How to Make a New Years Resolution You Can Keep

This is one of my early posts from an old blog that I wrote back in 2010. I’ve put it here as a means of seeing how my views have changed over the years.

It’s just about that time of year again: in the heart of winter, the calendar rolls over, and millions of people promise themselves that this year will be different. “This is the year I’ll quit smoking,” “I’m going to exercise every day,” and “ I’m going to lose enough weight to fit my grad suit” are the most common themes.

Now, I’m not going to lie, I always used to think New Year’s resolutions were stupid – no two ways about it.

Really, they get a bad rap for being empty promises to ourselves, because let’s face it, most resolutions fail. I’ve come to realize that this is not a reflection on the resolution making or goal setting process, but is rather an indicator that we should be looking more closely at how we set these goals so we can set ourselves up for success.

The Biggest Reason Resolutions Run Awry

First, the good news: The biggest reason people fail to meet their goals has nothing to do with willpower. No, in fact, if you learn to properly set goals, strength of will becomes an essentially-irrelevant concept.

The biggest reason resolutions aren’t kept and goals aren’t met is because most people see them as an all or nothing proposition. That is, if you revert to an old behavior even once, you’ve failed – and then the resolution is dropped and the undesired habit resumes as if the resolution was never made. Familiar?

With my old blog, I had a goal of writing every single day, but some days I wouldn’t feel like writing. On these days I would try to willpower my way through, but eventually the inevitable happened, and I failed to create a new post. While this was a very bad goal to set, the real mistake was thinking that because I hadn’t published, I couldn’t “do it,” and the blog faded. I’ve done the same thing with food too – I gave up potato chips, and went a whole month without them before recently indulging myself. Only now, a little older and wiser, I don’t consider this a failure, but a month of success. Instead of plowing through a bag of chips every couple days to a week, it now would take me a couple months to do the same.

The point: if you “cave,” look at how far you’ve come, refocus on the goal (even adjusting it if necessary), and carry on! (Also, read the next section of this article)

How to Set Goals That Are Guaranteed to Succeed

In order for a goal to be achievable, there are 5 factors it must have. If it’s missing even one, you’ll probably have to willpower yourself to victory. If you have all 5 and have eliminated the all-or-nothing mindset, then you are armed with a delectable recipe for success.

1. The goal must be specific: An archer doesn’t kinda aim in the direction of the target, he aims for the bulls-eye. You don’t travel to “sorta around France-ish” – you head to Paris, Versailles, Marsielle. Goals should be the same. You don’t want a vague sense of direction, you want an exact destination in mind.

Bad: Lose weight. Write on my blog. Paint the house.

Good: Lose 25 pounds. Write an article about goal-setting. Paint the living room to compliment the new leather furniture.

2. The goal must be measurable: You’ve got to be able to track your progress, whether that’s losing weight, lifting weights, increasing the net worth of your business, or completing a household chore. It doesn’t always have to be measured in a number amount (a checklist might be better in certain cases), but there must be some way of tracking your progress.

Bad: Sell my ebook. Lose Weight.

Good: Sell my ebook to 20 people in the first month. Lose 25 pounds – measurable and specific really go hand in hand.

3. The goal must be sufficiently challenging: This one is likely less intuitive, but it really is crucial. If your goal is not sufficiently challenging you will become bored and not bother to follow through. If your goal is to lose 1 pound, I doubt you will feel very motivated. If your goal is to make one dollar, or write one article, this is probably not sufficiently challenging to inspire action from most people.

4. The goal must be achievable: The flip side of the challenge, the goal you set must also be achievable. You probably won’t lose 50 pounds or make $1 million in a week. If a task is too daunting, it won’t feel like it’s even worth starting. A balance must be struck between “challenging” and “achieving.”

5. The goal must have a time constraint: this one I cannot stress enough, if only because it’s the most often overlooked. If the goal lacks a time frame, it really feels the specificity qualification, but it is worthy of distinction here. Setting a deadline that is both challenging and achievable is the greatest possible catalyst for action. Instead of “getting around to it whenever,” it demands you take action and remain focused.

One thing you may have noticed is that I never mentioned anything about how to actually achieve your goal. This is because it’s not actually all that important – the “how” is usually something you figure out along the way, and is often different from what you envisioned. If you are too set on a particular “how,” you may miss important information in terms of feedback or opportunities.

One Final Ingredient: The Secret Sauce of Success

The steps outlined will help you successfully set goals or “resolutions,” but I still haven’t addressed the motivation or “willpower” aspect of all this. The problem with willpower is that it’s something you must think about. Mental tricks and stunts you pull to convince yourself to do something that clearly, you don’t want to do. If you find yourself relying on willpower, it’s time to go back and do some serious reflection about why you’re doing this.

Real motivation comes from passion, which is an unlimited reservoir of emotional energy. It’s not something you can think, but something you feel. It’s the difference between thinking you should be doing something and wanting to do something. Use logic to go through the 5 steps outlined above to set goals intelligently, but then let passion take over and guide you there. If you think of your goal as a cheeseburger, then passion is the secret sauce that makes your taste buds buzz, sets off fireworks in your brain, and keeps you coming back for more.

Happy holidays, and here’s to an incredible 2011!