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5 Mistakes to Avoid If You Want Your New Year’s Resolution to Work

Don’t be the person who abandons a new gym membership before the end of January—set a resolution that will really stick!

Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

People have created New Year’s resolutions for centuries. There’s some special allure about wiping the slate clean, turning over a new leaf, and all of that. But only a small number of people stick to their resolutions. Are you having trouble believing the statistics from researchers such as Professor John Norcross suggesting that only 19% of people stick with their resolutions? Just notice how many parking spots are taken at the gym on the first day of January and then again two weeks later. So how can you be part of that minority who set New Year’s resolutions that work?  

I’m not a researcher or a psychologist. I’m just an observer. I’ve read some of this literature, but my coaching clients helped me to recognize some fundamental reasons why the sustained changes don’t happen. There are some fundamental principles that go unnoticed by most people.

1.    Making a wish, not a plan

You’ve probably heard someone say, “Oh, I want to be/do/have [fill in the blank].” Is that a wish or a plan?

Enrico Alpi explains that a wish is more of an aspiration or a fantasy. A plan is a commitment. And, as we know from Dan Sullivan’s book The Four Cs, commitment must come before courage, capability, or confidence.

A plan and a commitment imply a decision. Consider that word for a moment. “Decision” comes from the same Latin root as “incision,” which means “cut”—when you decide, you’re literally cutting something off. It could mean cutting yourself off from overeating or binge-watching Netflix. But it could also mean cutting yourself off from distractions that are masquerading as opportunities. Some of those distractions are examples of shiny object syndrome—focusing on and chasing what’s new and exciting.

Carly Barrett tells us why we’re distracted by shiny object syndrome, and gives some excellent examples that plague entrepreneurs. And she asserts that the secret to success is the commitment to work on your goal until it works, not if it works.

Planning instead of wishing is the first way to make sure you’re setting a resolution that works.

2.    Confusing a habit goal with an achievement goal

Habit goals are about processes; you do specific, regular, step-by-step actions over which you have complete control. Walking 10,000 steps per day is a habit goal. Making 25 cold calls each day is a habit goal. Habit goals are present based.

Achievement goals are specific and future based. However, achievement goals can’t always be tightly controlled because they almost always involve other people and outside circumstances. For example, you may have a sales goal of selling 100 widgets in a week. Okay, if you persist in making your cold calls each day, you may stand a good chance of achieving those goals. But your phone could die, your widgets could be destroyed in a hurricane, and your leads could have already bought your competitor’s product instead of yours.

Graphic by author

Yet, if you truly commit and persist with ambitious habits (your process), you massively improve your chances of reaching your achievement (your outcome). As Bill Bradly reminds us, “Ambition is the path to success. Persistence in the vehicle you arrive in.” 

It’s tough to form a habit, and it’s even tougher to continue the habit when you don’t see immediate progress. So, people give up, often in some 12-15 days after they start. The trick is to establish a habit that’s going to get you closer to your achievement goal, and make sure to make note of your progress. Focusing only on the outcome is a recipe for discouragement. Setting a habit and rewarding yourself for your progress is how you make your New Year’s resolution work.

3.    Not planning for obstacles

I can just hear someone saying, “Oh! Marie! You’re being negative here, aren’t we supposed to be focused on the positive?” Well, yes. But, attributed Craig D. Lounsbrough, “The road to success is paved with the hot asphalt of failure.”

Obstacles will crop up. They always do. Plan for at least two obstacles. If you have a rough outline for how to handle the obstacle, you’ll be less likely to give up when the obstacle jumps up in your path. Instead, you can say to yourself, “Oh! I know where to start to fix this.” What might have looked like a massive mountain might instead look like a mere speedbump when you have prepared yourself.  

So when you look at that roadmap you planned (because you’re planning, not wishing, remember), figure out where the obstacles might come. By planning for setbacks, you can set a resolution that works.

4.    Picking a “supposed to” resolution or goal     

Here’s where so many people stumble.

I’ve led annual planning workshops many times. What I’ve noticed is that attendees often set goals they think they’re supposed to set, rather than goals that are meaningful to them. Often, such resolutions swirl around health or wealth.

You know what I mean here, right? I’m talking about classic resolutions like “lose 50 pounds” or “stop smoking” or “make $100K this year.”

There’s nothing wrong with such goals! But often, those goals aren’t achieved because they’re less about what you want and more about what you’re “supposed to” do, based on someone else’s specific directive (doctors are great at telling people to lose weight!), or the messages society always beams to you, or the bank accounts looking like there’s little room for an annual family trip to a posh resort at the beach.

But the first time you have a bad day, that hot fudge sundae is calling your name, and then there’s another bad day, and instead of losing weight, you pack on the pounds. Or your bank account isn’t growing how you hoped it might, but that vacation isn’t enough to motivate you to leave your comfort zone.

If you’re honest with yourself, you might recognize that these resolutions were undertaken more to look good in front of someone else, rather than to give yourself a longer life, a better life, or just plain more joy in your daily life. It’s hard to be persistent when you don’t have much emotion behind the effort. I like to remind people that emotion is energy in motion. And without it, it’s easy to get stuck.

Here’s my message: Unless the goal is exciting, you won’t be motivated to pursue it. Making resolutions based on what we “should” do makes it tough to persist.

Instead, I suggest that people identify what they’re dissatisfied with, and then write a resolution or goal that fill that gap. Examples might be:

  • Being fed up with living in a house with a bathroom that hasn’t been updated in 25 years.
  • Living in a climate where it’s hot and humid most days of the year.
  • Working at a job that demands long hours for little pay.
  • Feeling isolated from friends and family.
  • Not getting recognition for professional accomplishments.

All of those situations represent a void, or gap, in the person’s life.

 Graphic by author

By identifying your specific dissatisfactions, you can make resolutions or set goals that will get you focused on the gain rather than the gaps. These are the sorts of resolutions that work.

(If you have trouble figuring out your dissatisfactions, try this wheel of emotion—you can activate your emotions if you just name them!)

5.    Delaying the start

As Jon Acuff says in his book Start, “the starting line is the only line you completely control.” Think about it. There’s a whole lot of stuff that can happen between the starting line and the finish line. So, take control of the one thing you can control: the starting line.

Years ago, as I was experiencing writer’s block, I heard someone say, “Do something! Anything! Just pick up a pencil!” At the time it sounded silly, but honestly, it worked. Although I usually write at the computer, yes, there are days when I just pick up some paper and start writing—even if it’s gibberish on the back of an envelope. It gets me moving.

Likely as not, you don’t have a complete plan. That’s okay. Just get started.

With that, I challenge you: Start today. Don’t wait for the New Year—don’t even wait for tomorrow. Make resolutions that will work, for New Year or any other day of the year!

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