Beyond Resolutions: The Complete Guide to Achieving Your New Year Goals
Originally published at success.com on January 1st, 2020.
“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 2020, but for the rest of your life.
It’s a roadmap for:
Determining what your inner self wants to accomplish this year.
How to set motivating & achievable goals.
Executing on action items 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.
One warning: these methods are 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, most of the time.
I’ve built a fun, loving relationship with a woman who is now my wife, and my fitness level is the best of my life, even as I approach 40.
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.
Table of Contents
I wouldn’t want you to get lost, so here's a look at the road ahead:
Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail
How Habits Work
Part I: Yearly Planning
Step Zero: Create Space
Step One: Review the Previous Year
Step Two: Set Goals for the Year
Part II: Quarterly Planning
Part III: Weekly Planning
Part IV: Daily Planning
Part V: Final Words
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 2020!”
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 2020 we’ll go to the gym five days a week, but we went ten times in all of 2019, the challenge is too big not to fail.
It’s the same when someone commits to lose an arbitrary fifty pounds, but for whom basic nutrition is a mystery and the gym is purgatory.
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 2019 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, S.M.A.R.T?
Fail #3: They’re Other People’s Resolutions
If you want: 6-pack abs, a smaller/bigger behind, a fairy-tale wedding, a bigger truck, cleaner gutters, 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 and realizing 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 the same time, 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.
In most of human history we couldn’t just flick a switch and get light, or tap an app for our dinner. I’m thankful for these conveniences but see how it’s robbed us of 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 behaviour 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 goal post that seems impossible to reach.
This guide works because it will give 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.
Let’s dive in.
Part I: 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 is not going to happen accidentally.
The most successful companies take the time to create business plans, just like the top performers take the time to set a course for their lives.
This system 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, and how measure your progress in order to stay motivated and on track the whole time.
Step Zero: 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 percent of my year makes the other 99.2 percent 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.
You’re ready for Step 1.
Step 1: Review the Previous Year
On a sheet of paper or blank Word document (I use Evernote), write these questions about your previous year as headings, and answer them:
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 benchmarks to work with.
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, moving to Mexico, 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 at least make progress?
I make no value judgments yet, only observations. The answers will help me with the next question.
2. What worked well?
Here we pat ourselves on the back, shelling out deserved credit for all 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 2019 I gave myself credit for investing more time than I normally do in laying a strong foundation for my new business, because I recognized that putting more effort into my business plan and creating a website, paid dividends later in the year.
I also wrote that, prioritizing social time created two new, deep friendships that brought a lot of joy into my life.
When we identify what we did that 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 of 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: my gym training was neglected, I didn’t see my brother as much as I’d like, and neglected my self-care to the point where I burnt myself out repeatedly.
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.
Sure, you’ll get a clear picture of how effective and productive you were, but this can’t tell you whether all of this frenetic activity is having the desired effect. In other words, are you happy?
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—having 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.
Also ask, “What is the state of my mental landscape, most of the time? What types of thoughts generally fill my head—positive or negative? Kind or unkind?”
Your heart will answer by the end of this exercise. Don’t be afraid to write pages & pages here.
5. What are all the things I accomplished?
This is the best part! 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 2018 included getting married, but also that lunch with my cousin. I ended up with over 90 things to be grateful 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, and 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 thing never happens), and adjust my habits.
Step 2. Set Goals for the Year
Now that we have the lay-of-the-land that is our life, through an extensive review of our previous year, it’s time to chart a course into our best year ever.
1. Write your goals “longlist”
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.
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 get the ideas flowing, 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. To simplify, it states that 20 percent of our efforts lead to 80 percent of our results.
The rule is a valuable tool we can use as we comb through out “longlist” of priorities. Ask, what are the 20 percent of activities on my list that, if accomplished, would bring me the greatest results?
I listed some of my 2019 goals earlier, but yours might be, “Earn X dollars per month,” “Write and publish my book,” “Sign 30 new coaching clients,” “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 five or six major goals and you’ll spread yourself too thin. Write them out as headings on a document.
3. Set benchmarks & 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 additional 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.”
Or maybe your goal is to increase the maximum amount of weight you can lift at the gym by 10 percent this year. Your action item would be, “Re-test my maximums” and then list the specific target weights you’d like to hit for your squat, bench press, and deadlift.
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 6AM 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
There’s intrinsic value in completing 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 (1-page maximum!) goals for 2020 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 re-read them.
You can download the Yearly Planning Template here.
Part II: 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 the 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.
Start by reviewing the previous three months (you’ve already done this on January 1st through your Yearly Plan), then ask what worked, what could be improved, how do you feel, list your accomplishments, and update your financial snapshot.
Then select your goals for the next three months. This won’t require a huge amount of time or thought, because you will use your Yearly Plan to guide your efforts.
Print and post your Quarterly Plan on the wall beside your Yearly Plan. You can reuse the Yearly Template, just change the document heading to something like “1st Quarter 2020”.
A Sample Quarterly Plan
Was your #1 goal for the year to build your business? Then you might set, for your first Quarterly Plan, goals to incorporate, build a website, collect 1,000 email subscribers, and earn one tenth of your revenue goal for the year.
Your website is built, and actually hosting some visitors. With a bit of unexpected luck, you hit 20 percent of your revenue goal between January and the end of March. Congrats!
