Beyond Resolutions: The Complete Guide to Achieving Your 2021 New Year Goals
Updated: Jan 18
Originally published at https://www.success.com on December 1, 2020.
Author’s note: This is an updated version of 2020’s guide, which generated a flood of positive comments. It’s packed with new exercises and info that will help you create a more powerful “why” and go beyond goal setting into reliable systems. Enjoy!
“You need to start smoking again.”
That was the most sincere, heartfelt advice I could give my co-worker.
Lorenzo had quit smoking 30 days before, and the whole office had been hearing daily how miserable he was.
My remark wasn’t unsympathetic—I had won the war against smoking the year before, after 15 years and 10 lost battles. But I could see that Lorenzo was suffering more as a non-smoker.
He had decided on January 1st that he would will himself off tobacco, but I could see that his heart wasn’t in it.
His fatal flaw?
New Year’s resolutions are for amateurs.
If you want meaningful, lasting change in your life, you need a system—a guide.
What’s in This Guide?
This is a comprehensive guide to installing systems that will help you get the maximum achievement and joy out of your year—not just in 2021, but for the rest of your life.
It’s a roadmap for:
Creating a compelling vision for your life that excites you
Determining what your inner self wants to accomplish this year
How to set motivating and achievable goals
Executing on action items by using reliable systems that will help you make consistent, noticeable progress
Methods for staying on track, not just until most resolutions fail by January 17th, but right until the end of the year
I’ve updated it for 2021 to include the powerful tools and information that I learned and applied over the last 365 days.
One warning: This guide is not for the dabbler. Adopting the systems below requires a shift in lifestyle and mindset.
But I can promise, if you put this guide into practice you’ll see results at a level you’ve never seen before.
How Do I Know This Works?
I know that this system works because I started using it in 2012. In that time I launched three successful businesses on two continents, a writing career and a coaching practice, while carrying a full-time job, during much of that period.
I’ve built a fun, loving relationship with a woman who is now my wife, welcomed our first baby girl who is almost a year old, and my fitness level is the best of my life, even though I’ll turn 40 this year.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am deeply flawed and my life is far from perfect. I face both the garden variety existential problems and daily failures.
But when it comes to Getting Stuff Done, I’ve met few equals. In order to squeeze more productivity and growth out of myself, I have gone to lengths that can only be described, in clinical terms, as “insane.”
Fear not, this guide is not a boot camp. As long as you apply it consistently throughout the year, you will see results, no matter how “insane” you want to get with it.
You’re in good hands. Let’s go.
Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail
“When you feel like you’re not productive, it’s not necessarily because you’re lazy or because you have bad habits, it’s because you’re not working on the right projects and you haven’t found the ones that are intrinsically motivating and meaningful to you.” —Adam Grant
“I’m going to lose some weight this year!”
“I’m going to live life to the fullest in 2021!”
Ugh. You might as well say, “I have no idea what I want out of life, but let’s set a vague goal while I’m hungover and back it up with absolutely zero planning!”
How can this be? Most of us only make one life-altering resolution. You had one job! And all year to accomplish it. But most people quit by January 17th.
Resolutions fail for four main reasons:
Fail #1: They’re too big
Why is it that the Monday crossword puzzle taped to the coffee shop counter is enjoyable but the New York Times Saturday version makes you cry like a baby?
It’s because humans have a challenge “sweet spot.” Too easy, and we lose interest. Too tough, and we throw our hands in the air.
When we say that in 2021 we’ll go to the gym five days a week, but we went 10 times in all of 2020, the challenge is too big not to fail.
Good goals live in the Goldilocks zone: not too easy, not too tough, just right.
Fail #2: They’re too vague
One of the top resolutions in 2020 was “save money.” That’s a laudable goal that most people can support. But it’s not specific. How much money do you want to save?
It’s not measurable. How will you know when you achieve it? We need the promise of a pot full of gold to bother chasing the rainbow.
Nor is it scheduled. How much time do I have? Vague goals don’t inspire. If I put a dollar in the bank, technically I’ve succeeded.
Good goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. Hmm, we need a shorthand for all that. How about, SMART?
Fail #3: They’re other people’s resolutions
If you want: six-pack abs, a smaller/bigger behind, a fairy-tale wedding, a bigger truck, cleaner gutters, or whiter teeth… then you may just be a victim of effective advertising.
Or perhaps you want to make more money than your brother, win the baseball tournament or graduate at the top of your class. Those may seem like healthy pursuits, but any time your goal is measured against someone else, you’re motivated not by your own true wants, but by what society wants you to want.
