The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, some 4,000 years ago. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honour of the new year—though for them the year began not in January but in mid-March, when the crops were planted. During a massive 12-day religious festival known as Akitu, the Babylonians crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the reigning king. They also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. These promises could be considered the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions. If the Babylonians kept to their word, their (pagan) gods would bestow favor on them for the coming year. If not, they would fall out of the gods’ favor—a place no one wanted to be
A similar practice occurred in ancient Rome, after the reform-minded emperor Julius Caesar tinkered with the calendar and established January 1 as the beginning of the new year circa 46 B.C. Named for Janus, the two-faced god whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches, January had special significance for the Romans. Believing that Janus symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future, the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.
For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future. In 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Also known as known as watch night services, they included readings from Scriptures and hymn singing, and served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous celebrations normally held to celebrate the coming of the new year. Now popular within evangelical Protestant churches, especially African American denominations and congregations, watch night services held on New Year’s Eve are often spent praying and making resolutions for the coming year.
Despite the tradition’s religious roots, New Year’s resolutions today are a mostly secular practice. Instead of making promises to the gods, most people make resolutions only to themselves, and focus purely on self-improvement (which may explain why such resolutions seem so hard to follow through on). According to recent research, while as many as 45 percent of Americans say they usually make New Year’s resolutions, only 8 percent are successful in achieving their goals. But that dismal record probably won’t stop people from making resolutions anytime soon—after all, we’ve had about 4,000 years of practice.
The Top Ten New Year's Resolutions
Every year, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions, hoping to spark positive change. The recurring themes each year include a more active approach to health and fitness, improved finances, and learning new things for personal and professional development. Chances are, more than a couple of the top 10 most common resolutions will look familiar to you:
- Exercise more
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Learn a new skill or hobby
- Live life to the fullest
- Save more money / spend less money
- Quit smoking
- Spend more time with family and friends
- Travel more
- Read more
Making your New Year's resolutions happen
Despite the best of intentions, once the glow of a fresh new year wears off, many people struggle to make good on their plans. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 46% of people who made New Year’s resolutions were successful. That means over half of the people who set a goal for the new year will fail!
The study also involved non-resolvers, people who did not make a New Year’s resolution, but had a goal they wanted to achieve that year. Only 4% of non-resolvers were successful at achieving their goals, a far bleaker result than those who did make a New Year’s resolution.
Naturally, we don’t want to be in the camp of folks that fail to achieve their aspirations and dreams for 2021, so we’ve put together an exhaustive plan for following through on your resolution.
If you want to realise your New Year’s resolution this year, follow these 10 steps:
1. Mentally prepare for change
Changing ingrained habits is no easy task, so before diving head-first into your New Year goals, it is important to take a step back and get ready for that impending change.
The first breakthrough in change is taking a personal inventory. Being that it’s the end of one year and the beginning of the next; it’s perfect timing to take stock in the past year’s accomplishments. Think about the following:
- What did I set out to do in the past year?
- Where did I make progress?
- Where didn’t I see progress?
Naturally, your resolution may focus on areas that lack progress, but don’t forget to savor the progress made, and find some small way to celebrate. Those happy feelings are useful! If possible, try to associate them with an object or word related to your accomplishment.
You will want to keep upbeat with your new resolution, so you can use that positive association with last year’s accomplishments to remind you of those good feelings when you are feeling challenged.
As you start thinking about the changes you want to implement, make sure to do the following:
- Stay positive
- Try not to make big/quick changes
- Change should be gradual
- Build on smaller changes
- Allow a little room for error
2. Set a goal that motivates you
You would be surprised how often people set goals that are not for themselves. These goals could be dictated or coerced by a manager, spouse, or parental / peer pressure.
While it’s nice to have some external support, if you don’t share the same passion, the resolution has a small chance of succeeding and could even be dead on arrival.
To do this, you need to make sure the goal you set is important to you and only you and that there is value or benefit for you in achieving the goal. It is these two things that will provide the reason and willingness to take action. This is also known as motivation!