When you do your quarterly review on April 1st, and ask, “What went well,” you can see from your website analytics that one certain product—sunglasses—are selling better than expected.
You set a goal to find new suppliers for different brands and models of shades, and to invest in some paid ads.
In your review, you also notice that you’re nowhere near hitting your goal for email subscribers, so you decide to host a giveaway contest for your bestselling products, in exchange for an email address.
Print and post your Quarterly Plan, replacing the old one with this one.
Ahh, July 1st already. Where does the time go? In your quarterly review you see that these giveaways are huge successes. You not only hit 1,000 email subscribers, but you’re well on your way to 5,000. You set a goal to double this number by the end of the quarter by running more contests.
Unfortunately, you notice that most of the new products you chose to promote were duds—nobody wanted the 500 novelty-googly-eye glasses you bought for a “great deal”. Halfway through the year, you’re only 30 percent toward your yearly revenue goal.
You set a new 3-month goal to double-down on your promotion for other products where sales haven’t been spectacular, but are at least growing steadily.
Again, print and post your Quarterly Plan, using your Yearly Plan as your North Star.
It’s October 1st, and you can see both Black Friday and Boxing Day on the horizon. You set a goal to take advantage of that.
But you’ve learned a lot about your customers this year and they are not bargain shoppers.
You come up with a brilliant plan to run a “buy nothing” sale on both of those traditional shopping days, and instead run a fundraiser for a cause that they care about, with the goal of growing your email list 10x and creating media attention.
Over the next few months your gamble pays off, and you bring in so much traffic and new customers that your website temporarily crashes. You end the year with 150 percent of your revenue goal.
This brings you back to January 1st, where you’ll repeat the Yearly Planning process all over again.
You will experience varying degrees of success with this system, depending on how diligently you stick with it, the goals you choose, and of course, fate.
However, you can be sure that by sticking to it, you’ll be far more effective than if you were to set a loose New Year’s resolution.
Still, checking in on your progress every few months is not enough to maximize your productivity. How do you keep yourself motivated and on track in the midst of those 13-week blocks?
Part III: Weekly Planning
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
What does Sunday night look like for most people? If you’re me, it’s a combination of sweatpants, music, TV, and books. Despite being engaged in full relax mode, I still make an hour after dinner to review the week ahead, and plan. You can too.
You might feel like this invades your day of rest. To that I will say: you’re going to have a much more enjoyable, less chaotic Monday through Friday if you invest just that one hour into planning. And, you won’t feel like each one of those days slipped through your fingers.
Skip weekly planning often enough, and you arrive at the end of your life feeling like you didn’t accomplish half of what you wanted.
Sidebar: sure, you can do this exercise on Monday morning, but that’s prime getting-stuff-done time. Better to use the lazy downtime of Sunday night for this and start strong on Monday morning while your coworkers are still rubbing their eyes.
From 10,000 feet, let’s swoop down to the rooftops.
The Weekly To-Do List Template
Over the last decade I’ve tested, discarded, refined, amalgamated, and welded together various to-do list templates to find one that works for me. I’m happy to share it with you now, but please don’t be afraid to alter it to your needs. It looks like this:
Seem complicated? It’s not, really. Let’s go through it piece by piece.
1. Essentialism Top 3
Essentialism is a concept, and the title of a book, created by author Greg McKeown. Simply put,
“The Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.”
That’s why the top of my weekly list starts by asking, “What are the top 3 essential things I’d like to get done?” These items don’t have to be ones that can be done in a week; they may stick around for a while.
2. Ongoing Learning
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” This is a philosophy adopted by Silicon Valley, presidents, and self-help coaches. It may sound extreme, but I bet you can’t find an exception in nature.
You have no obligation to constantly improve. I know people who are happy living simple lives, and maybe they’re the wise ones.
But I’d prefer to live my life always learning, always growing, and that’s why my weekly list shines a spotlight on a new skill I want to learn or improve. The item stays on my list until I feel I’ve learned enough about it.
3. Monthly Experiment
Growth hackers, researchers, and those who want breakthrough results practice a simple mantra: Always Be Testing. Each month I choose a new experiment to conduct on myself.
The practices that work, I keep; the rest are discarded.
In this case the experiment was drinking Bulletproof Coffee each morning, a mixture of coffee, grass-fed butter, and MCT oil from coconuts, which supposedly improves brain function, and lets me skip breakfast, giving me the health benefits of intermittent fasting. It seems to work, because I feel sharp every morning. The experiment was a success.
4. The Unschedule
The Unschedule is a concept created by habits expert Dr. Neil Fiore, which simply states that, to avoid procrastination, you should schedule fun playtime in your calendar before work.
This will let your subconscious know that life this week won’t be a chore, so it can stop sabotaging you.
We all know the adage, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Avoid dulling yourself; plan some fun time before you fill up your hours with work.
5. Great Tasks (G)
The next four quadrants are distant relatives of the Eisenhower Matrix, which I used for years, but updated to suit my own purposes. Again, you should feel free to alter anything I share here to your needs.
In the top right quadrant, I list the Great Tasks I want to accomplish this week. These are the tasks of the Essentialist. I want to spend as much of my time as possible working in this quadrant. They are the activities that, if I accomplish them week after week, will bring me closer to hitting the goals in my Yearly Plan.