January’s Over: How to Stick with New Year’s Resolutions
It’s been one month and 10 days since the disco ball in Times Square dropped and one million rowdy witnesses welcomed the new year. (And less than a week since more than a billion people across the globe celebrated the Chinese Lunar New Year—so if you feel you missed the boat on January 1, join them!)
By now, many of us are back to gulping coffee instead of juicing vegetables. Some of us have settled back into soul-sucking jobs for another year—maybe for that bonus, or maybe out of fear of the unknown.
Making promises to oneself is deeply personal.
I have a number of friends who flat-out reject the idea of making New Year’s resolutions precisely because they believe that making a grand declaration on a national holiday about how they’re going to change is a surefire way to let themselves down. Change happens when you want to change, not when the calendar says it’s time, they say—and I see their point. Making promises to oneself is a deeply personal matter. Just as everyone learns differently, I imagine everyone changes differently.
For me, the coming of a new year feels like the right time to slow down, make time to reflect and decide what I want more or less of in my life. I savor the annual ritual of sitting down (often just on my commuter train or at my kitchen counter) with a clean notebook and a fine point pen. I reflect on what I’ve done in the past year, what I did not or could not do, and what still resonates with me. I might doodle a little. I make some lists. I carry the notebook around with me for those first few weeks of the year and flip through it from time to time to see what I’m still excited about. I notice themes. I think about what I need.
I always take my time. It takes me awhile to settle on the things I choose for the year and how I think I will achieve them. It’s a quiet, exciting, and creative process for me. I enjoy thinking about how I might want the next year to be different for my family and me.
This is not to say I get everything done on my list. Ha! Not even close. In fact, “get a driver’s license” was on my list for 12 long years! Becoming an intermediate, and maybe even an awesome, driver is still on my list. But I did get my license. And I do plan to become a great driver, even if little by little. Leaving a job I loved in order to try something new was on the list for two years before it happened. Becoming a coach was on the list one year, and it happened that year.
For me, when the novelty of New Year’s resolutions starts to wear off (February, anyone?), it’s a great time to look back at my list and see what still resonates. I love that this allows me to feel good about whatever progress I made, and see what low hanging fruit I might be able to grab to rekindle that first-week-of-January momentum. I enjoy thinking about what I can do to make more progress. I try to forgive myself for mistakes I’ve made. And I’ve had some spectacular fails already—but I love knowing that I still have ten more months to fix what’s not working.
Whatever the time of the year, this can be a deeply satisfying and life-affirming experience. You can do it right now, in February—and not only because of the Chinese New Year.
Here are the questions and tools that I have found most useful and inspirational. I would love to hear what has worked for you. (And if you have any tips on how to become a more confident driver, I’m all ears!)
Set Your Yearly Theme
I used to just make a laundry list of things I wanted to do. In the last few years, I have started to think more about bigger themes. The following questions help me uncover those.
1) “What do I want?”
This question is really a gift to yourself. Give yourself the courtesy of waiting for, then really listening to, the answer. Some answers you might find: to leave your job, to start your own business, to go on a fabulous vacation to Europe. Or maybe, more simply, to spend more time with your family.
2) “How do I want to live, or BE, this year?”
I started asking myself this question two years ago, and it has helped me come up with a broad theme for the year ahead. In 2015, I vowed to relax and do less.
In 2016, I vowed to play and work like a kid.
Once I’ve settled on what I want and how I want to be, I ask myself:
3) What do I do, and what do I need, to meet this goal?
If you want to get healthier, you may decide to eat more healthily and exercise at certain times.
If you want to feel more peaceful, you may decide to make time to meditate or exercise.
If you don’t know how to do something you want to do, you might sign up for a class or find a professional who can teach you (a coach, consultant or expert whom you can pay or with whom you can barter services).
Explore What Else You’d Love to Do
Beyond the bigger themes, I love making a simple list of things I want to do without attaching them to bigger goals. For this, I ask:
- What do I want to get done (a home project, resume, decluttering)?
- What do I want to try for fun, or if I have time (visit a museum a month, write a short story)?
- What do I want to learn (new language, coding, cooking)?
- What do I want to do someday (but not now)?
In his classic book Getting Things Done, productivity expert Tim Allen teaches that the key to getting things done is getting all your thoughts and wishes onto actionable lists. Doing so will get rid of anxiety, put you at ease and put you in the right mindset to do everything you’ve been wanting to do.
