Three criteria for choosing a New Year’s resolution that sticks

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s Resolution. I think it’s because I take issue with the whole idea of New Year’s resolutions, in the form I normally hear them. They usually fall under two broad categories:

  1. Health improvements: exercise more, eat healthier, drink more water, get more sleep, go to the dentist, etc.
  2. Happiness measures: go on date nights with spouse, join a club, travel more, try something new, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all worthy ambitions, and if you can make one of these resolutions on December 31 and stick to it all year long, more power to you! For me personally, I can’t. And I don’t think I’m alone. Try Googling “New Years Resolution ideas” and you will be inundated with helpful articles teeming with ideas. But most people can’t simply select a resolution from a menu and put it on auto-pilot. Let me venture to say that if you need to Google “New Year’s Resolution ideas” in the first place, you probably shouldn’t be bothering with a resolution at all.

The truth is that keeping a New Year’s resolution is a challenge. You have probably heard the statistic that the average New Year’s resolution lasts 12 days. In fact, the artificial intelligence bot “Polly” projected that the #1 New Year’s resolution for 2020 would be “actually doing my New Year’s resolution.” (Hmm.)

Let’s dig into this a bit deeper. Why are we so flaky about our New Year’s resolutions?

Let’s start with the self-improvement category. The trouble with these resolutions is that we over-estimate the willpower of our future selves. In a hypothetical world, the 2020 “me” may be the type of person who exercises at 6am daily and avoids sugar—but once January 1 actually arrives, I discover that the 2020 “me” is strikingly similar to the 2019 “me.” She is still just as lazy and has the same sweet tooth. (Bummer.)

Further, a free-forming aspiration like “eat healthier” hardly evokes real passion. It sounds worthy, but if I really intend to act on this goal, I need a concrete action plan. Does “eating healthier” mean packing lunch for work four times a week? Does it mean serving a vegetable with every meal? What is my new food-shopping plan? If I plan out how I will achieve the goal over the next two weeks, that will already launch me ahead of the average New Year’s resolution duration of 12 days—and I think I’ll be much more likely to stick to it in the long term, too.

Next up: the happiness category. Resolving to do more fun things seems like it should be a no-brainer—but the challenge here, at least for me, is guilt. If I join a book club on Tuesday nights, my husband will be doing bedtime routines alone for three kids. Not only does that feels like an indulgence to be enjoyed sparingly, guilty feelings may make it harder for me to enjoy the evening I carved out. With guilt looming, my happiness intervention is unlikely to become the lifestyle-changing shift intended on December 31.

To combat the guilt involved in realizing a purely personal goal, I love the suggestion of time-management guru Laura Vanderkam to “give yourself one night off.” She suggests, for a two-parent household, that one night each week be dedicated to each parent. On a parent’s night off, she/he is free to pursue a personal interest or hobby (take a ceramics class, work on a novel, have a ladies’ night out with friends, etc.) while the other parent takes care of dinner and bedtime for the kids. Guilt is reduced with the knowledge that the other parent will have his or her own night off. I think it’s a great strategy.

When we make a lofty, long-term goal and don’t put our heart into it, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise when it fails. For 2020, I have changed my approach. To avoid the pitfalls I’ve run into in the past, I used the following criteria to select my 2020 New Year’s resolution:

  1. It’s a real priority (that means a real priority to me, today—not a general priority as accepted by society, or a hypothetical priority that I plan to care more about next year)
  2. It’s achievable
  3. I have a plan to accomplish it (for at least the next 2 weeks)

And yes, I actually chose a New Year’s Resolution for 2020. Next up: find out what I chose!

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