As the year ends, many of us turn our thoughts to making New Year resolutions. My advice: don’t or at least not until you have carefully worked through what each goal will mean to you. Think about the benefits to your life, the joy it might bring and the cost of getting to the end. Making changes in our lives is no casual thing.
So many of us start out with good intentions to reform our lives at this time of year. The idea behind new year resolutions is that we want to add a new skill or pursue a new relationship or change some aspect of our lives for the better. It is a noble desire to want to set ourselves a target for the year. But to achieve success, we need more than good intentions and a wave of enthusiasm as we herald in another year.
Oscar Wilde once quipped, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The trick with achieving new things in our lives is to understand that few of them just happen. We have to be intentional, and being intentional means that we need some sort of intention; a plan.
Studies have shown that over a quarter of us will have abandoned our quest after one month, and less than 10% achieve any level of success. One study has shown that only 8% of people achieve their year-end goal. It’s all rather depressing when we read these results. What, I wonder, is the secret of the 8%? The answer is not altogether clear, but there are some common strands to their success.
Faced with these results, I have reviewed what will dramatically improve our chances of success. Achieving a goal requires us to change our behaviour for the better. Reform is far more challenging than we often imagine and requires a serious plan to make it all work. I have spent some years refining my plan. Here is what I have learned.
1 Small is beautiful
In setting a goal, we have a tendency to promise ourselves sweeping changes with big gestures. Frankly, we are tempted to go for the big goal. Research shows that it is much better to set an achievable goal. But what is achievable?
An achievable goal is one we have considered and deemed doable. It has to be small enough to manage. When one of my daughters was at university, she came home one weekend with the title of her first essay, threw her arms around me and cried, “I can’t do it!” As she clung onto me, I started to think about what I would say to her, to help her through her crisis. I simply asked her “How do you eat an elephant?” At first, there was a pained look on her face. She was thinking, she later told me, ‘what does this old fool know about my life?’ Then she looked pained and puzzled at me, I said, “One bite at a time.” With that, she laughed, and I helped her to set about making a plan, even though I knew nothing about her subject. The big must become small.
I’m the sort of person who needs to consider a commitment before choosing to embrace it. I need to turn it over in my mind, visualise what achieving the goal looks like, and see the setbacks I might encounter. Once that is done, I move onto the next stage. If I find that my goal is more easily achieved than I first thought, it becomes an early success.
2 The few versus the many
One of the key drivers in achieving our goals is to limit ourselves to a few well-chosen ones. I suggest no more than five. Too many will mean that we will have difficulty managing them. The final number we choose might also depend on the type of objective we have in mind.
If I have five resolutions for the year, I find it helpful to have perhaps two easier ones to achieve, leaving one more meaty goal and another that will stretch me. I think it is better to have too few than too many. One can always add another goal later if you want. Choosing the right number of goals for the year is a matter of knowing how you respond to challenges of this type.
We live in a world filled with choices. Too much choice can be bad for us since we will find that decision making is more draining and difficult. Narrowing our choices helps us to decide what is really important. In turn, this means that we must have the courage to reject perfectly worthy options in favour of one or two goals.
The secret to choosing our goals is to restrict our options. Restricting our options helps us to focus on those things that are the most important to us. Positive restriction makes managing our choices easier.
It helps to visualise achieving the goal, but we can make the mistake of thinking that achieving a goal is the same thing as living in the goal’s success. Our most significant objectives must be places where we can live. For example, let us suppose that I want to lose some weight and set a target. Is my goal to reach the weight or to stay at that weight permanently? Reaching the weight is one thing; staying there is quite another. This is the main reason why I might narrow my options. I don’t want to visit my goals; I want to live in them.
3 A powerful pen
Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer wrote, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Most of us will not change the world; we will have enough trouble changing ourselves.
We can apply that principle to our goals for the year. Writing down my goals does several things. First, the very act of recording our goals makes our commitment to them stronger. Writing clarifies our thinking and strengthens our resolve, and it does not matter whether we use a pen or a keyboard. Second, writing down our goals for the year means I have a record of them, giving me a visual cue to remind me of them and their phrasing. Thirdly, writing them down helps me cement my decisions, and improves the chances of keeping them in the front of my mind.
If we choose small enough goals, narrow our selection to a few well-chosen ones, and write them down, then we are well-placed for success. With these considerations finalised, our chances of success increase with every small refinement. We have moved from the crowd and towards the 8%.
4 Monitor and manage
Most of us need some way of keeping our goals in mind. Take, for example, my goal of losing weight. I have set a goal weight to reach and to make sure that I continue my downward trend, I monitor my weight every day. I build the weigh-in into my morning routines and hand-write the result in my day-book. This goal requires measurement every day. I chose to record my weight every day because I know how easily my work can be undone.
In another example, I have some investment goals for 2021. In this case, I record the performance of my investments each Saturday morning on my spreadsheet. As the weeks pass by, I can soon see how they perform, building a picture on how well or otherwise they are progressing.
Every goal requires a unique response to monitoring progress or regress. It is only through close monitoring that I can see what is happening. In my first goal, I want to lose; in the second, I want to gain, but it is only through monitoring the situation that I can see if I am moving in the right direction. I use my task manager to remind me of my resolutions. Every three months, I set an automatic reminder, and I have an embedded a link to the file so that review is easy and never more than a click away. I have found that the way the goal is monitored is just as important as the goal itself. It can make all the difference between success and failure.
5 Long haul or short haul?
My examples are long-term goals and appear in my list for most years. I have lost over seventy-five pounds in weight over the last few years, and since I have chosen to lose weight permanently, I decided to lose weight slowly. My achievement takes me to within a few pounds of my weight when I married some forty-two years ago. So far, I am pleased with the result. I recommend breaking larger resolutions into manageable chunks, each smaller success is a milestone on a long journey. The win comes in achieving the smaller units of the larger objective.
If I have a setback and I have had many, I am resolved to treat myself with self-compassion and kindness. By sticking with our resolutions, we can achieve worthwhile changes in our life and enjoy the journey. And now, I must finish my resolutions for 2021 – the new year is fast approaching.