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I could certainly start this article by referencing all the data on how ineffective New Year’s resolutions are, but that wouldn’t be constructive, and I don’t believe it’s true. I actually think there’s something powerful about starting anew during a New Year. So rather than bash New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to take a different approach in this article.
I don’t believe the timing of a New Year’s resolution is the issue. The first of the year seems like a logical time to make a change and achieve important goals. In fact, in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing Daniel Pink suggests that there’s a lot of research to support embarking on a new goal to start a week, a month, and especially a year. If timing isn’t the issue, then what is?
I would submit to you it’s not the WHEN that is the issue, it’s the HOW. Most specifically most people fail to make a New Year’s resolution stick because they have a faulty framework (or not framework at all) for goal-setting. This lack of a system for framing up the resolution is a more likely cause of failure than anything else.
Fear not, this article will explore a simple five step framework that can help you get out of the rut of failing to achieve your New Year’s resolution. The great part is this framework is just not specific to health and fitness resolutions. You can apply this to literally any resolution you have. Better still, it’s not even specific to resolutions. Anytime you’re setting out to achieve an important goal, use this framework and your odds of success will increase significantly.
Step 1: Start with your Values
The Cambridge Dictionary defines values as: the beliefs people have, especially about what is right and wrong and what is most important in life, that control their behavior. I like this definition because it frames values up in two critical ways. First, it acknowledges their importance in life. Second, it notes it’s a driver of behavior.
I’ll go a step further, values are constructs that when we connect with them we feel most fulfilled, and when we fail to connect we feel most lost. Values are things we’d never give up under any circumstances. They are our deepest held beliefs. So deeply held they become part of our identity.
Family, growth, integrity, joy are all values; there are literally hundreds of them. What matters most is what YOU value most. Values are not right or wrong. They are unique to each person and strike a cord on a deeper level. Most importantly values are both a compass and an anchor. They provide you with direction (like a compass) and build a foundation (like an anchor) for what is most important in your life.
How do values relate to goals and New Year’s resolutions? Connecting your goal with a value (or better still, values) gives it deeper meaning and makes the odds of giving up on the goal significantly less.
Imagine for a moment you have a value of family. If you tie your exercise-based New Year’s resolution to simply “getting fit,” you might have a hard time sticking to it. However, if you connect it back to your family (being fit, meaning I’ll be healthy, which means I’ll be around for my family longer), it’s much harder to give up. People give up on exercise goals all the time, but they give up on family much less often.
The point here is to take a step back and connect your New Year’s resolution to the deeper value(s) that make it truly meaningful to you. If you can’t find a way to do that, it’s probably not a worthwhile goal in the first place.
Finally, obviously this requires knowing your values. If you’ve never done a values exercise (or it’s been some time since you’ve done so) VIA Character Strengths is a great place to start. Understanding your values is far more than a great way to achieve your New Year’s resolution, it’s a way to lead a more fulfilling life.
Step 2: Start with What You Can Do, Not What You Want to Accomplish
I realize this step sounds a little counterintuitive. Aren’t New Year’s resolutions and goals all about striving for big things? Well far be it from me to tell you not to strive for something big and great, but I think an important degree of reality must be interjected into the process. So often people fail to achieve their goals because they’ve decided on a goal that is no way realistic for their lifestyle.
Let’s say you want to complete an ironman triathlon (which is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run), but you only have 5 hours a week to commit to exercise. No matter how badly you want to achieve that goal (or, for that matter, how tied it is to your values), it won’t be possible because what you CAN DO constraints what you WANT to accomplish. If you only have 5 hours a week to exercise you can probably do a sprint triathlon (0.5 mile swim, 15 mile bike, and a 3.1 mile run).
Prior to setting your New Year’s resolution, ask yourself what’s necessary to achieve it (and if you don’t know, find out from a reputable source). If the time and other commitments you have to make are things that you’re both willing AND able to do, you’re on the right track. If you’re willing but not able to do them because of your present circumstances, amend the goal is something that is more feasible. That’s not giving up, it’s just pragmatic goal setting.
