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.