Don’t make the mistake of getting to the end of your life only to realize you were running someone else’s race. The best goals come directly from the highest authority: your inner core.
Fail #4: We expect change NOW
“I tried meditation once, it didn’t work for me.”
I hear that often, always from people who are running in five directions at once, doing everything, but nothing well, burning out at least once a season. I tell them to replace the word “meditation” with “showering” to help them see their folly.
For most of human history we couldn’t just flick a switch and get light, or tap an app for dinner. I’m thankful for these conveniences but see how it’s stolen our patience.
A baby doesn’t try to walk a few times then say, “I guess I’m not cut out for this.” Great change doesn’t happen after a handful of tries, but that’s how we tackle our resolutions.
Lasting change happens when we make an irreversible decision to lose the weight or quit smoking—no matter how much time or effort is required. Burn the boats!
How Habits Work
The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, describes how the habit loop works:
The Cue: tells your brain to start a routine
The Routine: a behavior or thought pattern you carry out
The Reward: some shiny nugget that makes us feel good, and tells our brain to repeat this pattern
Most New Year’s resolutions fail to become habits because:
The cue (January 1st) only comes around once a year.
We don’t create a routine; we sign up for the gym but have no plan or system to cue us to go sweat.
We don’t experience rewards along the way. The reward is one huge and/or vague goalpost that seems impossibly distant.
This guide works because it gives you daily cues to take action (which you’ve carefully chosen), provides a pre-baked routine (do this at this time of day, on this day of the week), and delivers constant rewards by listing your accomplishments yearly, quarterly and daily. But there’s more.
Atomic Habits author James Clear builds on Duhigg’s three-step model, arguing that “It lacks a good explanation of how our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs impact our behavior,” he says. I agree.
Good or bad, habits work. But without a compelling reason—an inner why—to stick to these behaviors, we won’t stick with them.
Let’s start with why, then.
Part I: Your Life Vision
“I am a big believer that if you have a very clear vision of where you want to go, then the rest of it is much easier.” —Arnold Schwarzenegger
I’m embarrassed by all the years I walked through life without any picture at all for my future.
Like most people, I moved from day to day and year to year without any purpose. I had hopes for a promotion, wealth and love, but hope is not a strategy. I never took time to think about what my ideal life looked like.
Eventually I discovered goal setting and worked to become a writer, build a business and travel. But with vague goals, I got vague results. Had my ideal life hit me in the face, I doubt I’d have recognized it.
You can’t hit a target you can’t see. The antidote to vagueness is to set a clear vision for your life.
For years my mentors preached vision, but frankly, it sounded stupid; an exercise that a corporation would do once for their shareholders, then forget. And vision boards? They seemed more appropriate for teenaged art students.
But the more I studied personal development, the more the experts agreed: Vision is the most important determinant of success.
What the Heck Is Vision?
Most literally, a vision is a mental picture of what you want. Why bother? Because when you can see your outcome clearly, your brain becomes far more effective at manifesting it. It’s a strange phenomenon, but it works.
Your end goal is to see this vision in your mind’s eye, but you create it first on paper. How clear is your vision?
If your goal is to build a business:
What is your product? What are your margins?
What does your ideal customer look like? Male/female? Young/old? Do they drive a Prius or a Lexus?
Do you see a clear picture of where you’re working? In an office or at home?
If your goal is to find your soulmate:
What are his or her qualities and values? Respect? Trust? Honesty?
What are your deal breakers? Lying? Drugs? Bad breath?
Where do you live with this person? Will you have children?
If your goal is chiseled abdominal muscles:
Does that mean the body of a runner? Weightlifter? Yoga mom?
How big are your pecs? Biceps? Legs? How fast can you run a mile?
Where do you train? Do you run? Lift? Rock climb? Play tennis?
Goals are critical to your success, but the sharper you can make that picture, the more likely you’ll get exactly what you see.
Step 1: Create a Vision for Your Life
No biggie, just set the direction for your life here, mmm-kay? Yes, right now. Don’t let this overwhelm you—a life vision is a living, growing entity, a perennial rough draft that will never feel “perfect” for long because we evolve.
Take just 10 minutes now to write a statement of what you think you might want your life to be about (see how vague we’re allowed to be, for now?).
Answer these questions in point form to help get you started:
What do I love? What do I hate?
What do I want to do with my life?
What am I good at? What, when I do it, makes time melt away?
How can I serve the world?
Turn your answers into a short, one-paragraph statement of your life’s vision. Here’s mine:
“I use my entrepreneurial and writing talents to design and build enterprises that create a better world, helping others realize their highest potential, generating fantastic wealth and abundance in the process.”
