I’ve seen a trend the past few years telling people not to make New Year’s resolutions. Instead, the blogger or author tells their audience to do something else, like make a plan of action or create a new habit. I’ve even been somewhat guilty of following this trend. We throw resolutions under the bus and treat them like some kind of garbage goal that will undoubtedly get tossed out with the stale Christmas candy in mid-January.
But in the past few weeks as I’ve thought back on the old year and looked forward to the new year I realized that resolutions are not the problem. It’s what comes after the resolution that makes or breaks our best intentions.
Over the last two years I have done different life experiments: monthly resolutions to try something new, make a new habit or give up an old one. At the beginning of each month I would start out strong. My new habit would be vibrant and I was ready to go. It was so easy for those first few days to do (or not do) whatever I had set my mind to. Then, as the month progressed, it often got harder and harder to keep going. I saw this happen with healthy eating, exercise, waking up early, reading 12 books in a year and many other habits and experiments. Something happened that made my resolve wane and my commitment falter.
Google defines a resolution as “a firm decision to do or not to do something”. A resolution is a commitment, a goal, a desire to change. We resolve, in the coming year, to make ourselves better. But we so often miss a few ingredients along the way and so our resolution to change fails and we slip back into old, comfortable habits. Then bloggers write about how resolutions suck and give us a different path to follow for change. Then we start to hate on resolutions. Then we stop trying to make any changes and resolve to not resolve. Oh, the irony!
But I think there’s a better way. But before I get into that, let me just say that I don’t think there’s any “perfect” or “right” way to accomplish your resolutions. I’ve always said that this blog is all about being in the trenches of habit change with all of you, my readers. This post is no different. This year is no different. I’ve failed so many times that some days I’m not sure I can do anything right or ever change anything in my life. But through all that failure I’ve learned some great lessons along the way about how to not fail.
Make It Specific By Breaking It Down
If you say you want to get healthy in the new year, what will you do to accomplish that goal? “Being healthy” is your resolution, but you’ve got to break it down to smaller pieces that allow you to take action. Will cutting out sugar help you be healthier? Make a list and pick just a few little things to work on right now. Perhaps you could toss out all the old holiday treats. Skip the soda during lunch. Don’t buy those donuts on the way home from work.
One method for doing this is by setting rules for yourself, as suggested by Leo Babauta. I’ve had this work for several habits over the past year. Break down your resolution into these tiny and actionable items or rules to make it more concrete in your mind.
Don’t jump into this huge undertaking with grand schemes and gigantic goals in mind. Being healthier, getting out of debt, reading more, losing weight. These are all huge resolutions! They’re mega life changes that take tons of effort and time to accomplish.
Start as small as possible. If you go into this New Year saying you want to pay off your debt, you will probably fail. But if you go into the New Year wanting to pay off debt and you say you’ll bring lunch from home instead of eating out for two weeks, then you’re on the path to success. Find the smallest actions to take this day, even this minute to move towards those huge goals. Make these mini-goals like rules for your life so you have guidelines to live by.
I and countless others have talked about the idea of failing faster a lot. I first read the idea from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and have loved it. The idea is to make a plan and try it for a few days. After a few days, assess how you’re doing and adjust accordingly. Maybe I’ll have a hard time avoiding sugar while at work so I need to bring some healthy snacks. Or I need to have a better plan when eating out with family.
Whatever your failures are, don’t feel bad that you failed. Instead, look at each failure as an opportunity to learn and fine tune your plan of action. Eventually, you’ll fail less often and build stronger habits.
Don’t Be Perfect
I know this is a lot easier said than done, but you don’t have to be perfect right away. Or at all. Or ever, for that matter. You’ll have days where you’ll slip up or “take a break”. We’re all human beings and as such we’re prone to (many, many) mistakes. So don’t beat yourself up for missed days or imperfections in your new resolution. Instead, resolve to do better tomorrow.
Don’t give up, though! The key here is to keep going. If you need to adjust your goals and expectations, do it and get back on your feet. See the section above on failing faster for some inspiration.
Have a Purpose
Purpose. Another buzzword that gets a lot of attention these days. Purpose in change is so important. Personally, I’ve set a lot of goals with no purpose. I’ve wanted to do or change things just because. I had no reason or direction. I was simply wandering in what I thought was the right direction to make a positive change in my life.
Without a clear purpose, I become lost and falter. So, what’s your purpose? You’ve got to dig deep to find it. Try writing about it or explaining it to someone else. You want to lose weight? Great. Why? Skip the obvious answers that everyone spouts off and find out what your deepest motivations are. That’s your purpose.
I’ll provide an example for one of my resolutions for 2017. I’m going to give up eating/drinking most sugary things this year (some special occasions allowed).
My One Word for 2017 is “Health”, so eating less sugar fits perfectly under this theme. But I had to stop and ask myself why. Why do I want to eat less sugar? Here’s my purpose, which is still evolving and growing. Stick with me here:
Over the holidays I ate a lot of sweets (not unlike most people, I’m sure). I felt like crap, I had little energy and I wasn’t sleeping well. I would go to bed worn out and wake up even more worn out. All of this led to my decision to give up sugar this year. But that is only part of my purpose. I dug deeper.
Because I wasn’t sleeping well and had less energy, I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted. I also wasn’t spending as much time with my wife, Sarah. I couldn’t be as active as I wanted to be and I had to take a couple of sick days from work because I felt so crappy. My purpose lies in wanting to improve all of these.
Ultimately, I want to be healthy and happy for myself, my wife and my future children. I want to be able to provide the love and support that they need. I know this sounds way too deep, but sometimes it’s that kind of purpose that drives us to change. I know it sounds like instead of quitting sugar I’m quitting smoking or something, but if we want to truly make an important life change, we need to define a strong, driving purpose.
There’s a lot that needs to go into setting and keeping resolutions. If you want to make them a part of your life, you need to spend a lot more time on them than a quick thought on New Year’s Eve. This is your life and you’re about to change it. Spend some time to make sure the change lasts and you don’t end up in a guilty depression by December.
Finally, remember that resolutions cannot make you whole or happy. I think you’ll become happy as you resolve to do and be better, but ultimately happiness comes when we’re with those we love, doing things we love and serving people around us. You don’t need resolutions to become whole. You are already whole and are merely adding skills and experiences to an already amazing life.
Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I planned on originally. I hope your new year is going splendidly! Mine has gotten off to a slow start and that’s OK! If you need a little help kickstarting some great mindful, minimalist and healthy habits, check out A Simple Year. You get a year-long course that includes a new monthly theme with tons of resources, tips, tricks, guides, and more. All for $240. Sign up before January 15! Click here for more info and to buy the course (note: I do get money through this link which all goes to help fund this blog)
Also published on Medium.