Thus, it’s a safe bet if your resolutions align with the following:
- Your goals
- Your priorities
- Your dreams
- Your aspirations
Not only should you align around your inner-most desires, but you should also make sure the resolutions align around your top priorities. This will lead to a “must do” attitude.
3. Limit resolutions to a manageable amount
A common mistake in resolution setting is having too many and spreading yourself too thin. We all want to learn 25 different languages, 15 new job skills, and eliminate 5 bad habits, but we are not superheroes. We only have so much attention span we can dedicate to self-improvement, so having too many resolutions is a great way not to achieve the many goals you have set out for yourself.
Thus, you should make a short list of resolutions that you can manage in the upcoming year. Knowing that short list of priorities is the hard part. The key here is understanding how to prioritize.
Here is an exercise that you can undertake to help you figure out what is most important in your life. All you need is a post-it pad, a pen, and a wall.
- Write anything you want to accomplish for self-improvement purposes on a post-it
- Each post-it only gets one discreet tactic
- Place each post-it on the wall
- Go crazy - use as many post-its as possible
- Group together similar post-its
- Place the topics you feel strongly about at the top of the wall
- Put the topics you feel “meh” about on the bottom
- Spend a lot of time thinking about the order of the first 3-5 post-it (groups)
As you might suspect, #8 is the most time-consuming, because it will determine what resolutions you are going to take on this year.
The final piece of the puzzle here is knowing your limitations and personal bandwidth. With that in mind, you should focus on your top priorities while balancing how much attention you can honestly devote to a resolution.
Final thought: It’s better to tackle one resolution well than multiple resolutions poorly.
4. Be specific
When it comes to setting resolutions, it’s easy to set bad goals that could lead to poor follow through. Fortunately, SMART goal setting framework can help you craft better goals.
SMART goals are:
- Specific - Articulate the resolution as clearly as possible. For example, quitting smoking is better than being healthy. While “being healthy” is great, the wording can be interpreted in many ways.
- Measurable - Quantify your resolution if possible, i.e. I will lose 10% of my body weight.
- Attainable - Choose a goal within the realm of possibility, but yet challenging. Making 100 friends this year would be amazing, but probably pretty hard to do. On the other, making 10 new friends is doable.
- Relevant - Keep it relevant to your priorities and goals. See motivation section above!
- Time-sensitive - Give yourself a time-frame in which to achieve a goal. A deadline will instill some urgency and provide a time when you can celebrate your success.
5. Break up big goals into smaller goals
A lot of us tend to be over eager and grandiose when it comes to resolutions. We have the best of intentions and may accidentally take on a goal that is too big to achieve. Thus, it’s helpful to divide a big goal into smaller goals that are more achievable.
Let’s say you are the leader of an alien race, and your resolution for 2021 is capturing the planet Earth. That is a huge goal!! You can’t just tell your intergalactic fleet of spaceships “take over planet Earth” and expect success.
You have to chunk up this big crazy feat into smaller more management accomplishments:
- Claim New York City
- Sack the Tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut
- Dominate Eastern Seaboard
- Capture the United States of America
- Occupy North America
Similarly, you can break up your year-long resolution into weekly or monthly goals. And have tasks planned for each month.
- January: North America
- March: South America
- May: European
- July: Asia
- September: Africa
By breaking your tactical plan into discrete steps, you now have a pretty good chance of world domination by the end of the year.
Now chunking up a big goal is easier said than done. Here are a few tips to help you make your massive goal more achievable:
- Create a list of sub-tasks
- Prioritize and order them
- Use a visual map to display
- Assign milestones to each task
- Decide how much time each task requires
- Allocate resources accordingly
- Focus on the next step, not the big goal
6. Write down your goals
While it’s great to have goals, it is critical to document them in some way. Here are six reasons to write down your goals:
- They are easy to forget. While that may seem silly, we are human, and it is human to be easily distracted and forgetful.
- Writing down your resolutions helps you clarify what it is you want to achieve. It forces you to make decisions and be precise with your words.
- Writing establishes intention, but action needs to be taken to achieve your resolution. Having a written account of your goals is a constant reminder to take action.
- Written goals can act as a filter and guiding light for what opportunities to pursue. On any given day, there are a million decisions to make. When in doubt, refer to the goals you have set to dictate the way forward.
