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Unconventional Advice for New Year's Resolutions

Don't set them. Don't start on January 1st. And don't get off to a fast start.

· Goals and Habits

It's the end of the year, and 'tis the season of goal setting. With the new year approaching, we usually feel optimism around what's possible, and gain some extra motivation from this time of new beginnings.

The new year is an especially good time for a Health Coach, because more than half of all New Year's Resolutions are health-related. This study found that New Year's resolutions break down like this: 55.2% health-related (exercise 31.3%, eat healthy 10.4%, have healthier habits 13.5%), and 33.3% were financial-related (save money 20.8%, get out of debt 12.5%).

But achieving any long term positive change from a New Year's Resolution is rare. The majority of people will fail to stick to their resolutions. Actually, 92% of people who set New Year's goals fail to achieve them, and 80% of people fail by the 2nd week of February (6 weeks)!

The high percentage of failure is staggering, and the amount of advice out there for "setting New Year's Resolutions that will actually last" is just as staggering. We can almost agree that New Year's Resolutions never work, and neither does any of the advice out there.

So if there are resolutions or positive changes you are wanting to make, here is some of my unconventional advice that might help.

1. Don't set New Year's Resolutions

Many of the "successful" people that I look up to don't bother with traditional New Year's Resolutions. What they do instead is use the new year as a time to reflect on the previous year, and let that inform a trajectory for the upcoming year.

I first heard of the idea of an Annual Review from Chris Guillebeau, who is an author and blogged about his quest to visit every country in the world by his 35th birthday. James Clear, a goals and habit expert who wrote one of my favorite books of the year, also does an Annual Review. I've done one for the last 3 years (2017, 2016, 2015).

An Annual Review is a reflection on the previous year:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What am I working toward?
When I do my annual review, I usually look through my photos to help me relive the year, my calendar to see how I spent my time, and certain goal-tracking apps like Strava, Coach.me and Way of Life to assess how well I achieved goals or stuck to habits.

Tim Ferriss does something similar as well. Here is what he says...

"Im often asked about how I approach New Year’s resolutions. The truth is that I no longer approach them at all, even though I did for decades. Why the change? I have found “past year reviews” (PYR) more informed, valuable, and actionable than half-blindly looking forward with broad resolutions. I did my first PYR after a mentor’s young daughter died of cancer on December 31st, roughly eight years ago, and I’ve done it every year since. It takes 30-60 minutes and looks like this:

  1. Grab a notepad and create two columns: POSITIVE and NEGATIVE.
  2. Go through your calendar from the last year, looking at every week. 
  3. For each week, jot down on the pad any people or activities or commitments that triggered peak positive or negative emotions for that month. Put them in their respective columns.
  4. Once you’ve gone through the past year, look at your notepad list and ask, “What 20% of each column produced the most reliable or powerful peaks?”
  5. Based on the answers, take your “positive” leaders and schedule more of them in the new year. Get them on the calendar now! Book things with friends and prepay for activities/events/commitments that you know work. It’s not real until it’s in the calendar. That’s step one. Step two is to take your “negative” leaders, put “NOT-TO-DO LIST” at the top, and put them somewhere you can see them each morning for the first few weeks of 2019. These are the people and things you *know* make you miserable, so don’t put them on your calendar out of obligation, guilt, FOMO, or other nonsense.

Brendon Leonard who writes the blog Semi-Rad prefers to end the year by writing a list of his top 5 or 10 favorite moments. Here is his exercise:

  • Step 1: Get a piece of paper and a pen (or use the notes app on your phone) and go sit somewhere for a half-hour or an hour where you can reasonably concentrate without interruption.
  • Step 2: Write down your five favorite moments of the past 12 months. For better results, write down ten moments. These can be meals, conversations, sunsets, hikes, trail runs, beers, cups of coffee, joy experienced vicariously through a friend or relative, whatever. And they don’t have to all be “good” moments—they can just be meaningful. I find it useful to scroll through all the photos on my phone to jog my memory about all the things I did in the past year (I’m sure you’ve noticed that you take photos when you’re having meaningful experiences).
  • Step 3: Take a few minutes and reflect on those moments. This doesn’t have to be a solemn thing, just give each item on the list a few second. Try to remember a few more details from each one, or just say to yourself, “Shit yeah, that night camping on the coast was great,” or “I was so tired at work the next day but that show was fantastic,” or “I can’t believe we didn’t get food poisoning from that.”
  • Step 4 (optional): If you can get this organized, try enlisting a partner for the whole thing. Spouse, good friend, sibling, whoever—meet up for an hour over coffee or beer or burritos and go through your lists one item at a time with each other. This is just a slightly more fun version of Step 3, if you have the right person to do it with.
  • That’s it. Hopefully over the next couple weeks, you can find some gratitude, and hang onto it a little better too.

I did Brendon's exercise, and beyond how much fun it was to relive some of the best moments of the year, it clearly pointed towards the kind of experiences that are most meaningful to me. What I found is that doing things for the first time, being out of my comfort zone, and especially if with friends, are most of my favorite moments. Accomplishing big goals, like crossing the finish line of a big race, is an amazing feeling. It's very clear to see the kinds of experiences I should continue to create as I look towards having another amazing year in the upcoming year.

These reflection exercises are all about looking at the good and bad of the past year, to inform and plan the new year.

2. Don't start on January 1st

Do you want to make a positive change? Today is December 28th. Start today. Start right now, right this second.

