. They take hard work and patience. They don’t just magically happen because a ball drops on New Year’s Eve.

If we want to follow through on this year’s changes, we can’t rely on our future selves’ willpower. We need to better prepare for success.

Stop Idolizing the Start

Has anyone ever told you the “first step in any journey is the hardest?” Or that “a solution well begun is half done?”

Ridiculous statements. Both of them.

Anyone can start something. Starting is easy. As the old saying goes, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

It’s easy to buy some exercise clothes and sign up for a gym membership. Going regularly for a year is much more difficult.

It’s easy to buy some books or enroll in classes. But things become much harder when we’re expected to actually produce results.

Idolizing the start gives us a false sense of accomplishment. It lets us take the pressure off before we’ve actually accomplished anything.

But worse, we become blind to the real issues that keep us from finishing. We don’t address the reasons that cause us to stop at a goal half-finished or drop a resolution after six weeks.

If we actually want to finish what we start, we need to recognize the reasons we’re not finishing. And take steps to address them before they trip us up again this year.

Recognize the Pitfalls of Change

“Transformation is a process, not an event.” — John P. Kotter, Leading Change

John P. Kotter has spent his career leading change initiatives. Throughout decades of change successes and failures, he’s found that there are often consistent reasons on why changes either succeed or fall apart.

In Leading Change, he gives some of the primary reasons that most change efforts fail:

  • Not creating a sense of urgency.
  • Having an unclear vision.
  • Failing to secure the critical resources needed.
  • Allowing obstacles to block the new vision.
  • Failing to create short-term wins.
  • Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the culture.

But these issues aren’t unique to organizational change. They’re not specific to new development programs or reorganizations. These same issues plague every person who’s looking to make improvements in their life.

Whether we’re changing our own organization or our own behaviors, most changes struggle and stall out in similar ways.

So if we’re hoping to have better success in 2018, these are the areas we need to address. And maybe we’ll stop setting ourselves up for that inevitable failure that’s plagued us in prior years.

Overcome Today’s Complacency. Know Your Mission.

A number of years ago, I tried to overhaul a company’s software programs. I wanted to change how they managed projects and communicated internally.

The new programs were far superior. More intuitive, better functionality, cheaper to maintain. An obvious slam dunk. I rolled it out…and it failed miserably.

While I saw the improvements, no one else saw a problem with the existing program. I failed to instill any sense of urgency into the end-users. So they didn’t see an improvement. They only saw an inconvenience.

I failed the first rule of leading change. I allowed complacency to continue. And I didn’t realize that until people see the problem they won’t commit to a solution.

We each go through this same struggle every day. If we don’t see a problem, we’re not committed to a solution.

So before we choose our resolutions, we need to believe there’s a problem. And it needs to be significant enough to create a sense of urgency.

Are you trying to learn a new skill because you want to bolster your resume, or because you have a burning desire to make a greater difference in the world?

Are you trying to get healthier because the Internet says you should, or because you want to have more energy to play and connect with your kids?

What problem are you trying to solve? Is your why significant enough to create a sense of urgency? Because in Nietzsche’s prophetic words, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Overcome Uncertainty. Develop a Vision.

“In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision.” — Dalai Lama

Recognizing a problem gives us motivation. It gives us our why. But for motivation to become action, we need a what and a how.

Organizational changes fail when there’s no continuity to decision-making. People realize there’s a problem, but aren’t sure what to do next. Every decision creates the potential for delays and lost momentum. And change efforts devolve into yesterday’s ideas.

An effective vision solves this problem. It recognizes the daily sacrifices that we’ll encounter, but shows us how these sacrifices will yield benefits that are far superior to inaction. And it gives a unifying direction to all of our decisions through the simple question, “Is this in line with the vision?”

Vision gives us a path to move from today’s spot to that distant finish line. Because if we can’t confidently make this trip in our minds, we’re unlikely to do it in real life.

Social psychologist Emily Balcetis found that this exercise not only improved our performance in reaching our goals, but also increased our enjoyment in doing so.

She called it her “Eyes on the Prize” strategy. When she studied people trying to exercise, she found that people who continued to visualize the finish were both more likely to complete the task and found it more enjoyable as well.

What’s your vision? Can you confidently make the trip in your mind?

As the great visionary Alan Turing once wrote,

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Secure the Necessary Resources. Focus on What Matters.

Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake ran an online gaming company. It was shortly after the dot com bubble burst in the early 2000s and few people wanted to invest in online gaming. Not surprisingly, the company was struggling.

It looked as though Game Neverending (which yes, was designed to be a never-ending game) was going to dry up until Stewart and Caterina recognized an opportunity. They realized that the photo sharing capability their team developed within the game had the potential to expand.

The company discussed, voted, and decided to fully commit to this new area, at the expense of further game development.

It eventually became Flickr, one of the largest photo-sharing services in the world.

Stewart and Caterina were able to turn a potential failure into a success. But only because they fully committed to the new concept. As LinkedIn CEO and podcast host Reid Hoffman says,

“You can pivot from failure to success. But only if you slash and burn everything that isn’t working.”

As we look for our future opportunities for growth in 2018, are we focusing our energy towards the critical areas, or are we still spreading our resources too thin?

We’re all well aware of the evils of multi-tasking, but this goes beyond limiting our resolutions to a manageable quantity.

If we want to succeed with our new resolutions, we also need to rid ourselves of the other plans we’ve been carrying along half-heartedly. We need to cull these legacy distractions so we can focus on the new initiatives that will yield the most impact.

Peter Drucker recognized the futility of trying to grow while being overwhelmed with an accumulated legacy of previous issues. To this situation, he suggested we continue to ask ourselves,

“If it were a decision today to start something we’re already doing, would we? If not, then why do we persist?”

