How Not to Fail at Your New Year’s Resolution

45% of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions, while another 17% make them occasionally. Of those who make resolutions, only 8% successfully achieve their goals.

That’s pretty depressing.

We’re all about self-improvement around here. While I don’t usually set New Year’s resolutions, I set goals and work to build better habits all the time. With that in mind, let’s look into making better resolutions so that you can set yourself up for success.

Setting SMART Goals

In the early 1980s, SMART goals swept through the business world. At the time, the idea was that each department of each company employing the method should set objectives that were Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Related.

Eventually this framework was adapted to individual goal-setting. In adapting to the needs of the individual, some of the criteria had to change. Now, individual goals were to be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Just by running down this list, we can see why a lot of resolutions fail.

“I want to lose weight and get more in shape” is not specific or measurable. Neither is “I want to spend less and save more” or “I want to spend more time with family.”

Making your goal Specific and Measurable forces you to avoid the vagueness of typical New Year’s resolutions. Instead of “I want to lose weight,” you can decide “I am going to lose 20 pounds.” Instead of “I want to save more,” you can say “I am going to max out my 401k and my IRA.”

Setting Attainable goals means that your goal should not be impossible. You can, and should, still set your sights high, but just avoid setting them so high that you become demoralized with your progress. If you can barely do three pushups in a row on December 31, maybe avoid declaring that you will be able to do 1,000 pushups in a row by the end of January.

Another key with Attainable goals is to avoid setting goals that others have control over. Instead of saying “I will get promoted this year,” you could say “I will work with my boss to figure out everything she thinks I need to be able to do to get promoted and then build each of those skills.”

The advice to set Relevant goals may seem unnecessary, but it is included for reasons beyond just the fact that nobody outside of Boston would want to set SMAT goals. Does your goal advance your bigger picture goals? Does it push you in the direction that you want to go? Is it worthwhile? You want to make sure you are setting a goal because it helps you in some material way, rather than just because you think you’re supposed to. If you are comfortable with your weight, then don’t worry about losing more.

Finally, we need to make sure our goals are not only Time-bound, but are bound within an appropriate amount of time. Most New Year’s resolutions are set for a full year. This is often too long of a time frame. It is very easy to push things off or even forget about them with a one-year time frame. If you have a plan to lose 20 pounds in a year, you don’t have much incentive to get started right away.

There are two ways to address this. The first is to break the goal up into monthly targets. “I will lose two pounds each month during 2017.” The second is to set a shorter timeframe for the goal. “I will lose 20 pounds by April 1, 2017.” Decide which makes the most sense for your particular goal and get to work.

Building Habits

Something that I have learned throughout the course of my own self-improvement is that habits are much more powerful than goals.

I promise I did not just waste your time by making you read about goal-setting. Goals are still appropriate in a lot of situations.

I wanted to hit a certain weight before my wedding. I set a goal. I hit it. Boom. Problem solved.

If you are trying to learn a certain skill or run a certain distance, then set a goal.

But if you are trying to change your behavior for the better for a long time, think about whether your goal could be turned into a habit. Or maybe even turned into a habit in conjunction with a goal.

If I want to lose weight, perhaps I can set a goal to lose 20 pounds by April 1, and also build the habit of keeping a food journal to track what I eat. The habit will make it easier to hit the goal and then will make it easier to keep the weight off in the future.

As soon as possible, go read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. The Power of Habit teaches you everything you need to know about the importance of habits, the science of habits, and the various techniques for building habits. Better Than Before helps you identify what type of personality you have and which habit-building techniques work best for your personality type.

I have recommended books before. I do it quite often. But these recommendations could literally be life-changing. I mean that sincerely.

Other tips

Here are a few other big-picture tips for achieving your resolutions this year:

  • Don’t set too many goals at once.

When you only set goals for the new year, you tend to want to cram a lot of self-improvement into your resolutions list. Avoid the temptation. If you set too many goals at once you will be unable to sufficiently focus on any one of them. Instead, try setting shorter term goals. Maybe set two goals for January through March and then plan to add two more once April 1 hits.

  • Write down your goals

Writing down your goals actually helps. Distill it down to a sentence or two and put it on a Post-It note on your desk. Write it on a piece of paper that lives on your night stand. Make it the background of your phone. Get your goals written somewhere that you will see them every day and you will be far more likely to achieve them.

