Make your New Years Resolution Stick

  • 8 min read

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

If you're anything like me, you're probably off to a slow start this morning. Even though this wasn't the New Year's Eve any of us dreamed of having, I hope you were still able to have a little fun and, safely, find some joy last night.

On the bright side, the hell that is 2020 is finally over. We're inching closer and closer to inauguration day which, hopefully, means we'll be able to think about something other than Donald Trump or the COVID Pandemic this year.

We're not out of the woods yet, but I think it's safe enough to breathe one big, collective sigh of relief.

So, before you settle into your New Years Day Netflix or, perhaps, college football binge, let's talk about how you might make your life a little bit brighter in 2021.

That's right, we're talking about New Year's resolutions and how to make yours stick! I felt like a telemarketer as I typed that. I'm sorry. Kind of.

A Perfect Time for a New Habit

After last year, I'm sure you, like me, want to make some changes to your life. Maybe you want to lose some weight. Maybe you want to start exercising regularly(again). Maybe you want to read more books. Maybe you want to practice gratitude more often. I know I need to start eating better and exercising like I did prior to April. The pandemic has really fucked with my routines and my motivation. 

No matter what your goal is, what we're really talking about here is developing a new habit. At least, that's what we need to do if we want to stick to our New Year's Resolution for once.

Habits aren't something we think about doing. They are something we just do naturally. They are a part of who we are. That's why turning your New Year's Resolution into a new habit is the best way to actually achieve your goal. Singular. 

Developing a new habit can often feel overwhelming. It can feel like new habits require changing everything about who you are at once. That feeling and those massive goals are a big part of the reason why we rarely turn our New Year's plans into reality.

Here are a few simple suggestions that might help you successfully achieve New Year's resolution for once.

Keep it Simple

A new year feels like the perfect time to make big new changes in your life. It's a time to start fresh. To view the future with an optimistic perspective. To be energized and motivated. Especially this year. 

That can often lead us to try to make massive changes to our lives. Not just one, but many.

This is a path to failure.

Developing a new habit is hard. It takes time and effort. This causes stress, even when we are hitting our targets. When we try to change many things in our life significantly and all at once, we are setting ourselves up for failure. It's just too much to for us to take on. 

Instead, let's try to focus on making one small, but significant change at a time. That doesn't mean we can't lose all of that weight, level up our skills, and read a bunch of books this year. It just means we should not try to do it all at once.

Instead, we should start small and simple. Identify one key manageable change you want to make in your life. You can identify many, but you should only try to accomplish one at a time. Only after that change has becomes a habit should we add or expand our goals.

A few years ago, I decided... OK a doctor decided for me... that I needed to lose weight and get in shape. I was fairly successful, but I didn't try to do it all at once. I decided to start by fixing my eating habits, but slowly. First, I weaned myself off of soda. Then, I set some guidelines to reduce my alcohol consumption. Next, I replaced the unhealthy meals I cooked at home with healthier options. Then, I started eating fewer meals out and getting fewer meals delivered. Eventually, I was eating a pretty healthy diet and losing weight quickly.

Slowly, but surely, I was able to make pretty massive changes to my diet that paid off. Only then did I start increasing my exercise. There too I worked slowly. First, I made a point to go on a walk every day. Then, I started working out for 15 minutes twice a week. Then, I added a third day. Slowly, I increased the number of workout and the duration of each. At my peak, I was working out at least 5 days a week for at least an hour each day. Not bad. Yes, I just complimented myself.

If I tried to start where I finished, I would have failed and I would have gotten hurt. By focusing instead on small, manageable steps, I was able to develop new habits that completely changed my life. 

Focus on the Process, not the Results

When we make New Year's resolutions, we typically focus on the end result we would like to achieve. We focus on losing 20 lbs or reading 100 books. This, like trying to change everything at once, is a recipe for failure.

When we focus on a big, distant goal it is easy to become overwhelmed. We experience setbacks, it's becomes easy to feel as if all is lost. Even more frustratingly, the interventions we are making don't always lead to the results we are hoping for.

 "Getting into shape to lose weight" is a classic example. Losing weight is primarily about diet, not exercise. When we exercise, we build muscle and, thus, often gain weight. That doesn't mean exercise isn't a great thing for our bodies and our minds, it is, but if we start exercising to lose weight we will likely fail. That sucks! We should be happy we are exercising, not discouraged because we aren't losing weight.

