We’re a few weeks into 2022 and - if you’re anything like us - you’re probably starting to waver on some of those champagne-fueled resolutions you ambitiously set on New Year’s Eve.
But don’t fall off the wagon just yet! While it’s true that more than 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail, there are a few strategies you can use to maximize your chances of success.
1. Break down big dreams into micro-goals
It’s not easy to shake up the status quo - and you’re probably not going to even bother taking the first step if the finish line doesn’t excite you.
So, dream big. Smash a triathlon. Start your own veterinary practice. Become fluent in Japanese. Setting those big, juicy goals will motivate you to get the ball rolling and help guide your choices in the months ahead.
Got that big dream in mind? Awesome. Now think small. Tiny, in fact. Break the dream into small, practical steps that will gradually move you toward your end goal. Be as specific as you can and separate your goal into measurable elements that you can use to quantify your progress.
You might find it useful to start with your end goal and work your way backwards. For instance, let’s say you want to improve your work-life balance. That’s an admirable goal, but it doesn’t say much about what you actually need to do to achieve it. Instead, set micro-goals like taking your allocated breaks, leaving work on time, or spending more time on hobbies. It’s easier to stick to your guns and hold yourself accountable when you have a step-by-step formula for success.
2. Set goals that don’t require willpower
Self-discipline is a muscle and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. If you’re not used to flexing your self-discipline muscle, you’re going to find it tough to stay on top of your resolutions.
But here’s the thing: goals don’t have to be a grueling test of willpower and self-sacrifice. Instead of making your objective exclusionary (like eliminating your favorite snack from your diet) think about how you can reframe it in a way that enriches your life (like having a spinach smoothie twice a week).
Both objectives ultimately serve the same overarching purpose - getting healthy - but most people are going to find it a whole lot easier to stick to the one that adds something to the human experience than the one that detracts from it.
Make your goals fun and try to take willpower out of the equation. Like any other muscle, it takes time to build self-discipline. If you can find pleasure in the act of pursuing your goals, you’re more likely to stick to your resolutions, which in turn strengthens your self-discipline and makes it easier to hit your next objective.
3. Create a support system
The concept of a self-made (wo)man is a myth. Very few people hit their goals in isolation, so don’t be afraid to ask for a helping hand along the way.
Announcing your goals on social media is a start, but you’ll need to dig a little deeper if you want to assemble a support squad that’s genuinely invested in your success. Talk to family and trusted friends, explain your goals, and encourage them to hold you accountable for your actions. Research suggests that sharing your goals with someone you look up to increases your chances of goal commitment.
For best results, think about roping in a support buddy or joining a group (online or in real life) of people who share your goals. Update them regularly, be open about your struggles, and find inspiration in each other’s accomplishments. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who are on a similar path will help you stay motivated about your own journey.
4. Use the carrot and the stick
When it comes to goal adherence, embrace the yin and the yang. The good cop and the bad cop. The carrot and the stick.
In other words, think about using both positive and negative reinforcement strategies to empower personal change. Sure, you can (and should) be proud of your progress. Don’t wait to hit your end goal to give yourself a medal. Go ahead and (responsibly) celebrate every little milestone and shout your accomplishments from the rooftops every step of the way. Thrive, you beauty, thrive.
At the same time, think about introducing some type of self-imposed penalty if you stray off track. Social shame is a common example - after all, do you really want to admit to your support team that you didn’t follow through on your goals?
If you really want to up the ante, think about putting some money on the line. Make a bet with a friend that you’ll hit your New Year’s resolution or cough up the cash. There are also some interesting websites like stickK.com and Beeminder.com that allow you to put your money on the line, which is forfeited to a charity if you don’t follow through on your goals. These commitment tools are based on loss aversion, a well-studied theory that suggests humans are more motivated by potential loss than they are by potential gain.
5. Overcome the what-the-hell effect
The what-the-hell effect (yes, that’s a real term used by real scholars writing in real academic publications) describes what happens when you deviate from a goal, declare yourself a failure, and enter a cycle of indulgence and regret.
For example, let’s say one of your goals is to build better sleep habits by being in bed every night by 10pm. One Thursday, you stay up to midnight on the phone with your friend. It’s a minor slip-up in the grand scheme of things, but in terms of goal adherence the impact is huge - you’ve failed.
The next night, when you should be getting ready for bed, a voice in your head says, “You already blew your goal, so what the hell… you might as well have some fun - stay up late tonight, too!” So, you stay up late again, letting what could have been a one-time gaffe push you further and further from your goal.
Maybe you try to start afresh next week. Or next month. Or maybe you throw the towel in altogether.
An easy workaround here is to build some leeway into your goals by granting yourself a couple of weekly get-out-of-jail-free cards you can use in the event of an emergency. Better yet, take some time to reflect on your relationship with sequential choices. In a moment of relapse, are you more likely to steer the ship back on course or self-implode? Why?
Being mindful of the bigger picture and learning to forgive mistakes will help you better navigate setbacks and boost your chances of reaching your goals.
6. Reduce activation effort
In productivity circles, there’s a thing called the 20-second rule, which is all about making things as easy as humanly possible so you don’t have to rely on your fickle willpower. The premise is simple: if you have to spend 20 extra seconds of energy to start an activity (otherwise known as activation effort), you’re probably not going to do it.
Reducing activation effort makes it easier to form habits, while increasing activation effort makes it easier to break habits. For example, if your goal is to reduce no-shows at your veterinary practice, you could think about setting up automated SMS reminders to help keep activation effort to a minimum. Or, if your goal is to spend less time watching TV, consider hiding the remote in the closet down the hall.
Humans will always take the path of least resistance. Manipulating activation effort can have a major impact on behavioral patterns and the likelihood of hitting your goals.
7. It’s about the journey, not the destination
Spoiler alert: progress doesn’t always come easy. Along the way, you will run into challenges, you will get frustrated, and you will contemplate calling it quits half a dozen times a month.
There’s no real shortcut here. Anything worth doing takes consistency and hard work. But one thing that can make the journey more enjoyable is learning to appreciate the process. Many people don’t get the chance to pursue their goals, so try to practice gratitude if you do have the opportunity to chase your dreams.
Acknowledging the process, learning from your mistakes, and consciously celebrating the wins will help keep morale high even when the going gets tough.
New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be annual disappointments. Break down your dreams into step-by-step processes, be flexible with yourself, and celebrate your progress. Keep one eye on your end goal, but don’t forget to look up and enjoy the journey. Good luck!