How To Make New Year’s Resolutions You’ll Actually Keep
I think we can all agree that new year’s resolutions are kind of played out. It makes sense that the start of a new year is a good chance to reassess what we’ve been doing with our lives and decide what we’d like to change moving forward—even those of us who are resolution skeptics still have a goal or two we’d like to achieve in the new year—but at the same time, it’s almost a given that these resolutions are doomed to fail. For most of us, our own track records of deferred annual goals makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But does it really have to be that way? If you’ve been looking to make a career change or to grow the career you already have, why shouldn’t the start of a new year be a chance to move in the right direction? After giving it some thought, I started to wonder if it isn’t goals and resolutions that are the problem, but the way we approach them—and after checking in with some psychology and motivational professionals, it turns out that’s exactly the case.
Be SMART About Your Resolutions
Dr. Crystal I. Lee, licensed psychologist and owner of LA Concierge Psychologist, says that most failed resolutions have two things in common—they’re vague and unmeasurable. In order to avoid this one-two punch of ill-defined, nebulous goals, Lee suggests adopting a “SMART” model for any resolutions you decide to invest in. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
In terms of specificity, Lee says, this is the difference between resolving to “get healthy” versus resolving to “eat more servings of vegetables every day.”
Measurability means fine-tuning that specificity in a way that can be quantified—”I want to eat three more servings of vegetables every day.”
Achievability comes into play by making sure your goals aren’t so unrealistic or unmanageable that they’re built to fail before you even get started. For example, resolving to take an introductory Spanish class to learn some second language basics (if you aren’t already a Spanish speaker) is achievable. Going from a total Spanish-speaking novice, to the goal of writing your first Spanish language novel in one year, not so much.
Relevance speaks to forming goals that will directly affect a situation you’re hoping to improve. If your ultimate desire is for more holistic career fulfillment, picking a goal to simply “make more money” probably won’t be relevant enough to yield the results you’d like to see.
And finally, time-bound goals are ones that have benchmarks established for keeping tabs on progress. If you don’t give yourself a clear time-frame—say, I want to learn enough HTML to code my first basic website at the end of six months—your resolutions run the risk of stretching out forever and never getting completed (or even started!).
Take It One Day at a Time
Dr. Dave Whiteside, PhD in Organizational Behavior and Director of Research at Plasticity Labs, says the whole “new year” part of resolutions itself can be a fast track to failure. “New Year’s Resolutions are often framed as an annual goal, which is fine,” says Whiteside, “but these big annual resolutions have to be paired with behaviors and goals at a daily level.”
Whiteside says that by breaking things down to simple, goal-oriented tasks you can attack each day, you’ll have an on-going way of making progress toward long-term resolutions—something Whiteside says is important, since one pitfall of annual goals is their lack of reminders to act.
“Because an annual goal is so far away, it’s easy to slack at the end of January, only to fall out of positive habits early on,” says Whiteside. By establishing manageable daily goals, you’ll build-in reminders that keep you on track toward your larger resolutions and help create productive habits along the way.
Jonathan Smith, PsyD at Andersonville Psychology, says that another way to keep resolutions from becoming unwieldy, year-long ordeals is to focus on the process of your goals as opposed to the outcome. Smith describes outcome goals as things like, “I want to lose 10 pounds,” where a process goal would be, “I want to go to the gym three times a week and reduce my daily calorie intake.”
Again, the benefit of breaking goals down like this is the opportunity for reinforcement over time. “If you meet the goal of going to the gym three times in a week, you can identify an accomplishment that will help motivate you to keep going,” Smith says. “If the goal is entirely outcome-based, then there’s no opportunity for reinforcement until the goal is met.” This, says Smith, makes the outcome start to feel unattainable, which in turn makes it that much harder to keep working toward.
Make it Easy on Yourself!
In addition to being vague and unmeasurable, Taylor Jacobson, former Executive Coach and Founder and CEO at Focusmate, says that failed resolutions are often framed as a battle of will. Do you have the inner-strength to suppress habits, cravings, behavior patterns, etc. and prove you’re the ideal version of yourself that you want to be? According to Jacobson, this willpower paradigm is part of what makes resolutions so difficult to achieve. “We think there’s some glory in willpower,” Jacobson says, “when the truth is we have better tools at our disposal.”
For Jacobson, one of those tools is accountability—opening up resolutions to our friends or colleagues takes us out of our own head and allows us to accept the external help and support we need to be successful. “Human beings are profoundly social creatures,” Jacobson says. “As a result, accountability is the closest thing to a silver bullet for accomplishing resolutions.” Jacobson suggests sharing your goals with others by setting up regular times to meet at a cafe, library, coworking space, or even online and discussing your progress, successes, and struggles.