 Instead of making your goal about achieving some end result that we can't always control, we should focus on a process instead. If we want to read more books, we should start by reading a few pages each night. Eventually, we will read many books, but, if we fail to hit our nightly goal, we won't feel like it's the end of the world. We will just feel like we had one bad night. That makes it easier to stick with our habit because we are motivated to complete a small manageable task instead of focusing on the big outcome we hope to achieve.

Make a Plan

By sticking with one process oriented goal at a time, we've already set ourselves up for success. To increase the likelihood that we will actually follow through, we need a plan.

Here's how to make yours. Evidence suggests that the best way to develop new habits is through a process called "habit reflection." Habit reflection is a 3 step planning process.

In the first step, we must reflect on a time where we successfully made a change to our behavior in the past. When you made that change, what worked for you? What did you do differently when you successfully changed your behavior than when you failed?

Try to be as specific as possible. Perhaps, it was about the structure you added. Perhaps, it was about the time of day or day of the week when you practiced your habit. Perhaps, you rewarded yourself after you practiced your habit. Our goal is to figure out what strategies have worked for you in the past so we can try them again.

After taking some time to reflect, you need to write down what you've learned. By hand. As a designer, I've long advocated for the value of getting your thoughts out of your head and into the real world. That's what we're doing here. We're turning our reflections into actionable insights by putting them on paper.

Once you have a list of tactics and strategies you've used in the past to make positive changes in your life, we need to turn these into a plan. As we plan, we should be as specific as possible. What are you going to do? When are you going to do it? How are you going to do it? Where are you going to do it? Who will you do it with? The more specific the better. It's better to say, "I'll workout at 7am on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with Karen in my backyard. We will complete one 30 minute high intensity interval training class using the Peloton app..." than it is to say "I will work out 3 days a week."

If you plan to slowly build up to something bigger over time, plan for it. You may decide your original plan was too aggressive, but at least you will have a foundation to use to build a revised plan.

The specificity gives you the tools you need to actually achieve your goal. It removes the indecision that we often use to avoid developing new habits. Once you make your plan, put it on your calendar. To the extent possible, these events must be treated with the same level of importance as any other important event in your calendar. If you treat your New Year's resolution as a fun thing to do when it's convenient, you will not succeed.

Remember our goal is to successfully implement our plan, not achieve some desired end result that we may or may not be able to control.

Hold Yourself Accountable

Now that you have a plan, you need to make sure you hold yourself accountable for implementing it. Like our plan, this needs to take place outside of our heads. We need to put in out in the real world either on paper or in something like a spreadsheet. Each day, you must actively track whether or not you successfully achieved your daily goal. Take notes outlining your successes and failures so that we might learn from them in the future.

The point here is not to make yourself feel bad. It's actually the opposite. By tracking our progress, we our encouraging ourselves to do better in the future. We may feel a little bad when we fail, but we feel a lot better when we succeed. This also gives us a tool to use to make sure we are being realistic about our progress. 

If you haven't followed your plan, you can't realistically expect to achieve your underlying(EG lose 20 lbs) goal. This will also help us understand if our plan was actually the right plan. Was exercise the right plan for losing weight? If we followed our plan, but did not achieve our desired results, perhaps our plan was flawed. Or, perhaps, our goal was unrealistic. Neither is a bad thing. Our plans, even if expertly executed, will often fail to achieve our desired goal. As long as we learn and update our plan, this is a good thing. We need to better understand ourselves if we wish to become the people we would like to be.

Another way you should hold yourself accountable is by asking someone to be your "coach." You should plan regular meetings with your "coach" to check in on your progress. Your coach doesn't need to be an expert. They do need to be someone you trust to have real, hard, emotionally challenging conversations with. Your coach needs to be someone who can tell you hard truths without destroying your relationship. Your coach should not be your romantic partner, especially if your goals involve diet or exercise.

We all want to become better versions of ourselves. Our New Year's resolutions reflect that desire. Unfortunately, most of us fail to achieve the goals we set for ourselves each year. If we (1) keep our goals simple and manageable, (2) focus on the process, not the results, (3) make a real plan, (4) and hold ourselves accountable, we will increase the likelihood that we will succeed. When we do that, we set the stage for a happier life.

Good luck with your New Year's resolution this year. Let's build a brighter future. Together.