How many times have you said something that sounds like this: "I'm going to get back into exercising next week." or "I'm going to start eating healthy again tomorrow," as you are currently about to eat something unhealthy.

It's always easier to say you are going to do something in the future, rather than doing it now. And we make ourselves feel better in the moment because we really do believe that we are going to do it. But tomorrow or next week comes around and we rarely do.

If you say that making a certain change is important to you, but you are going to start at some day in the future, I am going to call your bluff.

Let's call this the Timing Trap. There will always be a more convenient time to make a change, because change in inconvenient. The future is always a better time, because it doesn't actually require any action in the present. Don't fall into the "someday" trap, or the "I'll start tomorrow" trap. If it is actually important, then literally start right this second. Make the commitment now, and commit 100%.

Starting a positive change on January 1st makes it more about the timing, and less about the goal. And the timing shouldn't matter. If you want to be more healthy, who cares if the calendar says it's January 1st or December 28th or April 9th. The only things that matter are what's truly important to you and your actions.

If you start now instead of tomorrow, you will start to build a new identity, that of the kind of person who doesn't wait or wish, but someone who commits and takes action. Don't be the person (like the 80% of people) who sets New Year's Resolutions every year and fails by February 15th. Be different than them. Be better than that.

There are 364 days in a year that are better than January 1st to start living a better, healthier life, as long as that date is also TODAY and the time is RIGHT NOW.

3. Don't get off to a fast start

We are at peak motivation at the beginning of a year. Maybe it's the holiday guilt from the excess and indulgence over the holidays. Or maybe it's just the timing of the new year making us feel like we have permission from the Universe to make some positive changes. Either way, most people are really to KILL IT at the start of the year.

But we know what happens... gyms are packed, goal setting apps are downloaded, yoga and other memberships are purchased, and diet and self-help books are flying off the shelf. It's full-steam ahead, everyone is hell-bent on achieving their goals! If everyone projected out their January's and could somehow replicate those actions and results every month moving forward, we'd all be millionaires with perfect abs in a year or 2. But that doesn't happen for most people.

How about instead of doing that, you start small, start slow, and play the long game?

I truly learned the meaning of "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," this year as I started running ultramarathons. In my first 50k (31 mile) race, I got off to a great start. It was faster than I had planned for, and I was able to keep up with some of the faster runners, which put me around 6th place overall and I was excited. But by mile 20 I was hurting, and by mile 23 I couldn't even run anymore. I was so tired that my brain literally couldn't get my legs to run, and my face felt like it was melting off. As I was walking, miserably, I got passed by runner after runner. When I finally finished the race, I was sure that would be my last ultra.

A few months later I did my first 50 mile race, and I knew that I needed a better strategy. I needed to run my own race, at my own pace, and not worry about what everyone else was doing. It's hard letting other runners pass you, especially the ones that don't look like they should be beating you. It takes a different kind of discipline to let others pass you, but I did just that for the first 25 miles of the race, and that resulted in me being right in the middle of the pack, barely in the top 50%. But guess what happened around mile 40? That's right, many of those people that had passed me a few hours prior were now hurting worse than me, and I passed many of them. I finished the race in the top 25% of the field, and more importantly, I finished strong and I ran a race I was proud of.

In running ultras, you set yourself up for a really long, slow day. So why not approach other goals and habits the same way? Set yourself up for a really long, slow year. What this means is to not go out the gates too strong, and to think more about what is sustainable over the long run.

This might be hard, because you are motivated and excited and want to go out strong. It might be even harder because your friends seem to be KILLING IT, with their new diets, and the healthy food pics and workout selfies they are posting to their Instagram stories every day.

But you have to run your own race, and go at your own pace, and trust that you'll have the energy and motivation to outlast and endure.

Let's take weight loss as an example goal: you want to lose 40 lbs. Of course, you would love for that weight to come off as fast as possible, so at the beginning of the year you start a strict diet and workout 5 times per week. But a few weeks into it, you realize that the diet sucks and you aren't enjoying it, and you find that it's hard to keep fitting 5 workouts per week into your busy schedule. Eventually (probably by February 15th), you are back to your previous routine.

Instead, think of it this way: how long did it take you to put on those extra 40 lbs? Probably longer than a couple months. Probably more like a couple years. So if it took a year or two to gain the weight, why would it not take a year or two to lose the weight? The weight was not gained because of a few really unhealthy weeks of eating, but rather just small, barely noticeable unhealthy decisions made repeatedly over a long period of time. So the weight should come off the same way, with small, barely noticeable healthy decisions over a long period of time.

Maybe start with drinking water instead of soda. You might lose a pound or two over a month, nothing to write home about. The next month try and eat more home-cooked meals. And then the next month, eat more vegetables. And then try and cut back on the sugar. Month after month, try and just make small decisions to be healthier, and don't worry too much about how fast or slow the weight is coming off. If you did this for an entire year, do you think you would lose weight? YES!

Play the long game. Approach your goals in a way that is sustainable over the long run. Look for small wins. Learn how to be consistent. Learn how to be patient.

Being healthy is not a sprint. In fact, it's not even an ultramarathon. It's a journey, not a finish line. It's a lifestyle, not an outcome. It's a daily endeavor, for the rest of your life. So GO SLOW, go at a speed that's right for you, because it's going to be a long time.

And with this perspective, we aren't even setting New Year's Resolutions anymore, we are setting life resolutions. We are just deciding that we want our lives to be better, not just this year, but always.

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