Does this pattern sound familiar?
“My New Year’s resolution is to get fit.”
“That’s it: I’m going to start running.”
(Digs out running shoes from the closet, buys a fitness tracker, stumbles out the door on January 2.)
What do you think happens next?
If you’re a social fitness app with millions of users, you don’t have to guess. In 2018 Strava analyzed 31.5 million January activities from recent years and found that the second (!) Friday of January is when things start to fall apart and workouts drop off.
For you gym rats, that means that you’ll get your squat racks back on January 11 in 2019.
Why are we so horrible at New Year’s resolutions?
It is almost to the point that we make New Year’s resolutions with the assumption that we won’t keep them, but why is that? It can be useful to take a step back and look at why resolution-keeping has such a dismal track record.
There’s no visible progress (at first)
The most straightforward example of this is an exercise routine. When you start going to the gym, it can seem like you go through hassle and pain for no visible benefit.
You think “I’ve been waking up early every day, and I’ve been consistently working out. Why isn’t the scale moving, and why do I look the same in the mirror?”
Here’s an example of someone in a Facebook fitness group who has been doing everything they’re supposed to for a week, and is getting confused and discouraged. They are unfortunately a good candidate for the Week 2 drop-off:
Fitness is the most obvious example, but the same concept applies to financial resolutions, and almost any other type of goal: there may be very little noticeable progress at first. It is only by sticking with it consistently over time that the habits snowball.
Saving $100/month will not add up to much at first, but saving $100/month over a span of years certainly will.
It can be uncomfortable
Often the early stages of any habit can be very unpleasant.
For example, I have decided to learn to play guitar, which at my age is not easy. Anyone who has learned to play guitar will tell you — your fingers hurt at first.
Practicing every day? Pain.
Skipping practice? No pain.
Since most sane people prefer to avoid pain, it becomes easy to skip practice, and the resolution goes out the window.
Going back to the fitness example, anyone who has started working out for the first time (or after a long layoff) will be familiar with the leg pain and suffering the next day. You start praying for the floating chairs in WALL-E to become a reality.
Even if the discomfort isn’t physical, it can still be real.
Let’s say you want to start writing, or your resolution is to do something creative.
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, gave a famous interview in 2009 about the “gap” between what we want to do creatively and what we have the skills to do at the beginning:
What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.
But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
Chances are, whatever our resolution is, we are not going to be very good at it at the beginning (he writes, glancing at his guitar).
“Something comes up”
You are committed to your resolution, and you are taking consistent action.
Then a family vacation comes up. Or you twist your ankle. Or your hard drive crashes.
Whatever your resolution, there will be at least 20 things that can come up that can derail it.
Say it With me: This Year Will be Different
So with all these reasons that resolutions can fail, does that mean that we are doomed to never stick to them?
Absolutely not! You can stick to your New Year’s resolutions, and we are going to help you do it.
This year will be different because you’re not going to just make a vague resolution and hope for the best. You’re going to go in with a strategy.
The first thing you’re going to do is figure out why you are making this resolution. What is the reason behind it?
You want to get in shape, eat healthier, save money, learn the guitar, or read more books — why?
When you have a solid reason behind your resolution, you are more likely to focus and keep going when things aren’t easy.
Your “why” won’t be enough by itself to make your resolution stick, but it can help keep you on track.
Once you have your why down, here are seven ways to make your New Year’s resolution stick:
1. DON’T Rely on Willpower
There is a myth that sticking with your resolution comes down to willpower. If you can just… be… strong… it will happen this year.
By relying on willpower alone, you’re setting yourself up for a battle that you don’t have a great chance of winning.
The Guardian has a piece on the science of keeping your resolutions in which they interview Wendy Wood from the University of Southern California:
Although studies show that people who have a lot of self-control tend to be good at meeting their goals – if they are motivated to do well at work, they get promoted; if they want to live a healthy lifestyle, they exercise more – it isn’t because they use their willpower to control their behaviour, she explains. In fact, it is because they find a way around it.
You can read more about why willpower doesn’t work (and what to use instead) here, and we have a podcast episode diving into it as well.
2. Know What You’re Getting Into
Ignorance can be bliss for many things, but not for keeping your resolutions.
Want to learn to play the guitar? You want to know ahead of time that your fingers are probably going to hurt at first. That way when it happens, you aren’t surprised or discouraged. You expect it, and you know that you need to just go through it.
You also want to have a sense of timing. If your resolution is to start a new workout or eating routine, it is probably not the right time to start if you are about to go on a family cruise vacation.