One of the lists he suggests you keep is a “Someday/Maybe” list. I use this list as a place to collect inspiration, almost like a Pinterest board for my life. Evernote or just your phone notes app is a great place for this list. Or even an actual Pinterest board, if you prefer imagery! Every year, I look at my “Someday/Maybe” list and ask myself, “is this the year I will do it?” Combined with “I want to but” (see below “Where do I feel stuck?”), this can be a powerful place to park your great ideas to incubate so they are not roaming and taking up space in your brain on a daily basis, but not getting lost either.
Pick Your Signposts of Success and Troubleshoot Your Challenges
Once I’ve figured out what I want to do, I ask these questions to help myself achieve my goals:
1) How will I know I’m on my way?
Come up with just a couple of milestones on the path toward what you want. When I was transitioning to be a coach, one of my goals was literally to be a coach. One of my milestones was to have a roster of ten paying clients by a certain date. Another one was having the confidence in my heart that I was actually helping my clients.
2) Where do I feel stuck?
If you see the same barriers to your goals coming up each year and feel frustrated (such as my 12 year old goal of getting a license), try the “I want to, but” method to troubleshoot why you’re getting stuck. I wish I could remember where I saw this trick. Try filling out these sentences:
I want to______, but _______.
Then add one—or several—step you can take to navigate around the problem: …so I will ___________.
Example: I want to be fit, but I have no time to exercise because when I’m not working I’m taking care of my baby at home. So I will a) have a babysitter/friend/spouse watch my baby two days a week and b) find an exercise I can do with a baby three days a week and c) walk up and down the stairs at the office. (Watch the video below to see a mom taking unconventional measures to exercise with her toddler.)
Build and Use a Team
Building a team dedicated to my success, what I call “Team Caroline,” is an important reason I have been able to do a lot of things I wanted for myself. Your team might include a coach, a tutor, a cleaning person, an accountant, a friend who is kind to you on a bad day or a neighbor who takes turns with you picking up kids after school. Really think about the resources (money, people, time) you have at your disposal. You don’t have to do it alone. Ask for help. Surround yourself with people you like when you are trying to make a change.
Make It Fun
Find ways to get excited about your process of change. I love the idea of embodying games to improve your real life. Jane McGonigal who created the game “Superbetter” was able to overcome brain injury related difficulties by asking for help, finding small “boost ups” (remember the extra power you earn every time your Pac Mac eats up those cherries?) and unleashing her best qualities. This idea, presented in her TED talk, is such a fun way of looking at the world.
I’ve game-ified learning Spanish with Duolingo, a free language learning app, and I get a kick out of keeping track of my steps on my iPhone.
And lastly, for fun, reward yourself. You know you are not above a treat. Treat yourself in big or small ways that you can afford to celebrate a winning streak. A dinner with friends. A movie. A fancy workout class. A new phone.
Keep Track of Your Progress
People overestimate what’s possible in a day, but underestimate what’s possible in a year.Even if you are not a data geek, it can be rewarding to see the progress you make—but don’t obsess over the numbers or the act of keeping track. I have a client who kept a beautiful Google spreadsheet of how many steps she was taking daily, and that worked for her (but this would feel overwhelming to me). I used to keep track of three or so things in my phone note section, until I discovered the app “Ways of Life” in this episode of Tim Ferriss’ Podcast with Kevin Rose. The app allows users to keep track of up to three goals a day for free (I paid to keep track of more items). It makes the task utterly pain free and spits out cool graphs that make it easy to stay on top of your goals while not requiring more than 30 seconds a day from you.
Don’t Wait Until The End of The Year to Review and Reflect
I try to block out some time at the beginning of each season to review my resolutions and see what I want to tackle next, or see what I can do to move forward. I also do a mini version of this at the beginning of each month.
In the above mentioned podcast with Kevin Rose, Tim Ferriss said that people often overestimate what they can accomplish in one day (over-packed to-do lists anyone?), but that they underestimate what they can accomplish year to year.
When more of us take time to dream up how we can change, how we can be better, I imagine the world getting a little bit fuller and little bit brighter.
Good luck. And please share in the comments section your own stories of making and keeping promises to yourself all year round!