Fail-Proof Your New Year’s Resolution

Happy New Year’s Eve, Fledglings! I sincerely hope 2017 is a better year for all of us.

This is the time of year when we resolve to improve our own lives in some way. We decide to lose weight, finish a degree, or start giving to charity, and I respect that. We should all want to improve ourselves. But with an abysmal eight percent of people actually succeeding in their resolution each year, I’m pretty sure we can improve on this process and be happier with ourselves come summer, when half of us will have dropped our resolution entirely.

We can’t go into a situation where we’re setting a goal and bring only emotion and hopes and dreams to the table. Think about your own emotions over the past week. Then think about them over the past month. Did your emotions go through changes in those time periods? Spoiler: yes, of course they did, because you’re a human being with a human-being brain (unless you’re my corgi reading this, in which case GET OFF THE COMPUTER, BECCA). What about your life circumstances this past year? Did you have hard times? Did you have awful days or weeks where you were struggling just to get by? Trust me, Fledglings, those hard times will bear down on you in 2017 as much as they did in any other year previous, so if you’re making a resolution based entirely on the hope that it won’t ever be challenged by lousy circumstances or foul moods, you are setting yourself up for failure.

What are we to do? Give up? Decide that life is too hard to make any meaningful changes and resign ourselves to our couches and Netflix? It’s an option, but if you’re reading an article about how to make a solid New Year’s resolution, I’m gonna go ahead and assume it’s an option you don’t want to take. Lucky for you, I do have some tips on how to make a resolution you’re more likely to keep. It involves fewer ‘good intentions’ and more ‘realistic planning.’

Let’s Set a SMART Goal

You may have heard of this technique before; it’s usually touted in the business world as the best way to achieve career success. I’ve used it in a business context, but I’ve also used it for my personal life, and I can personally attest that this is the most effective way to improve your life. The reason it works is that it forces you to set a realistic goal, and it puts measures in place to help you keep going when that goal is challenged, because it will be challenged at some point next year. It’s essentially helping you to internalize the fact that life is difficult and unpredictable, because when you set a goal with this fact in mind, you’re more likely to achieve that goal than if you’d set it thinking the universe was going to reward you with a smooth path from desire to result.

Here are the qualities your New Year’s resolution should have, in order for it to have the greatest chance of being achievable.

  1. Specific – Your resolution has to be specific, so that you can focus your efforts on achieving it. ‘Get my life together’ is not specific, meaning you don’t know what you need to do to get there, meaning you’re already on the back foot. What specific area of your life needs improving? Let’s say it’s your finances – you’re broke all the time, and you hate it. Okay, let’s get more specific: WHY are you broke all the time? Is it credit card debt? Are you underpaid at your job? Are you not putting money into savings? You need to dig into the details here, and that takes some mental fortitude. It might help to talk to a trusted friend or a counselor if you’re feeling some fear or anxiety around the idea of examining your life to get to the heart of what you need to change. Be brave; you can do this.
  2. Measurable – How do you know when you’ve reached your goal? Hell, how do you know if it’s even possible to reach this goal in a year? Well, you won’t know, unless your goal has some kind of objective measure so that you know for a fact when you’ve met it. You also need to measure your goal so that you know if you’re moving toward it or away from it. You can adjust your decisions if you find that you’re moving away from your goal, but again, you need that measurable goal in place in order to determine that. Let’s say your resolution is to write a novel in 2017. That’s a good goal! It’s specific; you know exactly what you’re wanting to do – but a novel is a big project. How will you know if you’re on track to finish the novel by this time next year? You have to put measurements in place. How many pages per month do you need to write to finish by next December? How many hours do you estimate that will take you? Write it out, and see if your current life circumstances can accommodate the kind of time you’ll need to put into writing, researching, and editing in order to finish the novel in a year. If it’s looking like you can’t commit to writing for, say, two hours each day for the year, you’ll need to adjust your time frame, or adjust your life to free up more time per day. Either way, this puts you in control of the situation by helping you know what’s needed to get where you want to go.
  3. Achievable – We all have lofty aspirations for ourselves, and in some ways that’s good – what is life without the ability to dream? But if you’re making a resolution to improve your life, that probably means it’s time to bring your goals down from ‘existential’ and into ‘practical.’ Can you go from ‘zero knowledge’ to ‘total fluency’ in a new language in one year? Probably not, due to the human brain’s limitations when it comes to learning languages. But I bet you can complete several language courses and be able to hold a simple conversation in a year! Can you pay off 50 grand in credit card debt in a year, when you take home 30 grand in that year? The math says no. But I bet you can talk to your card company, get current on your payments, and maybe get a quarter of that debt gone in a year! Set yourself up for success by setting goals a reasonable person could achieve in that time frame.
  4. Relevant – Okay, yes, we all want to be astronauts or marine biologists or win a Pulitzer. Like I said, keep those dreams alive. But in the context of a New Year’s resolution, it’s easier to achieve goals that are relevant to your life as it is right now. It’s much easier to stay focused on a goal that is going to fix a problem you’re currently having, or that will improve the situation you’re currently in, as opposed to a goal that sits outside your current life circumstances. If you have those long-term goals in mind that involve changing your whole life, that’s great! Use short-term goals like resolutions to take one or two steps toward those long-term ones. We can all set some wacky resolutions, like learning to speak Tolkien Elvish or building your own tiny house, but make sure that those projects are going to directly benefit your life somehow, so that you feel good about spending all that time and effort in achieving it. Your resolution should further all your other life goals, not sit outside of or detract from them.
  5. Timely – This is one of those hard questions you have to ask yourself: is it the right time to undertake this goal? It could be the best goal in the world, but if it’s not the right time, you’re not setting yourself up for success. I work for a university, and one of my graduate students decided to get married and buy a house at the same time as she was writing her doctoral dissertation AND studying to take a state licensing board exam! Don’t you think she’d have been less stressed out and done a better job at all those major projects if she’d have spread them out a little? Finish graduate school, THEN pass the board, THEN get married, THEN buy a house? To me, that sounds like much less of a panic attack than doing it all in the same four-month span. It’s okay to wait until it’s the right time to jump on a new project – better, in fact, because if the timing is right, you’re more likely to be able to stick with it and not get sidetracked by other huge life events. We can’t control everything life throws at us, but if you look around and see that you’re embroiled in several big projects or changes right now, you can choose to not undertake a new, optional project to add to all that. Watch for the right time to undertake a new big thing. It’ll come up, if it’s an important goal for you. And if you choose to wait and a few months later realize it’s not that important after all? That’s fine too – it’s more time and attention that you can focus on other things.

Once you’ve worked through all this, write down your specific goal, the time frame, and how you’re going to achieve it. Hang it up somewhere visible, where you’ll see it every day. Write down when you reach milestones toward that goal as well (one month of hitting the gym three days a week, half my savings goal met, etc.), and enlist some friends to help keep you motivated, celebrate your successes, and give their support when it’s hard. With the right tools and planning, and a good dose of realism, you can definitely set New Year’s resolutions that you’ll be celebrating at the end of next year.

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