Ah, January. The time when everyone bravely makes a super ambitious New Year’s Resolution to Lose Weight™, Get Better At Money™, and Stop Stalking Exes on Facebook™. And then, before the Ides of February, quietly shelving said resolution and wallowing in nihilistic self-loathing. “Nothing ever changes, so why bother?” millions ask as they wipe Cheeto dust from their fingers to scroll through the Facebook profile of ex-boyfriend Doug Jackson and wonder how he can look so happy and fit now that he’s dating what’s-her-face.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if you could make a New Year’s Resolution and actually keep it?
According to Kitty, I am the only person in America who ever completes a New Year’s Resolution. I therefore consider myself a bit of an authority on the topic.
For the past five years, I have made a New Year’s Resolution. And every single year, I have succeeded at my resolution. Here’s a quick tally:
|2013||Read a book a week (52 in all)|
|2014||Run a 5k comfortably by the end of the year|
|2015||Write 100,000 words by the end of the year|
|2016||Save $10,000 by the end of the year|
|2017||Do a good deed every week (52 in all)|
Every one of these goals was made in the spirit of self-improvement and creating a life I love. They were rewarding, challenging, fun, and empowering. I am #livingmytruth and a dozen other inane platitudes AND SO CAN YOU!
Below, I’ll use each of my goals from the past five years as an example of effective New Year’s Resolutioning. Buckle up.
The entire corpus of Internet writing published in the month of January describes SMART goals. So if you’re already familiar with the concept, feel free to move along. If, however, you’ve been grown in a lab and have just been released, fully-formed into the word of adults hellbent upon self-improvement, then you’d best pay attention.
To succeed at any New Year’s Resolution, it needs to be SMART:
A broad, general goal like “get healthy” is useless. Its very lack of a clear definition makes it easy to fudge… with fudge.
By contrast, “lose five pounds” or “eat salad for dinner at least once a week” or “exercise four days a week” makes way more sense.
I couldn’t make “write more” my goal. There were no parameters. But “write 100,000 words in a year” was specific enough to give me a clear goal. There’d be no confusion about whether or not I’d succeeded.
I started a spreadsheet, and every time I wrote (whether it was a blog post, a Goodreads review, or The Obligatory Millennial Novel), I added my word count. There was no room for ambiguity: I either made my word count by the end of the year, or I didn’t.
On that note, you need some way of tracking your progress. A numerical measurement like a word count makes things much easier than a qualitative measurement like “get better at writing.” For how do you measure an increase in quality? What’s your baseline for improvement?
Know where you’re starting from and where you want to end up. Slap a number on your goal and track it. I have a spreadsheet for every New Year’s Resolution I’ve ever made and I take nerdy delight in watching my numbers creep ever closer to my goals.
Bear in mind your own limitations. You have to give yourself a chance to win!
When I resolved to save money, I took a good long look at my finances and determined a savings rate that was a little bit of a reach, but still something I could nail if I really put my mind to it.
By contrast, if I’d resolved to save $50,000 in a year, that would have been completely unachievable… because I was making $46,000 a year at that point.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by choosing an impossible goal. It’ll only frustrate you and make you feel like a failure… which is not the point of a New Year’s Resolution.
Sure, I could try to become Duane “The Rock” Johnson in the span of a year. But could it really happen? No. No it could not.
It isn’t realistic because Duane “The Rock” Johnson is a perfect creature who sprang from the mind of Zeus himself and is here on Earth to bless us with such classics as Race to Witch Mountain and The Rundown, though we do not deserve him.
I could never realistically become him. He is singular. Incomparable. The Rock.
You need a fucking deadline. Conveniently, every New Year’s Resolution has a built-in deadline: one year. But I strongly recommend breaking it down into smaller chunks of time.
For example, writing 100,000 words in the span of a year feels a bit daunting. But when you figure it’s only about 9,000 words every month? That’s way more doable. Fifty-two books a year is only four or five books a month. Training to run a 5k means I have a whole six months to get comfortable running a mere mile and a half.
