I've made resolutions each January first since I was a child, almost all of them unkept. I've probably made a hundred resolutions that fell by the wayside by January 20th. It's not that I haven't made up my mind to do things, and then done them; it's not like I never try to change my habits. I love doing that stuff, but it doesn't usually happen on New Year's.
But I'm not going to make a sweeping statement like "New Year's resolutions don't work." It's just because I happen to write down my NYRs that I know I don't do most of them. (I do some of them!) I don't tend to record and track all the little resolutions I make throughout the year--I just remember the ones that worked and forget the ones that don't. So, maybe NYRs don't have a better track record than any other, less loaded resolution, but that doesn't mean they're not worth making.
I still don't have a grand unified theory of what makes a good resolution, but I've figured out some of my pitfalls from examining my past mistakes.
Mistake #1: Shoulds
Exercise more. Eat better. Save money. Keep a cleaner house. They're all worthwhile goals, to be sure, and I've seriously improved on some of them over the years (not exercise). But I did it when I was ready, and when I felt in my heart that there was a real reason--a more compelling reason than "I wrote it down on January first."
- I stopped eating much junk food I realized that real food made me feel more energetic and less headachey.
- I made progress on my bank accounts when I had something to save for.
- My house isn't always spotless, but I've been keeping things more tidy and organized since my minimalism kick, since it's easier to manage a small number of things, and I'm more motivated when I feel like everything is lovable and wonderful, and there's no piles of junk.
In order to fulfill a resolution, I have to have some intrinsic motivation to do it. The good news is that this means that my resolutions should be all things I want to do!
Sure, sometimes what I want to do isn't very constructive, like watching a ton of TV, and I know I'm gonna do it regardless of whether I make a resolution. But sometimes what I truly want to do is something that would be good for me, and New Year's is a great time to review my true priorities and think about ways that I will keep those front and center and try to meet my goals this year.
So, when making my resolutions, I resolve stop asking
What would a better person resolve to do?
and start asking
What can I do this year to make progress toward my goals?
Mistake #2: Vague Resolutions
"Save more"? What does that even mean? I know you're probably sick of hearing about SMART goals from your work performance review, but it really does help to make your goals specific and measurable. When you review your resolutions list at the end of the year, you want to be able to say immediately if you did them or not.
Mistake #3: Lost Resolutions
Usually I write my resolutions down on paper and then lose the paper. I can't even tell if I did them or not!
In the last few years, I've been posting them online, which is great because it means it's easier to find them (as long as I post it somewhere I'll find it again), and also because they're public, so I can be cheered on/embarrassed publicly if I don't do them. That's a great motivator.
If you're too shy to post online, just emailing or chatting them to a friend can be great, because at least you can search your email and find them again. Just make sure to mention the phrase "new year's resolutions" so you can search for it.
Mistake #4: Negative Resolutions
I have never, ever kept a resolution that was a ban. In 2014, two of my resolutions were "No phone in bed" and "No ordering delivery." Ha ha!!
Like I discovered in my quest to stop eating lunch out, I'm more of a "moderation" person than a "cold turkey" person; bans just make me want to rebel. (This also seems to have been a case of "things I think I should do" and not "things I am truly motivated to do," since I don't actually want to do either of those things.)
Mistake #5: Daily Habits
My 2013 resolutions were:
- Write a page a day.
- Exercise 10 minutes a day.
- Pay back outstanding debts.
- Run a 5k.
I did the last two, and not the first two. Can you see why? In the last two, I set a goal or milestone to hit, and I hit it. In the first two, I set a method, a habit to keep that would have required me to do a little something each day. These got dropped within the first few weeks of the year.
The problem with a daily habit is that it's hard to establish, and if you miss one or two, it's like, "Why bother trying?" I'm not saying it's not worthwhile to try to establish new habits--I'm always doing that--but because of the dedication involved, I think they work better as month resolutions, not yearlong ones. A month is a short enough time that you can keep the new habit in mind the whole time, and you can focus on just one new habit at a time. With "every day this year" habits, by definition, you have to start them all at once, and taking one more than one new habit change at once is a setting yourself up for failure, I think.