Great, now you have a North Star for your whole life (which can change!). Later, we’ll create your 1-year and 3-month visions.
Part II: Yearly Planning
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did.” —H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Experiencing the best year of your life won’t happen accidentally.
Successful companies take the time to create business plans, and top performers take the time to set a course for their lives.
This section will show you how to decide on what you truly want to accomplish this year, how to set goals and action items to support those goals, how to install systems, and measure your progress in order to stay motivated and on track the whole time.
Step 0: Create Space
I block January 1st, 2nd and 3rd in my calendar for this Yearly Planning exercise.
Three days may seem like a lavish expenditure of time, but protecting 0.8% of my year makes the other 99.2% of my days exponentially more productive and fulfilling than it would be if I’d started my year watching movies on the couch.
If you just can’t find three days, that’s fine, but you’ll need one full, uninterrupted day, minimum.
On the morning of January 1st: Take an ibuprofen, find a quiet space and close the door. Disconnect from the internet, and leave your phone in another room.
Step 1: Review the Previous Year
On a sheet of paper or blank Word document (I use Evernote), list these headings, and write your answers:
1. What were my goals? Did I achieve them or make progress?
Maybe you didn’t set explicit goals for yourself last year. Maybe you only made a casual resolution. That’s OK—do this exercise and next year you’ll have new benchmarks to build on. Even if you didn’t write down any goals, you were surely working on some things. What were they?
My goals included: creating financial and time freedom, building a thriving business, signing two coaching clients per month, increasing my maximum lifts at the gym, and publishing a certain number of articles.
On January 1st I list every goal and sub-goal from last year and make a yes/no determination. Did I hit my targets? If not, why? Did I make progress? I make no value judgments yet, only observations. The answers help with the next question.
2. What worked well?
Here we pat ourselves on the back, shelling out well-earned credit for our positive outcomes. This is not a list of detailed accomplishments (that comes later); we’re looking for themes and trends.
For example, at the start of 2020 I gave myself credit for writing at least one hour each morning because it allowed me to publish 19 articles in 2019; and for cutting alcohol to near zero for six months because I saved more than a few pennies and had much more time and energy on the weekends.
When we identify what worked well, we can double down on these actions.
3. What could improve?
This exercise is less fun because it shines a light on all the broken, rust-covered parts of our year that are strewn across the front yard of our life.
Don’t fear this! Facing reality, even the uncomfortable parts, is the first step in creating a better one. I have two caveats:
Many things that are missing or messed up in our lives are outside our control. Sometimes you make all the right moves and fate still lands you in Monopoly jail. Make peace with that.
Even when the failure is clearly yours, beating yourself up will not help. Guilt should be used like a spare tire—only when you’re forced to, and for as little time as possible.
Despite amazing progress overall, last year I listed many areas to improve: I did not manage money as well as I could have, took on far too many projects in January and had to admit that my business model was not producing results.
But hey! Once I admitted these things, I was able to prioritize fixes for the next year.
4. How do I feel about last year?
The danger in listing goals and making yes/no appraisals about them is that it’s almost a purely “head” centered exercise.
For an answer, you need to go to the heart, which is why I recently added this question to my Yearly Planning review.
This activity combats Resolution Fail #3: the risk of running someone else’s race.
The best way to answer this question is by writing in stream of consciousness—no bullets, no overthinking, no censoring—have the courage to be brutally honest with yourself in answering the question: Am I fulfilled?
After all, that’s the whole reason why we set goals and chase accomplishment: to feel good! If the answer is anything but “heck yes,” take it as a blessing; a signal that you need to work on different priorities.
Your heart will respond by the end of this exercise. Don’t be afraid to write pages and pages here.
5. What are all the things I accomplished?
This part’s my favorite! It’s an excuse to spend a few moments in pure celebration, something none of us do often enough. Here you can list all of the notable, amazing things you did and that happened to you between January 1st and December 31st.
Include whatever is meaningful to you, no matter how big or small. My list for 2019 included moving to Mexico, but also finding a great new coffee shop. I ended up with over 90 things to be thankful for. When you see it all in one place, you’ll feel proud and grateful.
Where can you find items for your list? Go back through your calendar week by week, look at your journal, or ask your partner or family members to remind you about the good times.
This is not just some indulgence: Listing the positive experiences helps us relive them, which releases happy hormones in our bodies, like dopamine and serotonin. Associating our accomplishments with feeling good helps drive us to more accomplishment. It creates a healthy addiction in us, something resolutions don’t do.
6. The financial snapshot.
No annual reflection would be complete without a clear understanding of the state of your financial affairs.
