Most of us suck at developing New Year’s resolution. In fact, about eight in 10 resolutions fail by February. My gosh, how depressing.
A majority of us don’t follow through. Or, something else comes along that we want more and we simply forget (or intentionally neglect). We set lofty goals for ourselves and quickly become overwhelmed.
Let’s face it: Most of us just aren’t good at this.
What resolutions are people making? Statista found that “Save money” is the most popular resolution, by far, followed closely by losing weight. Having more sex, interestingly enough, comes in just ahead of reading more books.
Find more statistics at Statista
Believe it or not, there is a way to ensure we suck just a bit less at resolutions this year.
In this 4-step guide, I show you the exact process that I follow with any goal that I set, including my goal of early retirement.
Your 4-step guide to developing New Years Resolutions that actually, you know, work
Step 1: Reflect before you resolve
I don’t like blindly shooting in the dark. I often miss my target and become frustrated in the process. Worse, I know that it’s pretty much all my fault whenever this happens.
It’s because I have no idea what my target is.
Resolutions work precisely the same way. We aim to achieve a goal over the course of the next year. Naturally, we come up with these goals hoping that they will make our lives better.
But, there’s something that you should do first. Every time.
Smart resolutions come after a period of reflection.
We constantly look toward the future and the new things that we want to do, forgetting to reflect on what worked for us (and what didn’t) in our past.
The more context that we have from the previous 365 days, the better our aim for our new goals.
It is tough for me to establish realistic and achievable goals for the future if I don’t make an effort to examine what worked well for me in the past.
In theory, my wants should fall in line with my needs, and my needs are a direct result of what is working in my life and what isn’t.
Okay, you get the idea.
Reflect on your life over the previous year before deciding on what to aim for in the next.
Possible reflection points include:
- Is money a constant stress point? Why? Are we spending too much or not earning enough?
- Is my career where I want it to be? If not, what can I do to get there?
- Do I feel happy and healthy most days? If not, what is the stressor?
- Did I accomplish my resolutions from last year? If not, why not? Was I just lazy, or were those goals just not the right ones to set?
Step 2: Make them specific
What’s the difference between these two resolutions:
“This year, I want to lose weight and get into shape“, and
“This year, I want to lose 30 pounds and run 5 miles without stopping.”
The difference is simple: One of those goals is almost guaranteed to fail, while the other will set us up for success. I’m sure you can guess what goal is the better one.
“This year, I want to lose 30 pounds and run 5 miles without stopping.”
This is the better goal because it’s specific and measurable. We have hard numbers to aim for and, more importantly, we know when we’ve accomplished that goal.
But wait, something is missing…this goal could be better.
This resolution is missing something super important. Can you tell what it is? Hint: There is no deadline attached to it.
Here, let’s improve this goal by adding something to the end:
“I want to lose 30 pounds and run 5 miles without stopping by March.”
Boom! This is an even better goal because we’ve now incorporated an element of time into the goal. Time is important because, without it, we don’t have that “kick in the pants”.
We need to give ourselves a deadline.
We probably don’t want to let ourselves slack off until the next December, do we? Of course not. We want to achieve our goals earlier in the year, then move on to other goals.
Include the element of time. Every time.
The best goals are specific and measurable. Period.
Examples of specific and measurable goals:
- Bench press 250 pounds by April
- Double my salary before the end of the year
- Move into our dream home before the kids start Kindergarten
- Save $5,000 into an emergency fund by the fifth paycheck
For the record, I’m already assuming that your goals are actually achievable. This should go without saying, but I’ll briefly talk about it here.
Yes, you need to be able to achieve the goal that you set. Earning a million bucks next month probably isn’t achievable for most of us. By, earning $5,000 might be.
Don’t set yourself up for failure with goals that cannot be accomplished.
Step 3: Make sure they solve a problem
There is something super important that keeps us motivated and determined to achieve our goals: Resolutions need to be purpose-driven. In other words, they need to solve a problem.
For example: “I want to buy a Dodge Viper next year“.
Okay, that’s a resolution. It’s specific in that we’re aiming for a Dodge Viper. And, it also includes an element of time. We want that car next year.
But, it’s missing something critical: A problem.
What problem will that car solve? We probably already have a car, so we don’t struggle to get from Point A to Point B. And, if we’re gunning for a Viper, we probably don’t have a problem with earning a large income, either. So, we have money coming in.
What’s the problem?
We tend to lose focus on goals that aren’t rooted in a larger purpose. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll never achieve those goals, or that these goals are automatically “bad”.
It means that we are more likely to achieve purpose-driven resolutions that solve a problem because we feel a vested interest in those resolutions every day.
We experience the problem as we go about life, and the problem reinforces the need to accomplish a resolution that’s designed to solve it.
Now, let’s take a look at another goal:
“I want to move to a warmer climate by May because I hate the cold.”
Better. The problem is cold weather. Each and every time we walk outside during the winter, we’re reinforcing the problem. We’re cold. We don’t like being cold. And even in the summer months, we know that the next winter will be cold again.
The goal solves a problem. Its purpose is to fix our hatred of cold weather by relocating to a warmer climate.
Develop resolutions that solve a problem, not simply a want, to increase the chances that you’ll master it.
Step 4: Give yourself small achievements to “unlock”
We make it tougher on ourselves when we develop big goals without identifying incremental achievements along the way. Our blank gaze down a perpetually long tunnel toward a source of light that never seems to get any closer…
It can seem relentless.
To solve this problem, break down a bigger goal into smaller ones. Heck, financial independence and early retirement is a prime example.
When you’re starting from ground zero, building a couple million in net worth can seem like a daunting task (and it is!). With a goal this big, the dreadfully long time horizon makes it difficult to stay focused.
To keep our eyes on the prize.
This is where incremental achievements help by breaking up bigger goals into smaller ones.
Your goal is to acquire $2 million in 5 years. Great – it’s a worthy goal.
Now, how can we break down this goal?
- Reward yourself after starting a $5k emergency fund or FU fund
- Visit your favorite restaurant after accumulating your first $10,000 in savings
- Give yourself a nice treat after accumulating:
You get the point. Break down large goals into smaller ones, then celebrate those achievements.
The key, of course, is to make those celebrations rare. Pick something that you don’t normally do. After all, going out to your favorite restaurant, if you’re there once a month anyway, probably won’t feel the same as, say, visiting a theme park that you haven’t been to in 5 years. Don’t cheat yourself.
What other pro tips do you have for actually accomplishing New Years Resolutions? Or perhaps a better question: Do you still make them?
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.