Make Better Resolutions

Did you write your New Year’s resolutions this year? If so, how's that going for you? If you're like the majority of people, you're probably not doing too well. 

It’s no secret that humans are historically awful at achieving our resolutions. It’s not until the next New Year’s that we realize we didn’t end up where we wanted, if we can even remember where that was supposed to be in the first place. It’s estimated that only about 8% of the population is successful in achieving their resolutions. Perhaps even more startling is that 38% of people are hell-bent on not making resolutions at all. Some might argue the reason for this is that resolutions are just too hard, so why try?

If you’ve failed to achieve your resolutions in the past, or already this year, don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s ample psychological literature out there letting us know that human beings simply aren’t well-equipped to tackle long-term goals. To summarize, our brains prefer short-term feedback as opposed to long-term feedback. We don’t handle a delayed response very well and would prefer to get the satisfaction immediately.

Some might see this as a free pass to Netflix binge your January/February/Year away, but I’m here to tell you that there’s hope for us yet. We just have to be more intentional in the way we set our goals. Here's 8 ways to do that.

1.     Set Goals as Opposed to Resolutions

I realize that the title of this post is "make better resolutions," but I prefer to use the term “goals." The standard definition of a resolution is a firm decision to do or not do something. In contrast, a goal is the object of a person’s ambition or effort, an aim or desired result. In short, goals are future based, while a resolution is a present decision state. As a result, many resolutions don’t usually have an end in mind, which causes them to being vague.

2.     Set SMART Goals

A goal isn’t too much different from a resolution unless you apply certain criteria to the term. George T. Doran coined the term SMART Goals back in 1981, which is simply an acronym for the characteristics that should describe your goals. While there are several variations to the SMART characteristics, I tend to subscribe to the following:

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Relevant
T – Time-bound

Pretty straight-forward, but let’s look at an example. The top resolution of 2016 was “Lose Weight.” This is about as vague as it comes. But let’s see what happens when we transform this resolution into a SMART Goal.

Resolution: Lose Weight
Goal: Based on my current weight of ____ lbs, I will lose ____ lbs by ____date.

What a difference this makes! Don’t settle for resolutions when you can set goals.

3.     Set Quarterly Goals Instead of Annual Goals

So you’ve got goals instead of resolutions. It’s a good first step, but we still haven’t addressed the short-term feedback problem humans face. Even a smart goal can be incredibly difficult to achieve if it’s set on a yearly timeline. Setting quarterly goals is a small change but has a major impact.

Let’s look at the previous example and consider for a moment that you are a person weighing 250 lbs who’s looking to lose 40 lbs within the year. This does seem to meet the SMART goal criteria, yet that still doesn’t satisfy the human craving of instant feedback. But if we divide this goal up into quarters, our brain does a much better job of visualizing the process and the required steps to meet the goal.

Yearly goal: Based on my current weight of 250 lbs, I will lose 40 lbs by 2018.
Quarterly goal: based on my current weight of 250 lbs, I will lose 10 lbs by March 31st.

The end-goal is the same, but the task is so much more manageable.

4.     Write Down Your Goals

It’s an oldie, but a goodie. You’re far more likely to achieve your goals by doing this.

5.     Track Your Progress

Remember that whole, “your brain prefers instant feedback” thing? This is the remedy. Start every week with a set of even smaller milestones that will help you reach that quarter goal. Then at the end of the first week, review those milestones and take notes on how you did. You don’t have to hit the mark every single week, but you should be making adjustments along the way in order to stay on course.

Tracking progress is a two-part beast. Always start by reviewing the actions that were taken. Then evaluate the outcomes.

Let’s look at the weight loss example again. The individual should first start by evaluating the actions they took. Which meals were eaten? What was the calorie count? How much exercise was performed and at what intensity? Once the actions have been reviewed, then look at the outcomes. I think you’ll find that if you stay on track with your actions, the outcomes will be there. If you aren’t seeing results right away, then it will be easier to make changes to the actions because you’ve documented what hasn’t been working.

It’s worth noting that you can track progress more frequently than weekly. I personally find that stepping on a scale everyday helps me stay aware of my actions and outcomes, but this can be overkill for some people. Don’t ever let tracking your progress become more important than making progress.

6. Focus on 1-3 Goals (Eliminate Everything Else)

Be highly selective when choosing your goals. I recommend pursuing somewhere between 1-3 goals per quarter. Everything else can be put on hold. I realize this might not seem like enough for some people and to that I have two responses.

  1. If the 1-3 three goals aren’t enough to occupy your time, then you haven’t selected big enough goals.
  2. Achieving 1-3 big goals per quarter will take you much further than inching along on 10-15 goals.

I mean it. Do not over-do it on the number of goals. Gary Keller and Jay Papasan wrote a phenomenal book in 2013 titled, “The ONE Thing,” and he encourages his readers to select just ONE thing to focus on. The more distractions you can remove, the better.

If you absolutely must have more than three goals, make sure that your individual goals are aimed at the different elements of your life. For example, don’t give yourself three career goals. Instead, opt for a single goal for your career, family, spiritual life, finances, etc.

7.     Practice Contentment

It might seem strange to include contentment as a key ingredient in goal setting. After all, contentment is often seen as the culprit for why we aren’t driven enough to achieve our goals. But let’s be careful not to confuse contentment with complacency or stagnation.

Complacency is uncritical satisfaction. Stagnation is a ceasing of movement. Neither are good for accomplishing goals.

Contentment is a state of gratefulness and an appreciation for the blessings in your life. It’s taking the time to breathe and remember the good things. Contentment, when paired with intention and drive, will lead you to push toward your goals, but will eliminate the anxiety, stress, and fearfulness of not achieving them. Ironically, this freedom will create more room for you to breathe and accomplish the task ahead rather than focusing on potential failure.  

If you’re interested in this topic please be on the lookout for my first essay titled “Intent/Content,” which I’ll publish later this month.

8.     Determine Your Own Success

Let’s say this year you’re determined to start writing that book you’ve always dreamed of publishing. What is a goal you could set that would push you to accomplish that? Some may jump straight to the vision and go with “Become a best-selling author by the end of the year.”

Is this a good goal? Possibly (although likely not achievable given that selling books takes time). But I think there are other goals more suited for the task.

The ambition behind this goal is terrific, but the measure of success is largely determined by others. You only have a limited amount of control over what people think about your book. It may be the best book in the world and not sell well. Instead, create goals that you have more control over, such as completing the first draft, sending out a certain number of query letters to agents, publishing by a certain date, etc.

One may argue that setting a goal of becoming a best-selling author implies that all the other concrete steps take care of themselves. I understand that point, but remember the instant feedback our brain desires? It’s better to create tangible, scalable goals that we can personally attain and track rather than letting the vision of success dictate our steps.

Go set some goals.

Setting and achieving goals is very possible and you're more than capable. Anyone can do it if they are intentional about the process. Go out there and make your year the best one yet.

Sometimes I'll mention specific books, articles, movies, etc. in my posts. If that's the case or I'm particularly inspired by an outside source, I'll reference it in the Shoutouts sections at the end of the text.

This post's Shoutouts include:

  • 5 A.M Miracle by Jeff Sanders (Especially chapters 4 and 5 which discuss goal selection and the quarter system in detail)
  • The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (Particularly habits 2 and 3)