The new year is a great time to think about fresh starts. Yet, as we all know, it’s a lot easier to make resolutions than to turn them into lasting change. Here are ten suggestions for moving from resolutions to results:
1. Remove temptation. There is evidence to suggest that we have a limited supply of willpower at any given time. Each time we resist temptation, we use up a little bit of it. It then becomes harder to exert self-control when future temptations arise. So if you can identify the things that tempt you to break your resolutions (the candy dish on the desk, the cigarettes in your purse, the time-sucking app on your phone) and remove them from your environment, you can save your willpower for the times when you really need it. One other implication of our limited “willpower bank” is that you should not try to take on too many goals at once…pick one at a time to work on.
2. Turn intentions into habits. A habit is a learned pattern of behavior repeated so often that it becomes automatic. As the first step in turning an intention into a habit, decide on a specific time and place for engaging in the desired behavior rather than just saying you will do it. For example, if you want to begin a meditation practice, set a regular time each day, and identify where you will do it. If you want to exercise more regularly, create a schedule of days and times and put them on your calendar. Here is some additional guidance on making habits stick.
3. Set motivating goals. Some goals are intimidating (“I’ll never get there”), while others are highly motivating (“I can’t wait to get there”). To make a goal more motivating, make sure it’s something that’s important to you, rather than doing it to please someone else. Identify a specific target you are working toward (such as running a 5K race, performing at an open mic, or being able to afford a trip you’ve been wanting). Break the goal into manageable parts and focus on one at a time. Take a ridiculously easy step each day.
4. Decide whether to share your goals. I used to think that it was always a good idea to share your goals with others. There are some good reasons to do so. First, it allows others to help and encourage you. You may be surprised how many people have been struggling with some of the same challenges you have, and at the helpful resources they may be able to provide for you. (Yes, some of that helpfulness can be annoying, but just remember that they mean well!) Second, it can help you change your self-image in positive ways. You begin to see yourself as a person who writes, or exercises, or doesn’t smoke, and this, in turn, helps you live up to your aspirations. But there are also some studies that suggest that it may be counterproductive to share your goals–that the satisfaction of telling people you are going to do something actually substitutes for the satisfaction of doing the work of achieving the goal. You’re the only one who can decide when, and how much, sharing will work best for you.
5. Find a partner. The evidence is fairly clear that working out with a buddy leads to better results than going it alone. The benefits include social support, enjoyment, motivation to push harder, and accountability to show up. The same thing is true for many other activities–whether you’re learning a new language, adopting healthier eating habits, or going back to school, you can benefit from finding others who are pursuing similar goals. This could be a one-on-one partnership or a group. You can meet in person or connect online. What’s most important is that you find a goal buddy who can help you achieve your intentions.
6. Build your willpower. Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals. Your willpower is a muscle that can be built, and research suggests that people who have more self-control tend to be happier, healthier, more educated, wealthier, and have better relationships. You build it by using it–by choosing to do things that are beneficial but uncomfortable or unpleasant. For example, it may be easier to leave dirty dishes in the sink, but choosing to wash them and put them away instead is a willpower exercise. Practicing willpower in one area (such as physical activity) spills over into other areas.
7. Track progress. There are two elements to tracking your progress: inputs and outcomes. Tracking inputs means capturing the ongoing activities that are related to your goal. For instance, keeping a food diary is important in many weight-loss programs. Exercisers often keep sheets of weights, sets, reps, miles covered, and related data. Even something as simple as placing a star or check on the calendar each day you engage in your target activity can be helpful in tracking your inputs. Tracking outputs means measuring results. Daily or weekly weigh-ins, courses completed toward a degree, and anything else that can help you see how you are doing at reaching the goals you have set will help you track your outputs. Don’t make it complicated…just decide what to measure and start tracking.
8. Create triggers. A trigger is a reminder to do something. There are many ways to set up automatic reminders. If you want to get up early every morning to exercise, your trigger might be your alarm clock. You could set out a musical instrument you want to practice so it provides a visual reminder, place your journal beside your favorite chair to remind you to write in it, or place an appointment on your calendar that sounds a chime on your phone each day to let you know when it’s time to get up and stretch. You can put a sticky note on your mirror or front door, or ask a friend to send you an email each week to remind you to take a specific action. See what creative triggers you can come up with to keep you moving in the right direction.
9. Use technology. If you have a computer or smart phone, you have lots of tools available to help you achieve your goals. You can use social media sites to find buddies and resources; download apps that will enable you to set triggers, track progress, receive coaching, and share your successes; and find sites that can help you in specific areas. Here’s my own example: I just started using a fitness tracker bracelet. In addition to using it to count my steps and track my sleep, I have set alarms to trigger me to wake up in the morning, move when I’ve been sedentary for an hour, and turn off my technology a couple of hours before bedtime to ensure I get a good night’s sleep. Take a look around and see what will work for you!
10. Celebrate. This list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t include a reminder to appreciate your progress. Make sure you build rewards and reinforcements into the process to keep your energy high and your spirits up. It’s true that the best motivation comes from within, and you don’t want external rewards to become the reason for continuing to pursue your goals, but there are many little ways to do something nice for yourself and acknowledge your efforts.
New Year’s resolutions hold great potential if you can turn them into results. But it’s also important to remember that there is nothing magical about January 1 as a date to begin new things. Your birthday, the summer solstice, or any other day of the year is a fine opportunity to take the first steps toward a goal or a dream. I wish you joy and success as you do so!