For many of us, 2017 was a mixed bag at best and a blasted hellscape at worst. But that’s over. Now it’s 2018 and if you’re like me, you’re blinking, bleary-eyed and hung-over into the dawn of a new year and wondering… what next?
Well, if you’re like many people, you’re thinking about your New Years resolutions. After all, what is a new year except a reason to look at the previous year and wonder how we can do better.
Now, I’m firmly on the record as being a “New Years Resolutions are awful” guy. It’s a cliche that they’re just invitations to failure and disappointment. After all, do we really need another list of reminders of things we’ve continued to fail at to nag at our souls?
But I am nothing if not an optimist and – as arbitrary as it is – the beginning of a new year is as good a time to want to make a change. But if you want to make your new year amazing, then the last thing you want to do is sabotage your resolutions before you can really begin them. So here are the 5 key steps to making this a happy – and amazing – new year and new you.
1) Pick One Thing To Work On
First things first: you don’t want to sabotage your New Year’s resolution before you even begin. One of the reasons why all those “New Year, New You” plans turns into a giant failure pile is because people tend to be overly ambitious. There’s that completely understandable impulse to want to fix all the things, without stopping to think about what that means. We simply get caught up in the idea of our Future Selves, where everything has worked out. After all, who doesn’t want to get six-pack abs, quit smoking and get your finances under control?
We want it all, and we want it yesterday. And while our Future Self may be that sexy genius bastard we long to be, we tend to forget we need to actually, y’know. Get there. And having too many goals and destinations means that you’re far less likely to achieve any of them. After all, you only have so much time, so much attention and so much willpower – and most of it is already taken up by your day to day life. There are only so many hours in the day after all. Loading up goal after goal means other things have to give way. This is how you end up with empty gyms in February and in-home treadmills that’re serving as awkward coatracks.
While you may want everything, chasing after all of it is a great way to not get any of it. Instead, you want to focus on one goal at a time and give it the benefit of your full attention. And this doesn’t mean picking one overly-broad goal – that can be just as paralyzing as too many goals. You want to pick something that’s in that sweet spot of being specific enough to focus your attention on but has a broad application to your overall goals. Think of it as taking advantage of the cascading effects. Quitting smoking, for example, will go a long way towards improving your overall fitness. Getting your finances under control means that you’ll be in a better position to travel more or to put money towards your side-hustle.
Don’t worry if your resolution isn’t the sexiest or the coolest. Think of it as simply laying the foundation for that new you.
Got your goal in mind? Great. Here’s your next step:
2) Make A Plan
One of the reasons why ambition falls apart is because it’s easy to say “It’d be great to do X”, but it’s a lot harder to accomplish it. One of the things that trips people up is that they may know what they want, but they don’t know how to do it. They see the starting line and the finish line and a whole lot of nothing in the middle.
Not knowing what you’re doing means that you’re far more likely to get frustrated and quit. You’ve been hitting the gym for a month and all you have to show for it are sore muscles and no killer lats. You started your YouTube channel and have no subscribers. You wanted to improve your social skills and now you’re more anxious and confused than you were before.
As much as we all like to think that we’re rugged polymaths worthy of a Heinlein novel, experts in whatever we choose to turn our minds to, the fact of the matter is that most of us have a lot of intention and very little practical knowledge. The fact that you know where you want to go doesn’t mean that you know how to get there. Just as you wouldn’t try to drive cross-country without directions and a map, you don’t want to try to achieve your goals with only good intentions and pluck. You need more than a hand-wave in the direction of where you need to go and the half-remembered tales of others who’ve tried before you. You want an actual, step-by-step plan – and with assistance from somebody who knows what they’re talking about if possible.
So do your research before you dive in head first. If you want to eat better, don’t just load up on kale at the grocery store and call it a day. Look up recipes that match up with your overall goal, make meal plans and figure out how you’ll work around issues like eating when you travel or at restaurants. If you want to get fit, then talk to a trainer or follow a plan like Couch-to-5K. If you want to improve your social skills, pick up a guide or talk to a coach ((Here endeth the plug)). Having a plan cuts down on that overwhelming feeling of “what the hell do I do,” and gives you milestones to look for so you can recognize the progress you’re making.
Just be careful not to mistake doing research and making plans for actually doing something. It’s really easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re making progress by going into a planning spiral without actually following the plan.
But while we’re on the topic:
3) Plan For Failure
Part of what makes self-improvement a daunting beast is that we forget to plan for failure. One of the ways we demoralize ourselves, especially when it comes to our own progress, is that we treat failure as an absolute. If we don’t accomplish the thing perfectly on the first try, then it’s all over. We hit those roadblocks and setbacks and lose all of our motivation. We throw our hands up in the air, say “Fuck everything!” and go back to the old, familiar ways.
It’s a completely understandable feeling; we’re so emotionally invested in the outcome that any bump in the road feels catastrophic. You start off in your groove, feeling like you’ve got this and then… boom, one setback means all that progress goes out the window.
But here’s the thing: failure is to be expected. You’re doing something new and different. In many ways, you’re forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and trying something that goes against the habits of a lifetime. Your brain will actively fight you on the things you’re trying to change. Yeah, you know intellectually that you want things to be different, but our brains hate change. Change takes effort and energy, and the old routine is familiar and efficient.
So yes: you’re going to fail. You’re going to have setbacks. And that’s fine. You just need to remember to make allowances for them, to keep those failures from disrupting the whole process.
