Why New Year’s Resolutions Often Fail, and Steps To Take Instead
Growing up, I always viewed new year’s resolutions as something you were supposed to do, or that everyone just did. I didn’t feel strongly about them one way or another, but I still tried to make and keep them every year.
But I was never able to stick to them, despite trying a number of different methods. When I was in middle and high school, my youth leader even had us all write letters to our future selves, which he would mail to us the next December, so we could see how far we had come. Though I loved the idea, I always opened that letter to find very few, if any, of my resolutions had actually happened.
(Side note: I’ve re-visited the idea of writing to my future self in recent years. I now use the site futureme, and I’ve found I like to send them on my birthday, to be read on the birthday of the following year. It’s a great way to check in with myself and see what has changed in my life and outlook in a year’s time.)
Looking back, my resolutions never stuck for several reasons:
1. I wrote them down, and then didn’t look at them again until months later.
Turns out, writing down your new year goals and sealing them in an envelope works great as a sort of time capsule, but not so great as motivation to keep pursuing those goals throughout the year. So if you do send a letter to your future self about your goals for the year, be sure to also write them down somewhere else that you will see often.
2. I made them extremely vague.
My past new year’s resolutions were usually unmeasurable (do more of ____, do less of ____), hugely out of scope of what I could legitimately accomplish in a year, and lacking any thought of actionable steps to take along the way. Not only were they often impossible to accomplish, they also often made it impossible to identify whether they had actually been accomplished or not.
3. I set unreasonable expectations for myself.
Again, my resolutions were often hugely out of scope of what I could actually do. It’s great to have lofty ambitions, but setting unattainable goals perpetuates feelings of discouragement and powerlessness.
How to Make & Keep New Year Goals
While I still don’t accomplish every single thing I set out to do every single year, I have made significant progress. By setting my goals according to certain criteria, I am now able to stick to most of them — sometimes in unexpected ways.
1. Have a clear reason for every goal you set
If you set a goal for the sake of setting a goal, all you’re doing is giving yourself busy work. Why do you want to accomplish that task or achievement? What value will it add to your life?
Then, as you review your goals and progress over time, be sure to review your reason(s) as well to make sure they still hold true.
2. Set deadlines that are shorter than one year
Personally, I’ve taken to setting 6-month goals. This makes sense for me, because I start a new bullet journal at that time, and also because I still think of a year in terms of two semesters.
3. Give yourself more time than you think you need
Things take longer than we expect. Unplanned circumstances crop up. Delays happen. It’s important to set “accomplish by” dates, especially if like me you’re motivated by deadlines, but setting those dates too early can set you up for discouragement.
4. Set a few big goal categories and break them down into smaller steps with individual timeframes
When I was in university, my professors would often assign big research papers in stages. Over the course of a semester, we might turn in a topic, thesis statement, outline, literature review, rough draft, 2nd draft, and final draft. Sometimes we didn’t have quite all of these stages, and sometimes there might be a few more, but we never skipped straight to the final paper. Why? Because the point is to refine and perfect the project over time and try to produce the best work possible.
Goal-setting (and -achieving) works the same way.
If you only set “end-result” goals, you only get to feel satisfaction when you reach that end result — if you reach that end result. Breaking the goal down into steps makes it easier for you see the progress you’ve made and to refine your process along the way.
5. Track your progress
Cross each step off your master list as you reach it. You’ll build momentum and will get to celebrate each small victory as you go.
6. Give yourself grace
If there’s one thing we all learned last year, it’s that things can happen very suddenly that uproot all of our plans. Even at a smaller scale, there are times when our plans change and we realize the goals we were working toward aren’t what we want and/or need to do after all.
This is another reason why I think it’s best to set goals and deadlines that are shorter than a year: so that you can revisit and reassess them within a shorter amount of time and pivot if you need to.
But even if your goals are longer-term, be sure to come back to them on a regular basis and ask yourself if the reason you set them still stands — or if they’ve become irrelevant.
Have you set new year goals or resolutions? What’s your plan for sticking to them throughout the coming months? I’d love to hear from you.
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