A Seven Step Guide to Keeping Your New Year’s Resolution

Today marks the 615th day in a row that I’ve written 750 words. I also meditated this morning, did 40 Burpees, and stretched for 20 minutes.

I’m not special; I don’t have superpowers. Like most of you, I used to have a really hard time keeping my resolutions. It’s not that I’m any more dedicated, or work harder, or have more will power than most people.

I’ve just learned about ways that we all shoot ourselves in the foot when setting goals and resolutions. And I’ve learned how to avoid them.

I’ve also learned how to make resolutions easier to accomplish by setting better goals (in this post I’ll be using the term “resolution” and “goal” interchangeably).

So here’s a guide to setting a New Year’s resolution that you will keep:

1. Make your resolution concrete and achievable.

When you ask people what their New Year’s resolutions are, many people say something like:

  • Lose weight.
  • Save more money.
  • Drink less.

Those are bad goals, because they’re what I call fudgable. A goal is fudgable when you can look back on it at the end of the year and it’s too easy to lie to yourself about whether you accomplished it or not.

A good goal is concrete and achievable. At the end of the year, you should be able to look back and say easily, and with 100% certainty, I did (or didn’t) accomplish my goal.

First you have to make your goal concrete and achievable; you have to define it in terms of some sort of outcome.

Ask yourself: How will I know when I’ve accomplished my goal?

For example:

  • Instead of lose weight, your goal could be to lose 5 pounds.
  • Instead of save more money, your goal could be to set aside $200 per month.
  • Instead of drink less, your goal could be to drink less than 3 drinks per night.

(The last one an example of a more concrete and achievable goal, but it’s also a bad goal because it takes a lot of work to measure and evaluate. More on this later.)

Making your resolution concrete won’t always be easy. You may have to put some serious thought into it.

The more ambiguous the initial goal, the harder it will be to make it concrete.

Two examples of really ambiguous resolutions I’ve heard are:

  • Treat my friends better.
  • Live life to the fullest.

Well, fuck. Okay.

How about:

  • Instead of treat my friends better, your goal could be call one friend every day just to see how they’re doing.
  • Instead of live life to the fullest, your goal could be set aside 5 minutes every day to drink a cup of tea and just think.

I don’t know. Those are just some initial thoughts. But your goals will be different depending on how you define things like better and fullest.

As a side note, a concrete and achievable goal must also be time-bound. This is less important for New Year’s Resolutions, since they’re by default time-bound to the end of the year, but you may want to consider setting a series of more short-term goals to help accomplish your resolution (like do X before the end of January, or within 3 months).

2. Write down your “Why?

Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the goal itself and forget about why you’re doing something.

In order to prevent this from happening, take a minute or two to ask yourself Why? and jot down your answers.

Why do I want to lose weight?

I want to lose weight so that I feel better, become healthier, and get compliments from my friends (it’s okay to be totally honest about why you’re doing it).

Once you’ve written down your Why?, put it someplace that you’ll see often (like printing it and hanging it next to your bathroom mirror) as a reminder to yourself when you’re feeling down.

3. Make it realistic.

People often start off really optimistic about what they can achieve.

I don’t want to be a downer here, but let’s be realistic. Don’t come flying out the gate setting a goal for yourself to go to the gym every day for an hour. You’re setting yourself up for failure.

According to BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford, one of the best ways to create long-term behavioral change is to take baby steps.

Two examples he uses are:

  • Instead of floss your teeth every day, your goal could be to floss one tooth every day.
  • Instead of do 20 pushups every day, your goal could be to do 2 pushups every day.

Do these examples seem ridiculous to you? That’s okay. Do it anyway.

Humans tend to overestimate their own capabilities.

It’s much better to set lower goals and then end up surprising yourself, than it is to set high goals and fail to meet them. Failing to meet a goal initially can demotivate yourself quickly and cause you to not fully try.

Think about scaling back whatever behavior you choose so that it can fit easily in between other activities.

Here’s something I’d highly recommend: choose a goal that takes less than 10 minutes every day, ideally less than 5. (I’ll talk more about why later when we discuss anchoring and daily behavior.)

4. Choose an anchor.

It’s easy to set a goal and then totally forget about it. Our life is a series of habits — wake up, take a shower, go to work, come home, eat dinner, etc. — and your subconscious may be literally working against you when you try to incorporate new behaviors into your routine.

How do you prevent this from happening? By choosing an anchor or trigger you can use to remind yourself to do your new thing.

This is why I stretch, write, and meditate in the morning. My anchor is literally: waking up.

Some examples are:

  • After brushing my teeth, floss one tooth.
  • After peeing, do two pushups.

If you’ve followed step #3 and made your goal realistic (i.e. scaled back the behavior and make it take less than 5 minutes), then it should be fairly easy to slot your new behavior in.

I’d recommend not using before bed as an anchor, since you may not know what state you’re in when you go to bed — maybe you’re drunk, tired, or it’s 2am and you simply forget. The same applies to after work. It’s better to make room in the morning by waking up a little earlier.

The best thing is to choose a daily behavior. That’s because anything less is easy to forget about. Most anchors occur daily.

Weekends are especially difficult initially, since anchors often change on the weekend. Plan accordingly.

5. Change your environment to make it easier.

This can mean many different things depending on the resolution. If you want to run more, put your running shoes by your door.

In fact, I’m generally a fan of changing your environment even in ways unrelated to your resolution (like rearranging your room or changing your wardrobe), because it messes with ingrained routines and habits, and signals to your brain that something’s different.

This is why it’s easier to develop new habits when you’re traveling or on vacation.

6. Start immediately, not later.

Once you’ve decided what your resolution will be, don’t delay. Start doing it immediately (that day) instead of planning ahead.

Choosing a later date just leads to procrastination.

7. Start recording your streak

One of the reasons I’ve been able to maintain my daily writing habit is that the website I use automatically keeps track of my streak. The larger the streak gets, the less you want to break it.

That being said, if you do forget to do it, do it immediately once you remember (not later) and try to get over the broken streak.

The first time I broke my streak, I was at 60 days and I was crushed. The second time I broke it at around 60 days (again), it was easier to get back on the horse and try again.

Admittedly, I took off a week for Burning Man in 2014 (fortunately the site I use has the functionality to schedule time off without disrupting your streak).

So there you have it, my seven step guide to keeping your New Year’s Resolution.

I’d love to expand on this further moving forward, and already have an idea for a post about the model I use for goal-setting (Intention > Outcome > Behavior).

One thing I’d love to hear from you guys about are:

  • What is your New Year’s Resolution?
  • What are some difficulties you’ve run into setting and keeping your New Year’s Resolutions?
  • What are some tips or recommendations you have for keeping New Year’s Resolutions?

Post it in the comments!

Award-Winning Faculty at Columbia Business School. I write about startups, technology, and philosophy.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store