2015 is here, and that means it’s time for the annual ritual of setting New Year’s Resolutions.
But before we do that, let’s take a look back at your recent New Year’s Resolutions. How many of them did you keep? How many do you wish you’d made more progress on? How did you feel about them overall?
If you’re like 92 percent of Americans, you did not keep your New Year’s resolutions from last year. And that’s perfectly normal — it’s almost part of the definition of “resolution” to set them in January, only to abandon them by March.
So how do you stick to your New Year’s resolutions this year? Is the answer to just not have one?
I don’t think so. I think it’s about having more effective New Year’s Resolutions. This isn’t just a question of willpower. It’s about doing them in a way that is fun, meaningful, practical, and designed to help you succeed.
So how do you use your New Year’s Resolution as a tool to make the next year the best year of your life?
Step One: Start Today
Let’s start by breaking the syndrome of changing our behavior when an artificially-defined new year starts. Why wait until New Year’s Day to start a resolution? That’s a recipe for failure, because we’re already treating our future self differently from the person we are now — the person who wants to stick to those New Year’s resolutions!
Instead, let’s jump in a few days, or even a few weeks, early. The sooner you get started on any positive change in your life, the sooner you’re going to see the results. Jumpstarting your resolution will also allow you to enjoy the ramp up you might need to start rocking out.
Taking going to the gym, for example. Anyone who has ever started going to the gym in January knows that it’s not as easy as just showing up and getting ripped. You need to find a gym, get a membership, research routines that conform to your fitness goals, fit exercise time into your schedule, get used to the sensation, and build it into your routine. Trying to do all of that on one day in the new year can be difficult and intimidating, if not impossible.
Compare that with starting today. You find a gym and get a membership. You commit to actually going to the gym by the end of the week, even if it’s not going to be a part of your regular schedule. You start going, taking each day as it comes. By the time the New Year rolls around, you’ve got everything in place so you have a routine, a time when you go do it and you’re already making progress toward your goal.
Much better than waiting until January 1 to start, right?
Step Two: Break It Into Smaller Pieces
Breaking down your goals into smaller pieces works like gangbusters for everything from combatting depression to starting a new business. The final goal of a resolution can be so daunting that you don’t even start it, but breaking that goal into manageable pieces often helps the bigger goal to take care of itself.
We did this above with going to the gym. Going to the gym three times a week, every week for a year sounds really daunting. When you start breaking it down into smaller goals — setting up the gym membership, picking a routine, making your first trip to the gym — it seems a lot easier. The same applies for school, professional goals, and creative projects.
Breaking your goals down into smaller actions can work wonders, especially on days when you’re just not feeling it. For example, heading down to the gym and working out for an hour or 90 minutes might be more than you can handle after a hard day at work. But can you change into your gym clothes? Great. What about walk out to your car? Do it. Now drive to the gym. Once you get there, why do anything but get out of your car and actually work out? If that 90 minutes seems daunting, try ten, then another ten, then another.
Pretty soon you’ve accomplished your goal for the day. But one day of whatever you want to do isn’t going to get you where you need to be.
Step Three: Make It a Habit
While the conventional wisdom is that it takes 21 days to create a habit, the time actually varies from one person to another. However, just as you can accomplish bigger goals by accomplishing small ones, you can also form habits one day at a time.
Rather than viewing your New Year’s aspirations as “resolutions,” why not start viewing them as building a new habit? For example, your new habit is to go to the gym before work every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It’s not that you’re trying to put on 50 pounds of solid muscle by the end of the year. It’s just that this is what you do now — you go to the gym.
Free from the burden of the big and intimidating “resolution,” you’re just a guy who hits the gym three times a week.
More enjoyable, right?
But creating habits means creating the right environment for them to take root. So do everything you can to make sure you’re going to make a habit out of your erstwhile resolution. Get up early. Change your schedule around. Get the tools that you need to help you succeed into place. Whatever you need to do to make it easy for you to maintain your habit on a daily basis, start doing it now.
Step Four: Look for an App
Apps are great and there’s one for just about everything under the sun. Here are a few assorted apps that might help you to meet your goals in the coming year:
- Self Control: Do you spend a lot of time on websites that are total time sucks? Self Control lets you block them easily. With just a tiny bit of hacking you can effectively block them forever. There’s no way around it once it’s set up, so block with caution.
- Nozbe: This one is a pretty generic goal tracking app, but one that I like a lot. Nozbe syncs to all your devices, lets you collaborate with others and integrates to some of your favorite apps that you’re already using, like Dropbox and Evernote.
- LifeTick: For the man who has trouble setting goals, there’s LifeTick, which walks you through the entire process. From determining core values to setting SMART goals, LifeTick is in your corner.
- HabitList: Since I want you to set habits, it might be helpful to look at what your current habits are. HabitList isn’t so much a productivity app as it is an app that tracks how you’re using your time — for good or for ill.
Still, there’s one tool you can have in your corner that no productivity app can ever duplicate…
Step Five: Have a Partner
Accountability partners are great for two reasons. First, if you have to report to someone every time you fail to achieve your daily goal, you’re probably going to fail less. More importantly, though, if you have someone who’s going to actively help you achieve your goals, you’re engaged with someone committed to your success.
To use our gym example again, it might be hard to head to the gym three times per week, but it’s going to be a lot easier to head out there if you’ve got someone going with you. Flaking out, then, doesn’t mean being lazy and sitting around at home — it means disrupting someone else’s routine. On days when you need that little extra push, having a partner can make all the difference in the world.
One final piece of advice on this point: Find someone who’s motivated. Accountability partners can be a double-edged sword. If you two are working toward a goal together and he’s less motivated than you are, your accountability partner can be a real drag on your progress. Find someone who matches your level of commitment, and create a plan to motivate each other to thrive.
Step Six: Use the Carrot and the Stick
It can be helpful to use both rewards and punishments to work toward your goal. We as humans respond strongly to positive reinforcement, but sometimes we need the stick as well.
One way to stay on task through the risk of punishment is this:
- Pick a cause you hate. It can be political, social, really anything — but it should be a force for evil or annoyance that you don’t like.
- Every time you fail to make agreed upon progress toward your goal, make a donation to that cause.
- Hard mode: Every time you fail, donate more. I do mine as a Fibonacci sequence. The first donation is $25, the second is also $25, the third is $50, the fourth is $75, the fifth $125, the sixth $200 and so on, adding the last two donations together each time. That way, it becomes expensive to fail!
If you use this method, be sure to use it as a supplement to your positively-reinforced behavior. Celebrating your success is much more powerful — not to mention enjoyable — than punishing yourself when you fall short. In some cases, this can give you a little extra boost, but (ideally) it shouldn’t be your main productivity plan.
To a great 2015!