By: Leo Desforges
I always have a tough time writing this time of year. I feel like many readers are already overwhelmed by the plethora of articles available on the subject, and I’m left trying to offer something helpful and different. That said, I am going to provide a single piece of advice on the subject of New Year’s resolutions that I believe is a bit less typical and hopefully useful all year round.
Generally, there are a few common reasons why folks tend to be unsuccessful with achieving their New Year’s resolution goals. These same reasons also apply to goal-setting at other times of the year as well. Many common resolutions illustrate similar flaws as demonstrated by the following New Year’s goals: lose weight, get healthy, get a better job, make more money, be nicer, be a better friend, be a better parent, work less, pray more, read more, and so on.
Each of these resolutions suffers from the following shortcomings: they are not specific enough, they do not have a measurable outcome, they do not have a measuring stick of success, they are vague to the point of being nearly meaningless, and they do not have a start and end date. Often, but not always, the goals are also extremely unrealistic based on the individual’s current life responsibilities/habits.
Let’s take the common “get in shape” resolution and see if we can improve the goal statement by asking a few questions and giving a few answers.
Q: What is your New Year’s resolution?
A: I want to get in better shape!
Q: What does “get in better shape” mean to you?
A: Uh, I don’t know, like, get in better shape, feel better, be healthier.
Q: Can you be more specific? What specifically would make you feel like you were healthier, in better shape?
A: (Thinks for a minute) I’d like to be able to get off the floor with no pain in my knee, have more energy, and lose 20 pounds.
Q: Great. Of those three goals, which one are you most passionate about improving first?
A: Well, I’d say the low energy levels are probably affecting my life the most at the moment, so let’s go with that.
Q: Great, I’m curious: what does low energy feel like? When do you notice your lack of energy?
A: I have a really hard time getting up in the morning; I get extremely tired after lunch and on my drive home. I feel like I have no energy or excitement for exercise or even spending time with my family.
[At this point, we can begin to see a much more specific goal forming. Now we know the problem and can begin to have a better sense of what the solution might look like.]
Q: Okay, I appreciate the honesty. From here, I’m going to make three suggestions, and I’d like you to choose one that we can put into action right now. Does that sound fair?
Q: Have you spoken to a trusted physician about this low energy issue? If not, would you be willing to?
A: I have. She ran a bunch of tests, and everything looks normal. She told me to get more sleep, drink more water, and eat less junk food. Also, she recommended I learn to do meditation in the evenings.
[Imagine what might happen if we tried to tackle those four massive goals all at the same time!]
Q: Awesome, it sounds like your doctor has done a lot of our work for us! She’s given you a couple of extremely straightforward goals to get to work on. If you had to guess, which of the four goals do you think would be the easiest for you to improve upon this month? The sleep, the meditation practice, hydration, or eating less junk food?
A: I think trying to drink more water would probably be the easiest for me.
Q: I completely agree. It’s probably the most straightforward of the four. I know learning to drink more water isn’t particularly sexy, but I think it will make a notable improvement in your overall energy level. Even if it doesn’t, it is a wonderful way to get working towards your “more energy” goal. Would you agree?
A: I really have no idea. I’ve heard that drinking more water can help energy levels and focus, but I’ve never tried it.
Q: That’s fair. Are you willing to drink more water for one month and then we can evaluate if it’s helping?
A: Definitely, that sounds fair.
Q: Great. From here we’re going to set up an extremely clear plan to help you drink more water.
Now, we can put a concise and actionable plan into effect. In this case, after asking a few more questions, I suggested that our hypothetical resolutioner purchase one 1.5 liter water bottle from the convenience store near her house tomorrow morning. She is to take the bottle with her in her work bag and is to try to drink all 50 ounces throughout the day. She will then fill it with water every night and place it in her refrigerator for the next day. The next day she will take the same bottle to work and try to drink it throughout the day. She will also have a chart that she will use to track her water intake, and she will fill out this chart every night and note how much of the 50 ounces she completed, whether or not she brought the bottle to work, and whether the bottle is refilled for tomorrow. She will do this for one month starting tomorrow. After one month is up, we will address how successful she was and then determine whether or not to introduce a new mini-goal that also relates to her “more energy” macro-goal.
You will likely notice a couple of key differences between the wordy hydration goal I have outlined above and our hypothetical resolutioner’s original “get in shape” goal.
First, our new hydration goal is extremely specific. We have outlined the time it will begin (tomorrow), the time it ends (in 30 days), where she’s going to buy her water bottle (the store near her house), how much water there will be in the bottle (1.5 liters), where she will put her bottle on the way to work (in her bag), where she will put it every night (filled and in the refrigerator), and exactly how she will measure her success (with a chart we made together).
Second, it is extremely realistic for her to accomplish. Adding more water to her daily life is not a huge deal, and therefore we are setting her up for success. By using a chart and giving her a one-month check-in date with me, we have added accountability.
Third, it relates directly to her long-term goal, which is to have more energy. She trusts her doctor, she trusts me, and she keeps hearing about drinking more water on the news and in her favorite magazine. Ideally she believes in the value of drinking more water.
Counter to the way many folks address their New Year’s resolutions, this hydration goal will be the only specific task that our hypothetical resolutioner will be adding to her life for the next month. Many folks tend to try to quit smoking, change their exercise habits, and do a juice cleanse all at the same time. Typically, they accomplish none of these overwhelming goals and are disheartened within the month. We only have so much motivational reserve. It’s best to ration it by building one good habit at a time.
So, the big, actionable take away from this article is as follows: sit down with a pen and pad, and really ask yourself what resolution (or goal) is the most meaningful to you right now. Be brutally honest about what you want and why. Be specific. Once you have established your most important goal, begin to dissect the goal into much smaller pieces, much like we did in the above example. What you are trying to end up with is a very realistic and highly achievable goal for the next month. If the goal seems unachievable, edit until you are 100% certain you can accomplish it.
From there, create an extremely straightforward and clear goal that is positive in nature. For example, instead of “don’t eat cookies,” try “buy 10 pieces of fruit and 10 string cheeses every Sunday at the market, and have a piece of fruit and a string cheese in place of my 3 o’clock cookie.” Keep a chart at the desk, and record daily successes. And that’s it for the entire month. No extra goals or self-loathing-driven plans – just buy the fruit and string cheese, and keep up with your chart. If this seems too easy, that’s the point! We are chasing success, not failure.
Over the course of the next twelve months, we want to set ourselves up for measurable, realistic successes throughout the year. One success will build upon the last one and motivate the next one. Imagine looking back on this year and seeing a series of small, meaningful achievements leading to stronger habits. If you have any outstanding resolutions and don’t know where to start, grab your pen and paper, and start today.