Some of this is in the framing of your goal. Give yourself wiggle-room and understanding within what you hope to achieve. Say “I will face the frustration of trying to build my new business” instead of “I’ll launch my new startup”. “I will exercise three times a week, even if it’s just for 20 minutes” instead of “I’ll hit the gym every day”. The more you can build in forgiveness and the understanding that you aren’t going to be perfect, the easier it is to maintain those resolutions.
Some of it is working in pressure valves – a cheat day on your diet, a day off from your workout. Not everybody can go full-tilt boogie at all times. Giving yourself a break occasionally makes it easier to stick to your guns when you need to.
But much of it is simply accepting that you’re going to have setbacks. Improvement is hard. You are going to give in to the siren call of that pizza slice. You’re going to have days when your desire for a cigarette is going to overwhelm you. You’ll have days when you say “screw it” and sleep in instead of going for your 6 AM jog. This is all fine. Just recognize that failure is momentary, not permanent.
You may have backslid today, but that just means that tomorrow is another opportunity to start again. DOING
Don’t forget: failing at something doesn’t mean that you have failed. Failure is a critical step on the path to success. Failure, as frustrating as it may be, is part of how you learn.
4) Write It All Down
Having plans is all well and good, but they don’t do anything for you if you let them slip away. It’s amazing how quickly those goals for the new year can fade away like a dream upon waking. For a few hours, you’re full of motivation and good intentions. But before long, you realize that it’s starting to get away from you. Before you know it, you can only just remember the vague feeling of having had it in the first place.
While you’re making your plans, you want to make sure that you don’t just leave them in your head. It’s incredibly easy to let your plans slip because they just don’t feel real. They’re ephemera, not anything concrete.
This is why you want to actually write your plans out. And I mean write it out. Like, by hand, not just a Google doc or a note on your phone. Writing out your plans by hand engages entirely different parts of your brain than typing. Typing is, in many ways, relatively ephemeral. On the other hand, the combination of the gestures of writing, the visualization of what you’re writing and the cognitive engagement means that what you write feels more concrete. And because we write slower than we type, you force your brain to slow down and really engage with what you’re writing. This anchors it more firmly in your mind, while a typed list can vanish like dust in the wind.
However, you don’t want to just stop with writing out your plans. You also want to keep track of your results – again, by hand. The style of these records may vary according to your goals and your personality. Some people swear by bullet journaling. Some keep their records like double-entry book-keeping. Still others keep a journal, recording their thoughts, their feelings and experiences. Not only does this follow the rule of “if it can be measured, it can be managed”, but it also gives you a sense of control. Whether you’re writing down raw numbers or your thoughts, your new year’s journal helps give you a concrete example of your progress and your ability to improve.
Keeping a daily update of your progress helps keep those goals present in your mind – not just on the first month, but for the whole of the new year. The more you have to actively engage with them, the less likely you are to let them slide.
But there’s one more thing you need to make your new year a success:
5) Find The Things That Keep You Motivated
The most important part of achieving your goals in the new year is very simple: you need something that will give you the drive to keep going. The hardest part of any new self-improvement regimen isn’t the beginning, it’s the middle. Beginnings are easy. You’re still fresh and full of energy and potential. Everything is fresh and new. It’s the middle where you hit the slog. Those changes are easy at first; that initial burst of excitement will help you blow past the inconvenience and awkwardness of it all. But that stage fades. By the time you’re a month in, you’re going to find it to be a slog. It won’t be as fun any more, especially when the results aren’t coming as quickly as you hoped. Now you’re in danger of gassing out and giving up on your resolutions entirely.
Unless, that is, you can keep your motivation going.
Everyone has a different way of staying motivated. Some people find a partner to work with, someone who’ll encourage them, cheer them on and hold them accountable. One of the reasons why wingmen and women help in dating, for example, is that they’re your backup. You have someone who’s firmly in your corner, to push you to get back out there when your confidence is flagging and help you get over the obstacles in your way. Exercise buddies make running and hitting the gym less of a solo chore and more of a social experience.
Others choose the path of public accountability. By declaring your intentions in a public space, you’ve made it harder to “forget” your resolutions. People know what you’re planning, and they’re going to want to know how it’s all coming. Knowing that other people are paying attention – even if it’s just idle curiosity – can have the effect of spurring you on. Now if you slack off, you’re going to have to own it, in public.
Still others choose the “Carrot or the stick” method. For some, it’s positive reinforcement – get to this milestone and you reward yourself. Achieve this goal by the end of the new year and you get… something. For others, it’s negative reinforcement. After all, you can always just give yourself the reward, whether you achieve your goal or not. But if your failure means that you give $100 in donations to, say, the Donald Trump re-election campaign, you may find yourself getting your second wind far easier than you would otherwise.
At the end of the day, how you motivate yourself doesn’t matter as long as it’s something that works for you. It can be any random thing just so long as it’s that x-factor that means that when you’re down for the count, you can find the inner strength to push just a little harder. To stay in the fight just a little longer.
And when you’ve reached your goal? Then it’s time to pick your next goal. As I said: a new year is an arbitrary time; you can start working on yourself at any time you choose. Self-improvement is a continuous process. If you can’t start at the beginning of the new year, then begin when you’re ready. When you start isn’t as important as the fact that you have started.
Make sure you keep these steps in mind though and it doesn’t matter when you start; you’ll start having success before you even realize it.
And hey, just from me to you: