What Makes a Good New Year’s Resolution and How Do You Make it Stick?

Whenever the holiday season rolls around, people tend to start making claims about the upcoming year. As she loads up on a third serving of turkey and potatoes, Aunt Carol says that she’s going to lose weight. A dishwasher working on Christmas Eve exclaims that in the oncoming year he’s going to land the job that will get him away from all of the suds and scouring once and for all. That pack-rat friend of yours says she’s finally going to go through her hoard and get rid of everything she doesn’t need. Whatever the case, while some people say that New Year’s resolutions are cliché or unrealistic, it seems like pretty much everyone makes themselves some promise pertaining to the approaching year, whether they announce it or make a quiet, inward pact.

I made my first New Year’s resolution ever a few years ago (somewhat embarrassedly at the time), and it changed my life. I’m making another one this year: 2014 will be a year for me to take decisive steps in my career as a writer, which will involve working carefully on my more income-generating technical work in the beginning part of the year so that I have more flexibility to focus on my more creative and self-gratifying work during the summer. Essentially, all I’m doing is laying out a game-plan for things to come.

It is readily understandable why we make these resolutions. It’s our way of proclaiming that, over the course of our next turn around the sun, we will do something to better ourselves. But everyone knows the supposed jinx to a New Year’s resolution—by making it, we doom ourselves to failure.

This is a terribly defeatist mindset, and it’s part of the way we set ourselves up for disappointment. The desire for change is there, but so is the easy option of retaining old habits.

So how can each of us set a New Year’s resolution that we can and should keep?

Find out what’s most important to you.

While New Year’s Eve doesn’t really change anything—there isn’t some clock in nature that rolls over and predicates a fresh start for all—it is a symbolically useful opportunity to give our lives a good look over and take stock of our situation. As the new year approaches, analyze your state of affairs and figure out which parts of your life are going well and which need improvement.

This can go two ways. In looking at their lives, some people will see a lot of positive things going on and perhaps won’t find much room for improvement. If that’s your situation, great. Sometimes one of the best resolutions you can make is in an area in which you are already strong. Say that you possess a talent for playing an instrument: think of something you can do to build upon that, like learning to sing or recording an album.

A word of warning to all who think things are going well and that there is no room for improvement—there always is. For all of us. Never has there been a perfect human and never will there be.

If you can’t come up with ways of bettering yourself, ask your friends or family. You might see every aspect of your life as a-okay, but the people who know you best will be able to point out things that you never considered. It could be something small, like having them remind you of something you’d forgotten—remember how you always wanted to visit Europe or wherever? Or it could be something big—does everything seem great because you’re too conceited to see your own faults?

Most people don’t have too much trouble finding areas in which they can improve. Maybe they need to eat healthier, spend more time with their families, keep a more organized living space, or whatever. Once you have a list of things you need to work on, consider which would have the biggest impact on your life were it to change. For me, my first resolution involved improving my health because it had gotten to such a poor state that there wasn’t any aspect of my life that wasn’t affected by it. I had to fix that before I could start working on anything else.

Take things one at a time.

The reason a New Year’s resolution can be useful is because it allows you to set aside all other concerns and focus on one specific way you can improve your life.

It’s difficult to try to juggle too many things at once. Say you want to get better at playing the flute, but you also want to learn Swahili, take dance lessons, change careers, find more time to be with your friends, and fix your relationship with your estranged parents. You aren’t going to be able to do it all. There simply isn’t enough time in the day.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to better yourself in more than one way at a time, but I do advise picking a main path and sticking to it. If you try to do everything at once, you end up being able to do a wide-range of things poorly. Or you end up making half-improvements without really instigating change.

The bottom line is this: don’t obscure your goal by cluttering your perception. Recent studies have shown that too much multi-tasking actually reduces a person’s productivity. Don’t spread yourself too thin.

Right now you might be saying something along the lines of, “It’s one thing to know what needs improvement, but it’s another thing to actually do it.”

Be reasonable and set goals.

One reason why so many of our attempts at self improvement fail lies in the human propensity for biting off more than we can chew—we want the world and we want it now.

That’s not how real life works. Real life works step by step, not all at once. You are not going to make a New Year’s resolution to get into shape, then look like “Insert beautiful celebrity name here” by the end of January. Real change takes time, and it takes sticking it out. In our fast-paced consumer culture, if we mistakenly imagine that if we don’t get instant results then it must not be worth doing—back to the old habits.

Look over the long term—it’s a resolution for the whole upcoming year, after all. When I decided to get into better shape and improve my health, I set incremental goals. Had I jumped on the treadmill with the intention of running five miles right off the bat, I would have ended up being pretty discouraged. Instead I built things little by little. I set long term goals like wanting to be able to run a mile without too much effort within a month, and losing a certain amount of weight within three.

My plan for this year’s resolution works the same way. Within one month I want to have extended my marketing campaign to a certain level, within three I want to have grown my list of clients by a particular amount, then within six I want to have boiled that list down to the few clients who provide the income and flexibility I need to free up more time for my creative work. It is a straightforward, achievable plan that will make my upcoming year easier and more rewarding.

To boil it all down, by taking stock of your situation and deciding where you need the most improvement, then by making a practical plan and laying out achievable goals, you can make a New Year’s resolution that will not only lead to a better life, it will be one that you’ll actually keep as well.

So enjoy your holidays and spend a bit of time mulling over the year to come—it could be the best one of your life. Then so could the next one, and the next, and the one after that…

 

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