Start by listing the value of your current assets: cash, stocks, bonds, real estate/equity, pension, insurance policy, the wad of $100s under your mattress. Then, tally your liabilities: credit card debt, mortgage, car lease, student loans, what you owe to the Latvian mafia.
Subtract liabilities from assets to calculate your net worth. The first time you do this might be a shock—good or bad. At least now you know. Plus, next January you’ll be able to see whether this figure is moving in the right direction or not, and calculate how much money you’ve squirreled away.
This part of your Yearly Plan is also a good opportunity to see where you can cut the fat on your budget. I use Mint.com, which gathers account data into a single dashboard, and helps me understand where every dollar is going.
For example, recently I noticed that my insurance premiums have been getting out of hand. I switched providers and will save $1,200 this year.
I can also see where I’m over- or under-spending (OK, the latter never happens), and adjust my habits.
Step 2: Create Your 1-Year Vision
In Part I, we took responsibility for painting a vivid picture of the course of our whole life. Grand visions can be extremely compelling. This “ultimate purpose” gives us a reason to spring out of bed and work to become the person we know we can become, especially when the challenges pile up on top of each other.
But a huge vision, without a map for how to get there, can become overwhelming and even discouraging. If you’re currently working at Walmart and your ultimate purpose is to teach the world’s top CEOs judo, then you can be forgiven for feeling daunted.
On the road to your highest calling, the 1-Year Vision is the bridge across the chasm from here to there. A year is long enough to accomplish a great deal, especially if you stick to this system. And it’s short enough that you can make some predictions about what the world, and your life, might look like (the end of this pandemic, let’s hope?).
To create your 1-Year Vision, simply picture your life 365 days from today. Where are you living and who are you with? What are you doing for work and how much money are you making and keeping? What have you learned, and who have you become?
When I do my own exercise on January 1st, it will probably look like this:
“We have bought our dream home in the country on the Thames River, on 20 acres of forest, with four bedrooms, large windows, a chef’s kitchen, a quiet office for me, an outbuilding studio for my wife and lots of space for our daughter to adventure. My business revenue has increased 50%, and I’m running twice as many training programs. My coaching rates have doubled, and I’m serving three new clients per month both privately and in group settings.”
I will no doubt add more, but you get the idea. Notice that I wrote my vision as if it had already happened, because when you frame your vision this way, your subconscious works tirelessly to bridge the gap between reality and the vision.
Step 3: Set Goals for the New Year
Now that we have the lay of the land that is our life, through an extensive review of our previous year, and we have a clear roadmap of where we’re going at the end of 12 months, it’s time to mark off some specific milestones on the way into our best year ever.
1. Write your goals “long list.”
As you complete Step 1, ideas will flow about what you’d like to accomplish over the next 12 months, like starting a business, and situations you’d like to improve, like having more fun. Call this your capture list or your “kitchen sink” list—everything goes into it.
If you’re like me, there will be far too many shiny objects to chase, more than you could handle in a year. To be effective, you’ll need to make tough decisions about priorities.
But ignore reality for a minute, and list out all the goals you’d like to pursue this year if you had an unlimited number of clones.
To spark some ideas, use these categories to guide you:
Financial – How much money do I want to make and save? How will I invest? What toys do I want?
Personal development – What new skills do you want to learn? Which skills do you want to improve? What habits do you want to install?
Relationships – What do I want for my romantic partnership, family and friendships? What does my home life look like?
Work/career/business – What projects do I want to work on? With whom? What targets will I set?
Health and fitness – What do I want for my body? How do I want to eat and exercise?
Emotional – How do I want to feel, most of the time? What makes me smile?
Time – What does my ideal day look like? Where am I spending my most precious resource?
Contribution – How will I give back? How much money goes to worthy causes? Where can I serve others?
These might be goals that you didn’t fully cross off your list last year. Or you may decide to focus on the activities that are working well. For me, that was email marketing, and creating 10x quality content.
In other cases, you may see that you need to focus on the areas that need improvement, like your social life.
Write it ALL down in a single list of bullets. Now that you’ve left no stone unturned, you can start prioritizing.
2. Select your primary goals.
The 80/20 rule is a law that we observe in most of nature, including human affairs. It states that 20% of our efforts lead to 80% of our results.
The rule is a valuable tool we can use as we comb through out “long list” of priorities.
Ask, What are the 20% of activities on my list that, if accomplished, would bring me the greatest results?
I listed some of my 2020 goals earlier, but yours might be: “Earn X dollars per month,” “Write and publish my book,” “Sign 30 new coaching clients,” or “Learn to play 10 new songs on the guitar.”
