Don't Make a New Year's Resolution This Year (Do This Instead)

Why New Years Resolutions Don't Work

Approximately 50% of us make a New Year's resolution, but most of us give up on it by February.

In 2015, I posted a YouTube video with thoughts on how to improve the odds with better resolutions. This year, I'm suggesting you bypass resolutions altogether. Here's why:

In the article Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead, James Clear argues that goals are at odds with long-term progress:

Firstly, setting them tends to make us unhappy by reinforcing the message that we're not yet good enough.
Secondly, goals often set us up to lose motivation once we achieve them, which partly explains why so many people gain the weight back after successful weight loss.
Thirdly, goals assume a greater level of control over the future than we really have, setting us up for the possibility of perceived failure despite strident steps forward (e.g. not getting hired for your dream job, despite building your credentials and a valant job hunt).   

 No wonder only 8% of us achieve our annual resolutions!

Clear's solution is to emphasize "systems" over goals. It's a shift from focusing on measurable targets to focusing on the habitual behaviours that improve performance in the long run. If for example, you have the ambition of being a successful author, committing to write for an hour every morning is more likely to bring long-term success than striving to publish a book in a set time frame.

For we fashion lovers, a style enhancing system might involve spending two minutes each evening planning our outfit for the next day instead of a rigid (and fallible) commitment to always "dress our best".


In the Zen Habits article, Instead of Goals or Resolutions, Try Creating Rules, Leo Babauta promotes shifting our focus from goals to the "rules" required to achieve those goals. "A rule in this case is an action you do after a specific event happens, as consistently as you can, which will lead to your goal happening," he says.

Babauta, who is featured in the excellent film Minimalism, stresses the need to keep it simple. "Implement one (rule) at a time. When you’ve done one for a week or two, then implement another, but never have too many going at once."

Based on these expert insights and my own experience breaking setting New Year's resolutions, I've created a short list of three tips for making commitments that stick:

1) Think Actions, not Targets: Define simple behaviours you can completely control, rather than target outcomes you can't. Instead of thinking, "I will get to 10K twitter followers this year", commit to investing 30 minutes in building Twitter each day.
2) Start Small: Begin with habits that are absolutely achievable and practice them daily until they are deeply ingrained habits. You can always layer on more ambitious goals later.
3) Start with Fun: Resolutions often bring out the masochists in us (go big or go home, right?), but pushing ourselves to the max isn't the most strategic way forward. Focusing on activities you already enjoy increases the probability of turning them into long-term habits.



Using the common resolution of weight loss, the systems approach would reframe your focus from "lose 20 lbs" to "work out three times each week" (i.e. action, not targets).

Start small with an easily achievable schedule, such as 20 minute workouts instead of your ideal hour-long workout. You may in fact work out a full hour most days, but the days you don't won't be "failures" that start to chip away at long-term motivation.

Start with fun by focusing on the activities you really enjoy (hello, Zumba) rather than the activities you loath (can anyone say "free weights"?). It's more strategic to layer in advancements after you've established a strong habitual foundation.

While the stats on New Year's resolutions are sobering, the good news is that those idealists among us who continue to make them are still 10 times more likely to achieve a set goal than those who don't. Use the habit forming tips above to further stack the odds in your favor.