Step 3: Be Clear on the Outcome, but Don’t Focus too much on It
Being crystal clear about what you want to achieve and when you want to achieve it by, is a critical part of the process. To that end, it’s best to be very specific here. The SMART acronym helps. SMART is Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic and Time-bound. We addressed realistic in step 2, and we’ll address action-oriented in step 4. Here let’s focus on specific, measurable, and time-bound. Specifically what you want to achieve, in objective, measurable terms, and within what timeframe you want to achieve it, is critical to providing focus and direction.
Example, “getting fit” is not a great SMART goal. What does that even mean (fitness is a very broad term)? When do you want to achieve it by? If you don’t know specifically what you won’t know if you’ve gotten there. If you don’t know specifically when, you won’t have any urgency behind your actions. The more measurable and time-bound you can be the better.
Saying that, once you’ve set your outcome goal, don’t focus on it too much. I know that sounds at odds with what I just said, but there is a problem with outcome goals – they’re in the distant to very distant future. The more primitive centers of our brain (that drive our emotions and impulses) are wired for instant gratification. Simply put, an outcome goal is weeks to months away (maybe even years). The many things that can distract us from our outcome goals, by providing instant gratification, are literally in front of us all the time. Focusing too much on our outcome goal increases the odds we’ll give into those sources of instant gratification.
You absolutely should have an outcome goal and you should monitor your progress relative to it on a periodic basis (biweekly or monthly), but if you focus on it too much you’ll succumb to the forces of instant gratification all too easily.
Step 4: Embrace the Process
If an outcome goal is where you want to go, a process goal is what you need to do to get there. If your goal is running a 5k in 30min by August 30th; the process is your daily running, stretching, and weight lifting. Those are the boxes you have to check to achieve the outcome, and this is where your focus should lie.
Don’t get me wrong, you need the outcome goal first, but once you have it, you need to establish clear and specific SMART process goals, holding yourself accountable to those goals. An example of a SMART process goal is “I will run 2 miles, at an 10-11 minute pace, Mon/Wed/Fri this coming week.” That is a very clear goal in terms of what, when and how. It directs your day-to-day behavior that moves you toward your outcome goal.
The great thing about process goals is they break things down into manageable steps. Many of us have significant goals and thinking about all the steps to get there can be overwhelming. Good process goal setting breaks this larger process down into the next most important thing to do. Not only will this provide focus, but it will provide clear day-to-day accountability. Most importantly, it will work with your innate biological drive for instant gratification. By checking the “box” of achieving your process goal everyday you’ll feel more accomplished and maintain your motivation.
Step 5: Find an Accountability Partner
Even the most self-disciplined among us can use some external accountability. It provides that extra layer of attention, motivation, and commitment to get us through those dark moments where we want to give up on our goal. Those dark moments come for all of us at some point and we know it. Having a person there at the right time can make all the difference between persisting or quitting.
Once you have your values and created a great outcome goal, with process goals to lead you there, it’s time to find someone to tell. In fact the more people you tell the better, because the broader your accountability network will be. The ultimate form of accountability would be posting your outcome and process goals on social media and telling everyone you’ll report your progress daily. Talk about accountability!!
Assuming you don’t want to go that extreme, try finding one good friend or family member, and ask them if they’ll be your accountability partner. Be sure to tell them what you need from them, as specifically as possible. If they agree, explicitly tell them your outcome and process goals and tell them you’ll check in with them frequently on how you’re doing. You might also tell them to check-in on you too.
How you structure your accountability relationship, and with whom, is up to you. One thing I can tell you from years of coaching behavior change, having an accountability partner is key. Don’t believe me, ask any alcoholic who’s gone through AA how important their sponsor is. If the idea of an accountability partner is strong enough to kick a physical addiction to alcohol, it’s probably strong enough to help you achieve your New Year’s resolution.
Congrats on Starting Anew
You should be proud of yourself for being willing to take on the challenge of making a change this New Year. The decision to make a change isn’t easy, and making the change is even harder. It’s my hope that this article will help achieve your goals by providing an evidence-based framework for goal-setting. Wishing you the best on your journey to achieving a better you!