In practice, I choose four to six major goals. I suspect fewer would be even better, but I have a habit of taking on too much (sound familiar to you?)
Any more than this and you’ll spread yourself too thin. Write them out as headings on a document (see below for a template).
3. Set benchmarks and action items.
Major goals are never accomplished in great leaps, but in a series of small steps. Under each of your goals “headings,” list a few measurable benchmarks that, if you achieved them, would help you step closer to each goal.
For example, let’s say your goal is to launch a business and earn $100,000 in revenue. Beneath this heading you can list, “Grow my email list to 5,000 subscribers” and “Book 10 sessions a month at $850 per session.”
In addition to benchmarks, here you can also list non-measurable action items that will support your goals, like, “Write a business plan” and “Work with a business coach.”
You can start a single-page document that looks like this:
4. Choose your secondary goals.
There will be items on your longlist that will never become primary goals but that you still want to take care of in the coming year. Examples include, “Read 20 books this year,” “Plant a garden,” or “Buy a new couch.”
In this section you can also include habits that you want to practice—activities that don’t have a specific endpoint, but that when repeated over time, help support your main goals, or just a happy life in general.
When selecting daily habits, you might choose “Meditation,” “Journaling,” and “Get up at 6 a.m. on weekdays.” Weekly habits could include “Call my brother,” “Go for a hike,” and “Screen-free Saturdays.”
Write out your secondary goals list under your primary, on the same page. That might look like this:
5. Print and post your Goals Master List.
There’s intrinsic value in this exercise—in getting clear about what’s important to you, and where you want to focus your energy over the next 365 days.
But this should not be a one-and-done activity. Seeing a daily reminder of your plan will help you to stay on track. Print and post your (one-page maximum!) Goals Master List for 2021 in a place you’ll see them every day.
A great spot is in the bathroom, so that for two minutes while you brush your teeth first thing every morning, you can reread them.
Step 4: Install Systems
We’ve set clear, specific goals, so now we can watch reruns of The Office, right? False. Goals are helpful for setting our direction, but Atomic Habits author James Clear points out that, “Results have little to do with the goals we set and nearly everything to do with the systems we follow.”
The sports team that loses had a goal to win. The failed startup had a goal to make millions. Goals are a necessary, but not a sufficient step in the success process. Like bathing, we need consistent, helpful habits to avoid results that stink.
Look at your Goals Master List in all its clear, specific, measurable glory (it’s a work of art, no?). What existing habits might you need to recommit to—what new habits might you need to adopt—in order to reach the majority of your goals?
In the classic business book Good to Great, researchers advise that you find your “Hedgehog Concept” (what your company could be singularly great at), which is exactly what we’ve done in the goal-setting steps above. Then, when you know what that is, you start “pushing on the flywheel” to get it spinning. And that’s synonymous with installing great systems, aka practicing helpful habits.
If your Hedgehog Concept is to produce the world’s finest hypoallergenic, vegan and sustainable hand sanitizer, then your systems might include:
Reinvesting 20% of your profits into continuous R&D;
Handing out free samples every Friday at farmers’ markets;
Publishing one guest blog per week on health and wellness websites.
With goals, you know when you’ve achieved them. But systems involved continuous and open-ended action; habits repeated as frequently as hand washing in 2020.
Choose the new habits that will coalesce like puzzle pieces into your new system and write these on a separate document that you can print and post beside your Goals Master List. Later, in the Weekly Plan, we’ll start scheduling time for these activities in our calendars.
Part III: Quarterly Planning
“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” —George Santayana
You’ve reviewed the state of affairs that is your life, and chosen your highest priorities for the coming year. But it would be a mistake to set a course then fail to adjust your sails for 365 days. If the Yearly Plan is the view of your life from 40,000 feet, then the Quarterly Plan brings us down to smooth sailing at 10k.
Your Yearly Planning exercise is not complete until you set some medium-term goals. Three months, or a quarter of your year, is ideal as a workable unit of time. Why?
Three months is in line with the natural change of seasons. It’s long enough to give you time to make serious progress toward your goals, but not long enough that you’re barreling ahead without pausing to reflect.
And it’s a short enough time span that you should feel a bit of pressure—positive stress—that will become a vaccination against procrastination. The last thing we want is to wake up on December 31st and realize we’ve accomplished nothing from our Yearly Plan.
The Quarterly Planning exercise mirrors the Yearly, but you’ll do this one every three months throughout the year: on January 1st, April 1st, July 1st and October 1st.
Step 1: Review
Start by reviewing the previous three months (you’ve already done this on January 1st through your Yearly Plan). Ask what worked, what could be improved, how do you feel, list your accomplishments, and update your financial snapshot.