Make Goals, Not Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing, and from a personal productivity perspective, they aren’t especially helpful at nudging you to achieve what you want. A better way to kick off the new year, I think, is to write or revise your goals. Here’s how to do it.

1. Write Down Your Goals

Write down your goals. Be specific. What outcomes do you want and by when? If your goals are quite ambitious, break them down into smaller parts.

That advice is tried and true, but a little hackneyed now. A better and fresher tip is:

Write down your goals with the intention of revising them.

Write down something, even if it’s not quite right, even if you’re not sure you want to commit to it, even if it’s a bit unbelievable. You can change it later.

All professional writers know that sometimes you have to write words and ideas that are terrible, and you have to let them sit on the page for a time before you can turn them into something worth reading. If you have zero words on a page, you have zero opportunity to revise them and make something better. If you have something to work with, you can always improve it.

So write down some kind of goal. Try to make it clear and with a measurable outcome, write down a date when you hope to achieve it. And then, don’t hold yourself too accountable. Keep in mind that you can revise the goal an hour from now, or tomorrow, or in six months. Sometimes the awareness that you’re not locked in gives you the leeway you need to aim for what you really want.

2. Put Your Goals Where You’ll See Them

If you’re going to revise your goals at some point, you have to remember that they exist. So put them somewhere you can see them.

I’m not talking about sticking notes onto the refrigerator where everyone in your house can see them (although if that works for you, go for it). It’s too vulnerable, and therefore debilitating, for many people to share their goals with others. However, if you like accountability, by all means share your goals publicly.

Better is to put your goals in a place where you’ll see them nearly every day.

For example, you could put them into a private note on your smartphone, or into a recurring calendar entry that pops open once a month. If you use a to-do list or a note-taking app regularly, those are good places to put them, too. There’s a Chrome extension called Momentum (shown below) that would also be a good place to jot down your goals because the app displays your goals or whatever you want to focus on anytime you open a new browser tab.

Momentum extension for Chrome

When you see your goals often, you’re reminded of them and can ask whether the actions you’re taking today are moving you toward those goals.

3. Create Invigorating Goals (Because Resolutions are Depressing)

The most common New Year’s resolutions are to change habits: lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking. The majority of people never follow through on these habit changes for a number of reasons. For one thing, changing habits is hard. Second, these resolutions don’t offer a lot of opportunities for success. Think about what you have to do or not do to meet those resolutions. To lose weight, you have to be in a constant and active state of losing weight to be considered successful. If you want to exercise “more,” the question becomes more than what? How often must you exercise? What heart rate do you need to hit and for how long? Did I “exercise more” today if I did yard work for 30 minutes? It’s impossible to know when you’re doing it right.

To quit smoking, you’ve failed every time you smoke a cigarette. And that’s depressing! It’s depressing to feel failure every day that you don’t exercise or you do smoke a cigarette.

Failure feels demoralizing. And when you feel demoralized, it can sap you of any energy or resolve to try harder for whatever it is you want to change in your life. In other words, it can create a negative feedback loop.

Goals, conversely, are more usually seen in a more positive light. People don’t beat themselves up for not achieving a goal. Rather, they celebrate the progress they do make. When you have small successes along the way, it can help to reinvigorate you toward reaching the goal. Instead of “exercise more,” try “run a half marathon by June 30.” Each time you hit a new landmark on the way to the half marathon, you’ll have achieved something.

So ask yourself, “Does the path to your goal give you opportunities for success and celebration along the way?” If not, can you revise it accordingly? The more you feel uplifted rather than beat down while on your journey, the more likely you’ll be to stick with it or at least have partial success.


Top image by catd_mitchell, CC.


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