Licensed mental health professional Kryss Shane (BS, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW) echoes this idea that resolutions shouldn’t be inherently adversarial or self-punitive. “Consider your life and what is realistic for you,” Shane says. “If you’ve spent your whole life hating mornings, it may not be realistic to resolve to get up an hour earlier and read each day. Instead, consider making your goal focused on finding one hour each Saturday to read or to spend the hour before bed each night reading. When you have a goal that fits into your personality and into your life, that’s measurable, and that you’re excited about, you are much more likely to keep the resolution and meet your goal!”
Five Steps You Can Take Right Now
With these tips toward making successful resolutions in mind, here’s a list of five concrete career-oriented goals you can set for yourself and start working toward right now. All five are SMART and basic enough to be achievable—which means you’ll be motivated and ready to move on to even more goals following your accomplishment. Ready to start achieving?
Learn One New Skill
Learning new skills can be overwhelming—and it’s usually not even the learning itself that’s intimidating, it’s figuring out where to start. Rather than feeling pressured to learn “all the things” or worrying about where exactly you’ll stand skill-wise this time next year, ease yourself into it by picking one specific thing.
Do you want to learn a second spoken language? A first coding language? A new software suite? Pick just one thing and dive right in. Give yourself a realistic proficiency goal (“I’d like to learn basic, conversational Spanish”) and a reasonable time frame (“by the end of a conversational Spanish course I’ve been meaning to sign up for”). When you’re done, you’ll realize that not zeroing-in on one specific skill played a big part in holding you back, and now you can move on to the next one.
Handle One Career “Housekeeping” Item
Career housekeeping tasks—physical resumes, LinkedIn profiles, personal websites, online portfolios, etc.—are all pretty simple things to take care of, but—in the midst of your daily workload—they can quickly be cut from the daily to-do’s. Yeah, you know you’re not really going to be able to land a new job without a solid resume, but you just can’t find the hour or two to get it done. And when you add on top of that the other housekeeping tasks you need to get around to, it feels easier to shrug the whole thing off and not do any of them.
Rather than let the weight of all those combined tasks keep you from doing any of them, pick one, then carve out and schedule some dedicated time to get it in order. This is an easy but crucial step on the path to productivity and achievement, so get going!
Make One Career Connection
A consistent piece of career advice I hear when interviewing business professionals is to network—there’s no better way to break into a new career or move forward with your existing one, than through personal connections and the mentorship, advice, and support that comes with them. But this doesn’t mean you have to take on the pressure of joining every relevant organization in your county and travelling to meetups up and down the state. Keep it SMART, and resolve to establish or strengthen one professional connection within a specific timeframe.
If you have an existing connection, now’s the time to finally take them up on that offer of help—set a concrete goal to have lunch by the end of this month. If you’re looking to establish a new connection, give yourself a timeframe of a month or two to seek out local or online networking opportunities, and find potential career mentors.
Read One Career-Related Book
When I first started at Skillcrush, our CEO assigned me two marketing books to read to get me started, and I can’t think of a format that would have worked better to give me the lay of the land. Since then I’ve always meant to read more, but as the titles have stacked up, I’ve convinced myself I just don’t have the time.
Of course—instead of wringing my hands over what I’m not reading—I could jump in and just read one book! So let’s do it—pick one of those career related books you’ve wanted to get to, and start. Give yourself a week, two weeks, a month, or even a few months, so long as you finish that book and remind yourself that it’s always possible to carve out 30, 20, or even 5 minutes at a time to work toward learning more.
Establish One New Productive Habit or Routine
Whenever I hit a nonproductive slump it’s almost always a result of going against the professional advice listed above. I want to be productive, but I’m not defining my terms, I’m not being realistic about what I can achieve, and I’m certainly not being easy on myself. The best way I’ve found to get back on track—and one that syncs with what the pros had to say—is to start cultivating one new productive habit, and letting others grow from there.
This might only add an extra 20 minutes of productive work time to your day, but those few minutes are huge when you feel like you’re falling behind, and it gives you a place to build from. So go ahead and toss the nebulous “I’m going to be more productive” new year’s resolution out with the champagne bottles, and replace it with “I’m going to make x productive habit a part of my day, every day, for the next month.”
Wake up 15 minutes earlier to get a jump on your day, start taking regular five minute breaks every hour to recharge and refocus, add a ten or 20 minute walk to your day to clear your head, spend a half hour a week cleaning your office or dedicate a half hour a day to catching up on correspondence—whatever fits best with your career needs, as long as you’re doing something productive and making it a habitually ingrained part of your daily routine.
Change takes time, but every journey starts with a single step. And remember, the improvements you want to see implemented in your life are totally achievable—it’s really just a matter of planning. Stay SMART and set your new year’s goals with confidence in 2018!