Make Better Resolutions by Understanding Your True Goals

With the turn of the calendar year, it’s resolution time for many people. The New Year feels like a clean slate, a world of opportunities, a chance for new successes that have eluded us.  An unknowable number of resolutions are made come January 1st, many of them falling into the familiar and repeated: to lose weight, to get more sleep, to eat more healthily, to exercise more, to spend less time at the office and more time with family.

Plan for Better Resolutions

Will you succeed?  The University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology reports that just a measly 8% of Americans are successful in making and implementing their annual resolutions. Why is this?  Presumably a person chooses a resolution that is important to her life, that she wants for herself, and which she believes would represent a positive change.  Why such a poor success rate?

1.     Know Your True Objectives

Buster Benson offers a mental framework to use to make and keep better resolutions.  Benson starts by encouraging us to know our true objectives. Success in sticking to your resolutions requires an understanding not only of what you think you want to change in your life, but why you want to make the change.  In other words, what is your real objective?

The traditional resolutions I listed above appear at face value to be positive changes.  Who doesn’t want to improve their health?  Who wouldn’t want a more fulfilling work-life relationship?  Who can argue with spending more time with family?  Standing in a vacuum, however, these resolutions are actions without objectives.  The objective is the “why” of the resolution.

In making your resolutions, spend some time thinking about your objectives.  If you have a practice of a weekly, monthly, or annual review, where you reflect on past performance and set future goals, you should already have a good sense of these.  Think about the objective behind the resolution.  If it is not a goal that you are committed to, that will fuel your days, weeks, and year, you’re probably not going to get very far with the resolution.  Picking resolutions that align with your goals is the task here.

2.     Understand your personal environment

Your life is like no one else’s.  Your familial, professional, physical, mental, emotional, financial, and geographic situations combine to form a unique environment in which you operate.  That environment will influence your ability to change or alter certain aspects of your life and routines.  Understanding your personal environment will provide you with a much greater insight into what resolutions you actually have a chance of sticking to.

This is the point that so much self-improvement and productivity systems literature ignores, as Benson adeptly notes:

This is why goal-achievement is so difficult to prescribe from afar. The goal-achievement self-help industry cannot create personalized instructions for them to grow in 7 billion different environments, and so the instructions often ignore the environmental conditions entirely saying simply:

  1. Take goal out of box
  2. Water at the goal every day for 21 days
  3. Make sure it doesn’t die
  4. Success!

Step 3 is usually left purposefully vague — just commit yourself, they say. Go ahead and throw out any how-to manuals that you have (including this one). Growing a goal requires that you put on your own gardening hat and gloves and pay attention to the soil that you and you alone have to work with.

Figure out the details, advantages, and hurdles of your environment.  If you are single, you will have distinct time advantages in your environment than someone with many small children in the house.  Note your work schedules, your family commitments, your responses to stress (eating? drinking alcohol? skipping the gym?), your commute time, and anything else that stands as a contour that you must navigate in your daily life.  Once you’ve done this, you might revisit your resolution choice.

Consider swapping your original resolution with one focused on changing the environmental condition that has the most potential to prevent the success of your original resolution.

As an example, two of my objectives this year are to increase the number of posts on this blog to at least three per week, and to read at least 100 books.  My personal environment includes family commitments to two young children, who wake up early and require a lot of attention during their waking hours.  I could have simply “resolved” to write and read more.  But this wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere, as it is conclusory and doesn’t detail an actionable step given my environment.  Thinking about the details of my life, a more focused resolution is to get up earlier.  So I’m going to try to move my wakeup time from 5:45AM to 5:00AM this year.  If I’m successful, that will give me nearly an entire hour additionally to myself in the morning, before the kids get up, to read and to write. Hopefully, it will give me more time to reach my objectives.

3.     Remember, review, and revisit your resolutions.

If you’re going to successfully make some change in routine or habit, you can’t rely on just blind memory to help.  You need to use tools and reminders to check in and remind yourself of your objectives.  First, you need to identify your goals for the year as part of a reflection and planning process.  Then, you need to revisit those goals on a regular basis.

Pick a review interval that makes sense for your life.  You might consider doing different types of reviews at different intervals.  For example, I start each day with a morning ritual that consists of a workout, a short journal entry making notes of opportunities and gratitudes (similar to this), a short mindfulness meditation, and a review of my to do list for the day.  On a weekly basis, I block out about two hours on my Friday afternoon for a weekly review, where I gather all loose information and to-dos from all the places they collect over the week, and review the status and to-dos for all projects, both personal and professional.  I check my progress against my goals for the week.  Then I set three goals for the following week.

I do the same thing on a monthly and annual basis on a higher level.  Monthly reviews allow for a review of goals and targets, including the resolutions and habit changes I’ve set for goals.  There’s no magic to this pattern, and you might find that a completely different review process works better for you.  You must make the time, whatever method you choose.   It is only through regular review of progress against goals that you will understand whether you are on or off course, and be able to identify any needed changes in course.

4.     The Point of Any Resolution Is to Increase Your Quality of Life

There is no secret universal blueprint for great resolutions that will work for everyone.  Remember that the point is to increase the amount of time in your life that you consider to be high quality.  That may be family time, it may be more time for yourself, it may be more time focused on a new project or business endeavor or hobby.  Whatever it is, spending the time to identify your goals and priorities will allow you to understand what it is that really makes you happy.  Once you know that, you’ll be able to think about discrete, meaningful changes you can make in life that will help you take small steps every day toward those goals.

Good luck!  Have a great 2016.

photo credit:Mike Peel ( [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons