I know: New Year’s resolutions aren’t exactly fashionable these days.
Far cooler than telling someone about your resolution for 2020 is to go around quoting stats about how ineffective they are, and how many well-intentioned self-promises are forgotten by the end of January each year.
Or you can point out that January 1st is arbitrary, just as good (or bad) as any other day to start something new.
Not me, though. I’m not ready to give up on New Year’s resolutions just yet. Here’s why.
Why New Year’s resolutions can still work for you
I’ll admit the track record is embarrassing. There’s a reason for this, though — it’s that most people treat their resolutions like wishes from a genie in a bottle.
They mistakenly assume that when the calendar flips, so will some switch in their brains that makes their willpower appreciably stronger than it is now.
But if we’ve learned anything from the study of habits, it’s that willpower is not enough. It’s an exhaustible resource, and while you can coast by on willpower alone for maybe the first week of January, your willpower is going to fade at some point. And if that happens before your new habit has become, well, a habit, your resolution fades too.
So there’s the first key to making a resolution that’s not just another wish: make it about changing the habits that are necessary to create the bigger change you really want.
For instance, if you resolve to lose 20 or 50 or 100 pounds, don’t get up on January 1st and try to lose 20 or 50 or 100 pounds. Instead, wake up on January 1st and begin creating the exercise habit — which likely means starting with just 5 minutes.
Physically, you accomplish next to nothing, but — far more importantly — you begin re-wiring your brain for exercise in a way that’s so painless you can’t possibly flake out.
So, what of this business about January 1st being arbitrary?
Agreed, the actual date doesn’t matter. But here’s what does.
New Year’s has on its side the fact that we anticipate the date. It’s circled on our calendars. And so if we decide in advance that we’re going to make a change beginning on that particular day (as opposed today), we have time to build up some tension and excitement about making a change before the time to change actually arrives, which gives it some gravity in our minds.
You’ll recognize, of course, that this is not what most of us do by default when we get fed up and decide something must change. Instead, when we wake up one day feeling particularly bad about something — maybe it’s a hangover or a glance in the mirror or another overdraft in the checking account that sparks it — we resolve to change. Starting right now. Sound familiar?
Yet only a day later (and sometimes not an hour or even a minute later), our motivation is gone and the change is forgotten. If you’re anything like me, you’ve repeated this feeble attempt time and again, getting more discouraged and convinced of your inability to change and lack of self-discipline with each successive failure.
So it’s also important to delay the change until a set date in the near future, and to make plans in the meantime.
And yet, even armed with this information, when you’re in that rare state of being frustrated and excited enough to change something in your life, it’s tough to find the patience to delay the start by a few days.
New Year’s offers us a perfect opportunity to do exactly that. It’s one time when it seems natural to delay the start. Of course, if you do what most people do, which is to decide on December 31st at 8pm in the middle of your first drink that tomorrow you’re going to start, this isn’t much better than any other spur-of-the-moment declaration to change.
But what if you started planning NOW?
What if, for the next few days, you thought long and hard about the single resolution — let’s call it a goal — that would most serve you over the next year? And once you came up with it, and wrote it down, and shared it with someone who matters to you, what if you then carved out some time in the next week to really plan how you were going to achieve this goal?
I don’t mean a 10-minute scribble on a napkin, either. Is it possible that between now and New Year’s day, you could set aside two or three hours (on a weekend morning, perhaps) to figure this out?
I know, I know… three hours is an absurd amount of time to spend creating your future, shaping the direction of your life. Who could possibly be so frivolous with their time? 🙂
But let’s suspend reality and just pretend for a minute that you could find an hour or two to make plans for the next year of your life. In that case, here’s the one thing I’d suggest to maximize your chances of following through on your goal.
Take several minutes to write down answers to these questions about your New Year’s goal:
- Why do I want (need) to do this so badly? Why does it absolutely have to happen now? How do I know I’m capable of doing it?
- What are the habits I would need to develop to make this change? Specifically, what one habit is the most critical, the one I’m going to start creating today and develop before the others? (Remember, one habit at a time!)
- What do I currently have going for me? What resources could I use to learn, stay accountable, and help me in other ways?
- What other resources do I need, and how can I get them? For example, “I need to get ahold of this book / expert / old friend who can teach me about ___.”
- What intermediate goals (with deadlines) can I set to break this big goal up into smaller chunks?
- How can I set up the process to avoid overwhelm and not have to rely on willpower? (My advice: If you think you’re starting small, start smaller. You have time.)
- What can I do during the next 24 hours and the next [however much time you’ve got until New Year’s] to get a head start? What can I do during the month of January to be well on my way by the end of that month?
Even if you don’t feel like doing this — although if you don’t, I hope it’s not out of apathy but because you’ve got a better method — I still highly recommend writing down your resolution in a place where you’ll see it every day, and doing so now, rather than waiting until Dec 31 to declare it.
Just getting your goal in your head and giving yourself some time to plan and anticipate the start will do so much towards making your resolution one that lasts, and not one of those embarrassingly pathetic attempts that we’ve all made to change at the beginnings of years past.
I know it’s a bit early, but I wish you success in whatever you decide (now!) to take on in 2020.