That’s not to say that you can’t maintain your resolution on vacation (and in fact, you want to structure things so that you can), but your chances of success are not high if you are trying to start under those conditions.
Make sure to set yourself up for success at the beginning by being prepared for what is going to come, and by looking ahead for any roadblocks you can see. Many times problems can be easily avoided or worked around with some planning.
3. Focus on One Resolution At A Time
A sure-fire way to not stick to your New Year’s resolutions is to have too many of them and to try to change too much at once.
By spreading yourself too thin and not applying focus, you will find it much more difficult to achieve meaningful change.
Instead, if you have more than one New Year’s resolution, pick one and apply your focus to establishing that one first. Only when you have accomplished that resolution (or have systematized it so much that achieving it is certain), should you then move on to the next one.
4. Break down the actions that will take you to your goal
Once you’ve narrowed down your resolution to just one, you need to know how to get there.
What are the actual actions it will take for you to accomplish that resolution?
Start with your end result (what will it look like when you accomplish your resolution?) and work your way backward — what are the steps you’ll need to take to get there?
5. Create rituals that support that goal
The big mistake that most people make with New Year’s resolutions is they focus on the resolution itself.
They think about the goal (“I want to lose weight!”), and perhaps they are even super specific like all the articles tell them to be (“I’m going to lose 25 pounds by April 23rd!”), but they don’t think about the specific things they need to do every day that will help them get there.
When you’ve worked backward and figured out the steps you need to take to accomplish your resolution, then you need to create a ritual that you do every day (or whatever the appropriate time period is) so that taking those actions every day is almost automatic.
For example, years ago I decided that I wanted to read every day. I looked at my schedule and decided that the best way to make sure that happened is to make reading part of my morning ritual.
Ever since adding reading to my morning ritual, it has now been almost five years of reading every day. Does life get in the way sometimes and I am not able to do it in the morning? Of course. But since I established it as a system, I always make it up later in the day or on a future day.
Not “getting my reading in” is unthinkable, and once you establish and ritualize your resolution, missing it will be unthinkable as well.
6. Come up with a way to track those rituals
The simple act of tracking your actions can help you stay on track. The key is to make it easy to do the tracking. If tracking becomes a chore, it becomes one more point of friction.
For example, I use a meditation app for my daily meditation. One of its most powerful features (other than the meditation itself) is it tracks the current number of days in a row I have meditated, and what my longest streak is.
At the time of writing, I am sitting at 23 days, but you can bet I’m motivated to beat that longest streak of 191 days.
In case you are impressed by that 191 number, Andy Henson, an awesome member of The Dojo, our online productivity community, wrote about hitting 2 years (730 days) of meditation. Here’s what Andy says about tracking:
Most of our habits are the same, good or bad. To be a habit they have to be a default action, it’s why most bad habits exist – because it’s the easiest thing to do or not do. That’s why, when we’re working to build a good practice, like meditation, it’s helpful to have some kind of external thing to keep us on track and motivated to take the right action. Gamification of these streak targets provides that as well as taking advantage of our human psychology of small rewards.
I agree with Andy. Tracking can be really powerful when establishing a habit.
7. Establish a review — how are things going what do I need to do to support my resolution?
When the year starts, you’re motivated and (hopefully) taking action on your resolution. What about in May? Are you still doing things that support your resolution? Have you made as much progress as you think you should have?
By establishing a ritual and systematizing as much as possible, you will hopefully still be taking the right actions, but you want to regularly review your goals and progress.
Things you want to review are:
- What is your resolution?
- Does it still make sense to be working towards this resolution?
- Am I taking action every day/week/month to make progress towards this resolution?
- The date is x. Am I still on track to accomplish the resolution by the end of the year? What needs to change to make that happen if not?
For example, Thanh reviews his goals every day.
He knows that by doing this, he’ll be doing things during the day that helps take him towards his goal. If he’s not doing that, it sounds alarm bells for him and he knows he’d better get re-focused ASAP.
- Write a 1-sentence or 1-paragraph statement about what your life or business will be like at the end of this year.
- Break down the high-level actions that you will need to take to bring you to that goal.
- What are things you can do every day or every week that will help make progress?
- Plan out a regular ritual that includes those regular habits.
- Set up a way to track those rituals.
- Put a recurring time on your calendar in 1 month to monitor your progress and make adjustments as needed.
If you aren’t sure what your New Year’s resolutions should be or aren’t sure what you need to focus on to make them happen, take 2 minutes to go through our Productivity Quiz. It will help you focus on your biggest opportunity for improvement, and make sure that nothing will hold you back from accomplishing your resolution for this coming year.
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