Updated: Dec 15, 2020
As the year winds to a close, it’s a common time for contemplation and self-questioning. This is when you may ask yourself questions like:
What do I wish I had done differently in 2020?
What do I hope for in 2021?
Why on Earth did I think it was a good idea to polish off the peppermint bark in one sitting?
If you’re the resolution or goal-setting type, this is also the time of year when you are making your plans for how to do and/or be better in the coming year. In fact, even if you’re not the type, something about the countdown to a new beginning can inspire all of us to resolve to have a better year, especially after the year we've all shared.
Unfortunately, resolutions tend to peter out—and quickly! According to a 2015 US News & World Report, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. In fact, only 8% of resolution-makers stick to their new resolutions, meaning a whopping 92% of us are back to our old ways before the year is out.
But just because resolutions are easy to make and hard to keep doesn’t mean you’re destined to fail at life transformation. You just need to be strategic in how you make, implement, and maintain your resolutions. Here’s how:
1. Focus on Last Year’s Positives
The month of January is named for the two-faced Roman god Janus, who was able to look to the past and the future at the same time. Janus ruled over beginning and endings, transitions, time, and doorways. What better namesake for the first month of the year, when you are throwing off the past year and embracing the new one?
Janus reminds us to look in the past and to the future
Except we often only focus on Janus’s (and January’s) forward-facing powers, rather than truly embracing the chance to reflect on the past. January is a new beginning, and new beginnings are both fun and hopeful. But starting anew doesn’t have to mean starting over. You may know what you don’t want to carry with you into the new year, but don’t forget that you are also carrying a number of great skills, lessons, and joys with you from the past year. Focusing only on what you want to change means you are not giving your 2020 self enough credit.
So, before you even think about what you want to be different in the coming year, start by listing what you enjoyed about the previous year. What brought you satisfaction? What are you proud of? What would you like to have more of?
Reminding yourself that you have plenty of good stuff to bring with you in the new year can help relieve the pressure you put on yourself to “improve.” You’re already pretty great. Plan to do more of the stuff that worked well for you this year before you start thinking about changing your behavior and habits. It’s much easier to lean into what you’re good at than try to be different.
2. Decide Who You Want to Be
Once you know what you’d like to bring with you from the previous year, now you can start thinking about what you’d like to change in the coming year. Typical goal-setting advice suggests that you should aim for a specific, measurable, and time-based goal. In other words, many goal-setting experts want you to give yourself a yardstick so you can know whether or not you have achieved your aim. Such a resolution sounds like this:
I will pay off my student loans by the end of the year.
I will lose 20 pounds before the 4th of July.
The problem with this kind of resolution is that if you miss the mark early on, it’s easy to decide to give up on the resolution altogether. You can’t catch up with your specific, measurable, and time-based goal, so why bother continuing?
This is why habit and productivity expert James Clear recommends that you create identity-based habits in order to meet your goals. With an identity-based habit, instead of starting with the outcome you want to reach, you start by deciding what kind of person you want to be.
Paying extra every week helps build your new identity
For instance, you might decide that you want to be the sort of person who sends extra money to your student loan every week. This identity is something you can prove to yourself over and over again. Each week, you have another opportunity to send extra money to Sallie Mae, even if it’s as little as $10. And as you continue to exercise that identity-based habit, you will become the kind of person who does send extra money toward your student loan, increasing your confidence and reinforcing the habit and identity. Deciding that you want to be this person will make it more likely that you pay off your student loans quickly than deciding that you will reach a specific outcome in 2021.
Similarly, you might decide to be the sort of person who eats healthy and exercises every week. Then you can figure out how to prove that identity to yourself and adopt the habits that will prove it. Whether or not you reach a specific weight or outcome, you will become healthier over the year that you live your new identity.
The easiest resolutions to keep are the ones that you can do once and cross off your list. No, I’m not saying you should resolve to do at least one pushup in the coming year so you can knock that bad boy off your list just after midnight on January 1.
Instead, figure out how you can automate a resolution so you only have to act once to make a major change in your life.
For instance, if you’d like to save more money in 2020, set up automatic transfers to your savings account that occur with every paycheck. With less than 10 minutes of work, you can save more money without ever having to think about it again. Here are some other ways you can automate:
If you want to end overdraft fees, sign up for low-account balance notices and set up Google alerts to remind you the day before anything is auto-debited from your account throughout the year.
If you want to stop eating junk food, commit to pre-packaging a week’s worth of healthy meals for yourself once a week, so that it’s easier to eat healthy than Doordash a burger to yourself.
If you want to wake up earlier, set up automatic alarms at your preferred wake up time—and keep your phone in another room so you have to actually get out of bed to turn it off.
Automation can’t take care of all of your resolutions, but it can put you well on your way to accomplishing anything that requires regular action on your part.
4. Plan to Spring Back from Slip-Ups
You are human, which means you’re likely to fall off whatever wagon you’re on. The siren song of garlic fries, overspending, and hitting the snooze button until you’re late for work is not something that you can expect to resist perfectly every time. And that’s okay.
When you are making your resolutions, instead of focusing on how you will be a perfect paragon of pro-resolution performance from now until the end of time, think about how you can ensure that you will simply shrug and get back to your good habits in the face of a mistake.
Remember, those who are successful at making changes to their lives don’t enjoy flawless willpower and model behavior. They are simply able to let a mistake be a blip in the long series of good decisions instead of letting it derail them.
If you struggle with perfectionism, this can sound really hard to do. So, some good scripts to adopt when you screw up include:
“Well, that happened. I’m going to get back to my regularly scheduled habit now.”
“That wasn’t what I planned, but I enjoyed it/got something out of it/felt I needed it at the time. I’m glad to return to my resolution now.”
“Oops. Oh, well.”
5. Make Like Seinfeld and Track Your Habit
Jerry Seinfeld is not only pretty good at getting coffee with comedians in vintage cars, but he also knows a thing or two about motivation. According to a Lifehacker article, when someone asked him what tips he would give to a young comic, Seinfeld responded:
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
This strategy is a great way to keep your resolution on the forefront of your mind. That’s because tracking gives you a visual cue to maintain your habit, offers you motivation to keep the chain going, and helps you see your progress over time. Setting up a calendar, a bullet journal spread, or an app to track your progress can help you get over the February slump and keep your changes going throughout the year.
Your 2021 Vision
You can make the coming year what you want it to be. But you won’t do that by deciding to start over with a blank slate and behaving perfectly from now on. Instead, figure out what good stuff from your 2020 will come with you, decide who you want to be in 2021 and how you can prove that identity to yourself, automate anything that can be done ahead of time, be prepared for the fact you’re not perfect, and consider tracking your progress to help motivate you.
With these five strategies in place, 2021 is all set to be your year.
What are your resolutions for the coming year?