How to Win at New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year when we reflect back on the prior 12 months, look ahead to the next 12 and set personal priorities. I’ve heard that by February, 80% of New Year’s resolutions are on their way to failure. This has not been my personal experience. Year to year, I’ve managed to see most of my goals through, while allowing for some goals to go into year two. Here is a summary of my reflection on this realization, and a few tips on how to win at New Year’s resolutions.

Have a sense of humor about it. We often put more on our goals list than we can accomplish in one year. As the expression goes, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. We underestimate the effort and overestimate our capacity to get things done. As a result, we start to fall behind on these resolutions as our lives get busier in February or as we exit the holiday. It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we won’t get done everything we want to do. It’s hard to keep things off of our list. We want to avoid feeling like we lost something, even if we never started on it. It helps to have a sense of humor about this. It helps to recognize how our minds play tricks on us. We need to be able to laugh at the silliness of our marvelous yet self-tricking brains. Brains allow us to make sophisticated plans for the future and solve complex problems. At the same time our brains lie to us about how realistic our plans are, why we failed last year, how committed we are to our new goals, and about whatever else will help us feel better in the moment. How ridiculous.

Don’t listen to the holiday calories talking. Speaking of energy, try to avoid setting resolutions that are a direct result of eating too much, drinking too much, or sitting around during the holidays. It is unlikely that the energy level we enjoy from the feast and holiday rest will be our baseline for the year. The extra sugar and spirits might make us overly optimistic, and prone to making emotional decisions that aren’t well thought out. More broadly, it helps to have self-awareness about how our body state and mood are affecting our goal-setting process.

Holiday calories may also be the direct reason for resolving to lose weight starting in January, “because I ate too much in December.” A goal for better health is always good, but weight loss resolutions work only when we truly want to enjoy better health, and when we are willing to examine the factors in our life that contribute to weight. When a resolution is triggered by a desire to lose the holiday pounds, we often end up doing crash diets or exercising too much and for not long enough, rather than making a slow-and-steady plan for the long-term.

Don’t make resolutions, but do resolve problems. Taiichi Ohno was a man long on action and short on theory. When a manager, engineer or student of Taichi Ohno replied to one of his instruction with “I understand,” but failed to take immediate action Ohno would scold, “Understanding means doing!” He meant that “to understand” was not just grasping the meaning of the words but their significance to motivate you to act. It is easy to make a resolution, to set a goal, to make a decision to do something. It is just as easy to cross it off of our list, to give up. When we are solving an important problem for ourselves or someone we care about, we are less likely to give up. When we have resolved the problem into its component parts, and when we take the first action to resolve one part of the problem, we are more likely to make progress towards our goal.

Work on what gives you energy. Seeing any resolution through takes energy. Some resolutions also give us energy when we work on them. Perhaps we want to exercise more, eat better, lose weight. These are things we should all do. But in the short term exercise, for example, takes more energy than it give back. We all have some resolutions that are more fun and energize us. It could be spending more time with a hobby, learning a craft, reconnecting with an old friend. Resolutions that are energy-positive are easier to get done. We can build on the success of the easier wins to find energy and conviction to tackle the things that take more energy.

Increase the resolution. In photography, when we want a clearer picture, we select a higher resolution. Likewise for our annual goals, it helps to have a clearer picture of how we are progressing day to day and week to week. We need to find ways to keep our plans, our actions, our progress, delays and actions to counter the delays, all visible to ourselves and others who care about our success and will hold us accountable.

Think big. Start small. Never stop.


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