This is the time of year where everyone’s optimistic about how much better they’re going to do once the calendar flips over to January 1. We’re all going to be healthier, more motivated, more focused, and more zen, right? Sure. For a little while. Then reality hits, and those resolutions start looking more like quaint relics of last month. But we could all stand to be healthier, more productive, nicer, etc., so how do you make those stick well into February and beyond?
Let’s look at some tips you can use to help make better, more achievable, and more successful personal and professional goals for the coming year.
Build in some accountability.
Some of us are better than others at self-motivation and keeping ourselves on track. For others of us, well, the excuses mount. I’m so busy. I’ll deal with this later. I can’t do this because X, Y, and Z. The main problem here is that you’re the one monitoring yourself, and you’re the one both making and accepting the decision to slack off on the resolutions. If that sounds painfully familiar (and if it does, I hear you), that’s why you need someone else to help keep you accountable to yourself.
In my own life, I find I’m much more successful at staying on track when I know I’m going to have to talk about it with someone else. For example, it helps me hunker down and read my book club’s current book when I know I still have 50 pages to go, but there’s an official date and time set to talk about it with my friends.
So basically, find a resolution buddy—or several buddies, for different things. That can be as simple as finding someone to go with you to the gym, making it more of an appointment than a chore. Or it can mean having regular check-ins or coffee dates where you talk about your progress on a particular goal. At work, it can be a colleague who’s also interested in taking on more projects or arriving on time every day. Having someone else who knows what you’re up to can motivate you to make time for your task (whatever it may be), and give you a sense of purpose.
Start small—and specific.
If you want to make a lasting change, you’re setting yourself up to fail if you set a task so overwhelming or complicated that you’ll get frustrated right away. A frustrating resolution is often a failed resolution, so what’s the point of using “go big or go home” as your guiding principle here? For example, weight loss is a pretty common resolution for the new year. It’s also very vague. Sure, you want to lose weight. How much, and over how much time? Setting smaller, specific goals will help you chip away at the larger one.
If you want to lose weight, say you’ll lose five pounds by February. Then another five pounds by March. Setting these smaller, month-by-month goals gives you milestones that you can hit, and feel proud about reaching. Feeling successful will make you more likely to stick with your new weight loss regime. On the other hand, if you say “I will lose 50 pounds next year” without really breaking down how that will happen, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed about the massive change you need to make, and let the whole thing lapse.
At work, think along the same lines. Say you want to be more organized at work. What specific steps can you take to get there? Maybe the first step is downloading a productivity app that can help you manage your schedule and projects, and the step after that is tackling your email inbox and organizing it into folders. These are specific, manageable tasks that contribute to the larger goal, but are easy to accomplish in, say, an afternoon instead of languishing on a mental “when I have time” list.
Use the whole year.
Part of the reason resolutions are such a popular idea is that we have this sense that once the year changes, everything should be different and better, instantly. The reality is that this new you should be an all-year thing, not an “everything right now” thing. Set mini-goals throughout the year, or think about the milestones you want to hit before next December.
For example, if your goal is to save more money, put specific dollar amounts to that goal throughout the year, so you’re not scrambling (or giving up on the notion) all at once to meet the goal late in the year. You can set up automatic deposits on a regular basis. Moving, say, $25 from your paycheck to savings every pay period is going to be a lot less painful than trying to move over thousands of dollars all at once from checking to savings. Use the calendar to figure out how often you’ll need to do something to make your goal for the year.
Things change in life. And sometimes they change quickly. So flexibility is a key quality of any resolution. When you’re thinking about your resolutions for the next year, think about potential “plan B” goals as well. If you can’t get to the gym four mornings a week like you want to do, what other times could potentially work as well?
Feel free to revisit any resolutions throughout the year, too. Maybe you were too optimistic about the number of online classes you would have time to take to build skills. Maybe you had some unexpected costs that put a dent in how much money you can sock away toward your savings goals. If something’s not working, for whatever reason, modify it in a way that does work for you.
Expect to fail sometimes.
If you were already perfect at something, it likely wouldn’t be on your resolutions list in the first place, right? Embrace the imperfections of this process. This is about being a better self, not necessarily the perfect self. (Let’s face it: a perfect self would be pretty boring, no?) And that means treating this like a journey, and learning from any failures or mistakes you make along that journey.
If you’ve set a goal for yourself of getting promoted or finding a new job within three months and that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean you’ve totally failed at your goal and should walk away. It just means you should ask yourself what worked and what didn’t, and try again.
Fun fact: bribes work wonderfully well when it comes to motivation, whether you’re a kid or a seasoned adult. So build in your own personal rewards program for achieving your milestone goals, or completing a full year of resolution-ing. And be creative—if your resolution is to lose weight and your standard self-reward is, say, ice cream, then your reward is undercutting your progress. But you could sub in a fun activity that you don’t get to do often, or buying yourself something you’ve had your eye on for a while. #treatyoself
The reward doesn’t have to be anything extravagant or even all that personal. It could be as simple as allowing yourself a take-out lunch for every two weeks’ worth of lunches you pack and bring to work, or a 10-minute break for every two hours you go without checking your social media during the workday. Deprivation without any kind of reward can get unappealing fast, so if you can give yourself something to look forward to in exchange, you’re more likely to keep going with your progress.
Take responsibility for your goals.
Remember, this whole thing is about you and what you think will make you a happier, wealthier, wiser, more productive, or more successful person. You already know what needs to be done (hence the resolutions)—but you also know yourself better than anyone else does, so you know what your pitfalls, distractions, and weaknesses are likely to be. Even if you find an accountability buddy or tell the world about your grand plan to apply to grad school, it’s entirely on you to make these goals happen. The more control you accept and the more confidence you have in your ability to take concrete steps toward those goals, the easier it will be to make choices that support your resolutions.
By setting realistic, achievable goals for yourself, and doing some planning ahead to keep yourself engaged in your self-improvement plan, you’re already stepping up your resolution game. It’s easy to say, “I should do X.” It’s much harder to say, “Here are the 10 things I need to do to achieve X, and here’s the timeline I want to follow.” But that commitment is worth it, because the more work you put in up front, the more work you’re going to want to do over the next year to make sure you’re getting something out of this process. We don’t get to be entirely new people at 12:01 on January 1, but with a little effort, we can feel more accomplished when the next round of New Year’s resolution-making hits. Good luck!