Making a new habit a New Year's Resolution also makes it too hard to change if it turns out not to be a good fit. Not every habit will stick. It turns out that "page a day" is not a good fit for the way I like to write, for example. I tend to get obsessive about projects sequentially. It's likely that I wrote at least 365 pages in 2013, but I certainly didn't write them one per day, nor was it actually necessary for me to have done it that way. There's such a thing as being too specific in your goals.
I find milestone type goals much more motivating. I like the sense of achievement and the illusion that I can stop when I reach the end (even though I probably won't but will instead set a new, more lofty goal!)
Mistake #6: Resolving to control space and time itself
Rookie mistake, but: I once resolved to be in a relationship at the end of the year. It was not my decision to make! Goals like "Find a new job" or "Find a publisher for my novel" can also fall into this realm; they can be taller or shorter orders depending on factors outside of your control, like the economy. Best to focus on the aspects of the goal that are driven by your own actions, like "Set up an OkCupid profile" or "Apply to 20 jobs" or "Send novel to 20 publishers" or "Self-publish novel on Amazon."
Mistake #7: Padding my resolution count
I'll often do this thing where I get up to four resolutions and I decide I need a fifth. Or I have real conviction on two, and then add something else to bring it up to an even three. Mistake!
Realistically, I'm not going to do anything I put on the list just to pad it out. I don't need a certain number of resolutions. Just one or two is fine. It's hard to divide your attention between more things, anyway, especially if they require sustained attention.
My 2016 New Year's Resolutions
I considered and rejected a number of resolutions. "Stop throwing my clothes on the floor but instead put them in the hamper like a normal person" is a worthy goal, but it violates so many of my resolution tips: it's a daily habit, it's a ban, and I don't really want to do it. (Sorry, Wife.) This doesn't disqualify it from being a Goal of the Month at some point during the year, maybe even January, but it doesn't rise to the level of New Year's Resolution.
I've also decided not to do a writing-related resolution this year, for the first time in a long time. Becoming A Writer used to be one of my major life goals, but now I feel more like writing is something I do for fun; I'm not necessarily Trying To Get Somewhere With My Writing. I've spent the last couple of years writing to deadlines, making my writing feel like work, something I had to do to meet an obligation. I'd like to try out a year where writing isn't an obligation at all and I haven't promised anyone, even myself, that I'll do it. (My guess is… I'll still write!)
With all that in mind, here are my two (2) 2016 resolutions.
- [Money] Spend under $40,000 n 2016. This was sort of my goal in 2015, but I didn't decide on it until about September, so I'm not sure it counts. I got close, but no cigar, and that was with a barebones, unemployed month. I'm hoping I don't end up having a unemployed month in 2016; it seems like the best place to cut back is probably, hit me where it hurts, right in the personal spending.
- [Life] Get outdoors. I work indoors eight hours a day, and I have a bunch of indoor hobbies, so it's easy to fall into "indoors by default" mode, but I feel healthier, happier, and more sure that I've made the most of my day when I spend as much as possible of it outdoors. I can think of three sub-habits that will support that: - Get outside at some point during the workday. This was easy when I ate out all the time, but even when I eat in, I can go out after for a quick yet leisurely stroll through the park. - Take a walk before or after work. Let's face it, it will probably be after; I sleep in until the last possible moment! Even walking a few city blocks to cut a stop off my commute is something, but ideally I'll actually walk along the bike path or over to the community garden once it's light out in the evenings. - Finally, the fun part: doing something outdoors every weekend day. For example, I might go to the beach on Saturday, and birdwatch at the pond on Sunday. Last year, I tried to do one "adventure" per weekend, and I usually worked on the other day. This year I want to dedicate my full weekends to fun. Work has a way of being urgent, but outdoor fun is important, and I want to treat it that way!