  • Tell others about your goals

Whether you want to start a blog to document your debt repayment, tell your spouse that you want to go to the gym three mornings per week, or start a betting pool with your friends over who can save the most money, tell someone about your goals. In addition to forcing you to actually formulate a clear goal, putting it out to the world creates an extra layer of accountability that you cannot get if you keep your goals to yourself. Knowing that you would have to admit your failure to someone else creates a solid incentive to keep going until you achieve success.

So what are your resolutions? Have any goal-setting tips that I missed? Found any methods that work better than others for you? Let us know in the comments!

14 thoughts on “How Not to Fail at Your New Year’s Resolution”

  1. That is funny… yes, we did go in opposite directions with our ideas of goal setting. I think that is the key though to learning and living, we are all unique and different. I wrote a post on the difference between a “hunter” and a “farmer”. I am definitely in the “hunter” category and so my goal setting will look much different. For me, I need wild inspiration. The measuring and documenting just doesn’t cut it. I am actually drafting up a supplemental post for those who are like me. But one thing I do suggest, is that we ‘daydream’ every day and then put your thoughts down on paper. I call this the DaVinci method. Don’t worry about where it will go, just do it every day. If we do this often enough, our dreams will take hold of us.
    Primal Prosperity recently posted…Do You Have Dreams, or Do Your Dreams Have You?My Profile

  2. Nice post Matt and highly relevant for the season! I think it is all very good advice. For me, I know that it’s more about cultivating habits that will lead to desired objectives. I do best with goals that reflect actions I am going to take vs. outcomes I am going to achieve.

    For example, I may have a goal to consistently lift weights three days a week for :45 instead of having the goals of benching 225 by mid-year.

    BTW, was it a Freudian slip that you set the sample weight loss goal to be achieved by April 1st? April Fool’s day? Ha, ha!

    Have a great holiday and new year!
    Jon @ Be Net Worthy recently posted…The Biggest Tax Break You’re Not TakingMy Profile

  3. Great goal-setting advice, Matt! I second your recommendation for The Power of Habit – LOVED that book. It was chock full of great information and research about human behavior. And it’s super useful information.

    Using those small wins to provide momentum toward the bigger goals is a huge help to me. Breaking it down keeps it from feeling so overwhelming and makes it more doable.

    Using the weight loss example – I lost 50 pounds after my second child. It took a full two years to do it, but I’ve been able to maintain my weight for 12 years without struggling or yo-yoing. They key was the diet and exercise habits. They are such a part of my daily routine and lifestyle, I don’t even think about it anymore.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Give the Best Gift They Will Never ForgetMy Profile

  4. Thanks for the timely post, Matt. I don’t usually make resolutions although I do consider things I want to improve or get done. But I also find it’s better to focus on habits rather than goals. Either way, I tend to overextend myself as I did with my Positivity Challenge so I need to remember to only focus on one or two habits at a time…Those two books are outstanding and should be on everyone’s reading list. Merry Christmas!
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…A Groovy Christmas to AllMy Profile

  5. I love love love The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Such a great book!!! I have written down any goals yet, I don’t know why I’m procrastinating. Maybe I don’t want to be held accountable this year but I know that there are definitely some habits that I need to break and need a swift kick in the pants to help me get there.

    On a positive note I jumped the gun on new year’s resolutions and have been working out 4x a week at a bootcamp. I knew I was in bad shape but holy smokes I didn’t realize how bad of shape I was in. After the first class I couldn’t walk for two days.

    Needless to say I’m getting more comfortable and feeling better so hopefully I can maintain this healthy habit 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Giving Shares to CharityMy Profile

  6. Ha! If I wrote this post it would be “don’t set them.” Which is why I left these kinds of posts to the pros like you! 🙂

    I hate resolutions, and I’m not sure why. I guess part of my problem is I feel like I can’t see the whole picture of the year so early on. So my dreams and hopes and wants are vague, and that’s never a boon for goal setting. I really like the idea of cultivating habits instead!
    Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies recently posted…A Glimpse Inside 31 Days of KindnessMy Profile

  7. Good stuff and I agree. I think the biggest reason is the goals are not attainable. I tend to shoot for the moon and sometimes overestimate what I can accomplish. This year I tried to be realistic and made a bunch of smaller goals that are achievable (at least I think so). Thanks for sharing!

    Brian recently posted…PluggingandPlaying 2017 GoalsMy Profile

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