- Documented goals will help you overcome resistance to progress. We set goals to move forward, but there is a natural resistance to change. Your written goals spur you forward when you hit a speed bump or obstacle.
- Finally, written goals are a reminder of how far you have come and what you have achieved. It’s a nice feeling to look at back at the end of next year, and know your resolution has come to fruition. It’s a reason to crack open that bottle of champagne and celebrate.
Here are a few ways you can document your resolutions for 2021:
- Write them in a journal
- Draft an email to yourself
- Store in Evernote or some other note-taking tool
- Print and tape to the wall
7. Share your resolutions with others
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
It’s great to make a resolution for yourself and maybe even write it down, but if no one else knows about it, it’s easy to forget about or even ignore. And when you don’t achieve it, no one will notice or care.
On the flip side, your counterparts who decided to tell someone about their goal, feel something different. Now that they’ve gone public with their goal, they feel a sense of obligation and accountability. Essentially, if you don’t follow through, they are going to let everyone down.
Crazy as it sounds, this sense of guilt is often more powerful than self-motivation. The upshot here is that when you do succeed, the people you shared with will celebrate with you!
If you want to take goal sharing to the next level, you could organize a mastermind group. A mastermind group is a collection of highly motivated people who share a common goal and are looking to encourage and help each other improve.
How to do it:
- Find some kindred spirits with similar goals
- Meet regularly (weekly or monthly depending on level of commitment)
- Share setbacks and progress
- Stay motivated!
Now if you don’t have the time or inclination to do the above, another way to achieve the same result is to make a Facebook post declaring your intentions to all your friends. You can bet people will cheer you on and ask about your progress over the course of the year!
8. Automate where possible
A stitch in time saves nine.
The good news is you probably have technology in your pocket that can help you follow through on your resolution - automation in the form of reminder apps.
Nowadays there are a million different apps and services to help you follow through on your resolutions. These free tools can help provide a constant reminder:
- Google Calendar: Set a recurring meeting tied to your resolution, i.e. scheduling workout sessions at the gym.
- Google Now: Personal assistant that provides information as you need it.
- Reminders (on iOS): Set up timed alerts for tasks.
- Boomerang for Gmail: Schedule reminder emails to yourself (Freemium).
On top of these commonly used apps, there are also “to-do list” and task management apps that have the ability to schedule reminders and milestones. Here are a few popular choices:
Note: All of these apps listed above won’t help you do the work, but they do serve a constant reminder of the work that needs to be done.
9. Review your resolution regularly
Let’s face it, if you are not thinking about your resolution regularly, you are not going to follow through. Thus, a crucial part of realizing your goal is a regular review.
At a minimum, this review should be monthly, but the more frequent the better.
Here’s one way to build in goal review into your routine.
- Schedule a monthly “big picture” review during the first week of each month. This will serve as a planning meeting where you distribute smaller tasks and goals to different weeks throughout the month.
- Do a weekly check-in to check progress on the monthly goal.
- Set a daily reminder for smaller resolution tasks.
It may seem a little crazy to think about your resolution every single day, but it is those smaller incremental steps that lead to massive changes over the course of a single year.
10. If you fall off track, get back on quick
Rome was not built in a day.
We’ve established it will take time for your resolution to become a reality and we know change is difficult. In fact, we’ve already established we should leave some room for mistakes and setbacks.
Keep the following ideas in mind:
- Skipping an intermediate task is not a complete failure
- Missing a goal by 10% or even 80% is not a complete failure
- Finishing a task late is not a complete failure
- A moment of weakness is meaningless in the grand scheme of things
Setbacks can happen, but so long as they are handled correctly, they will not impact the big goal. The key is to avoid a defeatist attitude at all costs, i.e. “Well I screwed up once, why should I even try to do this anymore.”
And if there is a setback, it’s important to understand what lead to that moment, and how you can avoid a similar situation in the future, i.e. "If I play video games after work, I will not go to the gym. Don’t play video games after work!"
Once a mistake is made, own it and move on to the next thing. For example, if you skipped a study session, make it up tomorrow, and keep on moving. A few small mistakes shouldn’t spoil your resolution for the year!