In this mindset, quitting isn’t a failure, but a strategic choice. Instead of mindlessly plodding along under the yoke of each past commitment, we intelligently re-evaluate each for its current worth.

We’re not giving up, but choosing how to better use our energy. And reserving our focus for the best opportunities.

Before you can begin 2018 resolutions in earnest, what legacy issues do you need to discard?

How can you make sure that you’ll give full concentration to the opportunities that really matter?

As the Chinese proverb says,

“If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.”

Overcome Future Obstacles. Create an Environment for Success

“Most people get caught up in the blizzard of things coming at them. In contrast, successful people get above the blizzard so they can see the causes and effects at play.” — Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work

Most strategies are success-based. We’re usually quite skilled at developing elaborate plans that fail to anticipate the issues we’re sure to face.

As Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbling On Happiness,

“Because most of us get so much more practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.”

It’s one of the reasons that while vision is important, it’s only the start. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

So what happens when our strategy takes that first unexpected punch in the mouth?

What decides who keeps going and who gives up in the face of unforeseen hardship?

It’s not a matter of resolve. It’s more often a matter of environment.

Willpower and motivation are important, but it’s our environment that helps us adapt into new behaviors. As a company culture encourages and discourages different behaviors, our individual environments reflect the same influence.

Many people want to place higher priority on their personal development. But they struggle to do so in an environment that isn’t supportive to growth. Their environment is constantly encouraging them to stop. Their willpower is pushing them to keep going. And eventually willpower loses out.

So if we want to make a lasting change, we need to cultivate a supportive environment.

If we want to better prioritize personal development, we need to spend time with people who have similar goals. With people who’ll lift us up rather than drag us down. But we can also make up-front investments. We can enroll in a class and schedule time to focus on that topic. We can set up a space where it’s easy to focus and do our work without distraction. We can set up feedback mechanisms to let us check our progress and ask others to hold us accountable.

If we’re serious about making a change in 2018, we can’t let our willpower carry the burden alone. We need to create a supportive environment. We need a system that will carry us through those moments when willpower fails.

What obstacles are likely to thwart your new goals of 2018?

What system can you set up to lessen them? And help you bounce back more easily when unforeseen issues come up?

Benjamin Disraeli wisely told us, “The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his time when it comes.”

The environment we cultivate readies us for these moments.

Measure Your Progress. Recognize Your Short-term Wins.

“Complex efforts to change strategies or restructure businesses risk losing momentum if there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate.” — John P. Kotter, Leading Change

Major change takes time. Sometimes lots of time. And it often takes sacrifice. It’s this combination that causes most people to quit.

After time, sacrifice wears on us. Our motivation starts to fall off. The vision seems suddenly less desirable amid the daily sacrifices.

It’s the reason 80% of new gym members stop using their membership by February. Although that weird naked guy in the locker room doesn’t help things either.

When we don’t see the benefit of our sacrifices, it’s natural to question whether the eventual payoff is worth it.

Nothing motivates like success. But most improvements aren’t immediately noticeable. Our first changes are small and incremental. Frequently improvement is there and we just don’t notice it.

That’s why short-term wins are so critical.

A good short-term win lets us know we’re on the right track. It gives us a boost of morale, justifies our sacrifices, and builds some momentum to keep going.

But we shouldn’t just leave these motivational tools up to chance. We can recognize that we’ll eventually need to reinforce our motivation and plan them into the process.

What can you measure? How can you get incremental feedback on each day’s progress?

A good short-term win is visible, objective, and related to our change effort. When we can set ourselves up to notice this progress, we give ourselves the motivation we need to keep pushing ahead.

As business coach and author Aubrey Daniels wrote,

“Without reinforcement, no behavior can survive for long.”
Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

Turn Resolutions into Habits.

“Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are always subject to degradation as soon as the pressures associated with a change effort are removed.” — John P. Kotter, Leading Change

Do you ever wake up in the morning and just not feel like brushing your teeth?

Probably not. But if you did, what would you do? You’d likely brush your teeth.

Hopefully, brushing your teeth is automatic. It’s just an assumed part of your day.

It’s not an instinctive human practice. If you went back to the Middle Ages, you’d be hard pressed to find a toothbrush anywhere. But at some point in the past 500 years, brushing our teeth became part of our daily culture.

Wouldn’t it be great if exercising and personal development investments became as automatic as brushing your teeth?

A lot of people say it takes 21 days to form a habit. But I doubt there’s a magic number for everyone. Or every habit. What I do know is that until a change becomes part of our daily culture, it’s always subject to regression.

But developing a habit isn’t complicated. It only takes dedication and deliberate practice.

As we repeat behaviors, and act consistently with our vision, our practiced skills become automatic. When we continue to repeat these behaviors, and continue to see the benefits, we’re able to transform them into our daily culture.

So the real question needs to be, can we stick with this resolution long enough for it to become a daily habit? Can we keep the pressure on until it becomes part of our daily culture?

Aristotle famously said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Let’s make sure what we’re repeatedly doing is something we’ll be proud to repeatedly do.

Here’s to an Amazing 2018

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” — Rumi

We all want to lead a successful 2018. One that brings the changes we’re looking for. But hoping for better results isn’t a promising plan.

Instead, let’s focus on better setting ourselves up for success. Let’s make sure that this year, we’re able to keep going when we typically stop.

What problem are you trying to solve? Are you committed to a solution?

What’s your vision? Can you confidently make the trip in your mind?

Can you give this change enough focus? What legacy issues should you discard first?

How can you set up your environment to support this change?

How can you measure each day’s progress and give yourself some short-term wins?

Can you stick with this change long enough to make it a part of your daily culture?

Starting is easy. Focus on finishing. In Ed Catmull’s words, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Agree? Disagree? Don’t be shy, let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!

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