It’s hard to believe another 365 days have come and gone, the past year feeling like a blur and quickly becoming no more than a series of fading memories.

While I find value in keeping the shortness of life in perspective, I also try to not dwell on the passing moments but to focus on what I can do in the time that I have ahead of me. As such, one thing that I do appreciate about a new year is that it always gives a chance to reflect on the past year lived and plan ahead for the coming one.

One thing that these reflections can lead to are new years resolutions.

Did you make any this year?

If you did, how are you doing with them as the year comes to a close?

I know for me while I have made many in the past, I have always struggled to actually maintain them and have them impact my life for the long term.

My typical pattern is an initial few weeks of consistency, followed by another couple weeks of inconsistency, which ultimately ended in the abandonment of the resolution.

I don’t think mine is an atypical experience. A common experience with new years resolutions tends to be that they start off with the best intentions, but they just don’t last.

In my own life I have wrestled with this desire for self improvement yet dissatisfaction with new years resolutions as a way to achieve positive and long-term change. Through this process I have gradually come to some helpful realizations which have made all the difference for me.

These realizations have caused me to re-evaluate how I approach self improvement and personal development. While they may not be a univeral remedy for the problem, I hope the following observations will at least be helpful for you as well.

My Problem with Resolutions

From my own personal experience, I think the problem hasn’t been resolutions as such, but rather the fact that my resolutions tended to be vague and broad sweeping in their scope.

In other words, I didn’t think through and establish a specific plan as to how I would implement the resolution. I would simply make some bold and decisive change such as

  • “cut out all sugar”,
  • “lose 10 pounds”,
  • “write all code using a test-first approach”,
  • “keep a daily journal”,
  • etc…

January 1st would come and I would start cutting out all sugar and it would go okay for a while, but it wouldn’t take long before such a drastic and difficult to maintain change would unravel and I would end up back at square one.

Now, it’s probably somewhat an issue of semantics, but what has helped me is to stop thinking in terms of resolutions but to rather think in terms of goal setting. So instead of a vague resolution such as “lose 10 pounds”, I would rather set a goal such as “run a 10K”.

And here is the key…

I wouldn’t just set the goal and leave it but I would make a specific plan as to how to accomplish it.

In this example I would find a local 10K race for the spring, register in the race and then build a training plan that would get me ready for the race. It just so happens that by training for a 10K, I’d probably lose a few pounds along the way, maybe even more than 10!

The difference is that now I have something tangible and attainable, a specific goal that is doable and I can not only work towards it but know when I’ve completed it.

I basically quit making New Years Resolutions several years ago and instead I simply do the following throughout the year:

  • Set realistic & attainable goals for things I want to accomplish or change in my life
  • Pick a target date by which the goal will be “complete” (however I want to define it)
  • Make a detailed plan as to how I will meet the goal by the chosen date
  • Review regularly, update targets and plan as needed

Setting Attainable Goals

I think the key to this approach is knowing how to set good goals. One set of criteria that I have found helpful when making and reviewing goals is the SMARTER goals criteria. The SMARTER criteria is a handy mnemonic that comes from the world of project management and stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely
  • Evaluate
  • Reevaluate

As much as I like the SMARTER criteria you can keep it simpler than that. Do what works for you, that’s the most important thing. I think the key is to start small and win little victories, building confidence before taking on larger goals.

This is the approach I’ve taken over the past several years and I can’t tell you the incredible difference it has made in my life.

Don’t wait for January

Another helpful tip is to not wait for January 1st to set new goals. I think the new year is a good time to review all the goals from the previous year and either revise them or set new ones. But this is a practice that I like to do much more regularly. Typically on a weekly basis.

I like to use Sunday evenings as a time to review my past week and plan for the week ahead and I find it also is a good time to briefly review my longer term goals. Basically I determine if I’m falling behind and if I need to change anything to keep them on track.

Maybe new goals will come to mind as well and so I’ll add them to my list and start to work on a plan for accomplishing them. If you don’t want to commit to a weekly review then at least monthly is a good idea.

Reflecting back and looking forward

Thanks to this approach, in reflecting back on this past year of 2016 I can point to specific goals that I was able to accomplish.

One of my primary goals in 2016 was to run in a 10K race. I’ve always been a casual runner but I wanted to take it up a notch this year and set some specific targets in my running.

And so back in January I registered for a 10K that was to take place in June, plenty of time to train up and be in good shape for the race.

Despite dealing with some minor injuries due to running too much too soon, I got in the training and the race was a wonderful and rewarding event.

Raising the bar…

After the race I enjoyed it so much that I ended up registering for a second 10K in October and continued my training throughout the year. The second run was even better and I improved my time by several minutes.

Now with 2017 on the horizon I’m looking increase my running goals further and so I have registered for a 10K in February and then a Half Marathon in April. I’ve never run a half marathon before and so it’s a bit intimidating but with a specific target and a plan, it now becomes attainable.

Pay your money and put it on your calender

The key for each of these races is that I have already got a date on the calendar and I’ve paid money to register for each one. Paying money for something is a way I’ve found that makes sure that I have skin in the game, it greatly increases my level of commitment. In addition for each of the races I’ve got training plans and I’m working through those on a daily basis, ensuring I stay on track.

This process of setting attainable goals and then crafting a plan to make them a reality has been life changing for me. If it is something that you’ve never done and yet you’ve got a list of failed resolutions it is something you might want to consider. If you do end trying out the exercise be sure to let me know and we can encourage each other along.