Easy as eating pancakes.
You gotta wanna
There’s a reason my New Year’s Resolution wasn’t “run a marathon”: because I don’t fucking want to. Marathons are for people who hate having toenails. They’re for those who take the first rule of zombie apocalypse survival far too seriously (read: I don’t have to outrun the zombies, I just have to outrun you).
I have no desire to run a marathon. I do, however, love the feeling of running an eight-minute mile without breaking a sweat. I love running without pain. I love running to raise my adrenalin and get out of my head for a while. It’s a great way to manage anxiety. And I can achieve that in under ten miles.
Working at something you really, really want is much easier than putting yourself through hell while constantly asking, “For whose benefit am I eating all this kale?”
I started my resolution spree with reading because I really, really love to read. And I was already reading about thirty to forty books per year. Resolving to read a book a week was literally about doing more of something I really wanted to do. It was about increasing time spent in enjoyment and intellectual fulfillment.
It wasn’t something I did because I wanted other people to think I was well read (though I totes am). And I certainly didn’t make my goal in the hopes of instilling a love of reading that wasn’t already there.
Comparison is the enemy of improvement
I have a friend who volunteers with Team Rubicon. Last year she dropped everything to fly to Nepal in the wake of an earthquake to administer medical care to people who had lost everything. Before that she lived in Nicaragua healing and teaching. She’s a paramedic and an inveterate do-gooder. I’ve just been informed the Pope is fast-tracking her canonization this month.
By comparison I… volunteer at a middle school? Donate to the food bank sometimes? This one time I helped an old lady with her bag at the airport!
There’s no way I could ever live up to my saintly friend’s example of extreme charity. Setting the bar that high would have doomed my resolution to do a good deed every week before I’d even started. So instead of comparing myself to Mother Theresa and Angelina Jolie, I compared myself to myself, circa January 1, 2017.
I didn’t have to parachute into a war zone and singlehandedly save the whales from childhood illiteracy. I could simply shovel my disabled neighbor’s sidewalk when it snowed. I could donate my money and time, do really big favors for my friends without accepting anything in return, help strangers whenever the opportunity arose.
I did it myyyyy waaaaaay!
Before I started running, I hated working out. And I hated it because I worked out with sadists who would say “Just thirty more seconds!” but mean “We’ll stop in three hours when you’re exhibiting symptoms of organ failure.” It was miserable. It made exercise feel like a chore. And it didn’t work for me.
So when I decided to start running, I knew I had to do it on my own terms. This meant training alone and starting laughably slowly. But by the end of a year, I had completed my goal: I could run a 5k without breaking a sweat. Now I run better, faster, and farther than ever. Instead of a torturous obligation, running has become a joyful, powerful experience that makes me feel like the Valkyrie I was born to be.
Snowball your goals
It’s all well and good to complete a New Year’s Resolution once. But what good is that year’s worth of self-improvement if you immediately abandon all your progress and revert to old habits as soon as the ball drops over Times Square? You just worked at something for a year. The real test is if you can permanently make it part of your life.
This is why I always snowball my goals. In 2013 I read a book a week. In 2014 I read a book a week and trained to run a 5k. In 2015 I read a book a week, trained to run, and wrote 100,000 words. And every year I just tack on a new resolution to the previous year’s.
By now, reading a book a week isn’t even a stretch. I’ve long since mastered my exercise regime to the point that a 5k ain’t no thang. Writing 100,000 words? Bitch you’re reading 1,700 of them right now!
Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill and according to Phillippa Lally it takes two months to form a habit. If you choose your New Year’s Resolution based on a true desire for self-improvement, make it a SMART resolution, ignore comparison, pursue it in a way that works for you, and stick with it even after the year is over, it’ll become ingrained in your life.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a kitten stuck in a tree and I’ve yet to do my good deed for the week.