I’ve never made a New Year’s Resolution that I kept.
That is, until last year.
In 2012, I resolved to run a marathon. And on July 27, 2012, I fulfilled my resolution at the 24-hour Around the Lake Marathon in Wakefield, MA.
Running a marathon and not dying along the way was a huge achievement, but it was a small drop in the bucket, relatively speaking, when I think back to all the lofty resolutions I’ve made over the years. So what made the difference? Why was I able to keep that resolution, when I couldn’t keep any of the others?
More importantly, how can YOU make and keep a resolution this year? For some of you, it might be the first resolution you’ve ever kept, but you can do it. Here’s how.
5. Don’t make a daily promise—build in wiggle room.
During 2014, you’re going to meet challenges. I was in a fairly serious car accident in February of 2012, a mere 8 weeks or so after I resolved to begin my marathon training plan, and I had to take a few weeks off from the track. You, too, will have days or even weeks where you need to put the resolution on hold.
Whether it’s “write 1,000 words every day” or “finish two novels this year,” you need to give yourself space to let life happen every so often, without getting frustrated and down on yourself because you’re “breaking the chain” or “being lazy.” My suggestion is to deliberately add “off” days, wiggle room, and permission to slack off every now and then. Otherwise, you’re headed for burnout, frustration, or both—and that’s toxic to keeping your resolutions. (Consider writing it down on paper, even! Try, “I will write 1,000 words a day on most days, and if on some days I’m too busy to sit in the chair, or too drained to squeak out more than a few sentences, that’s OK, too.”)
Takeaway: Don’t make a daily promise right from the beginning. The daily habit should be your goal, not your means to the goal.
4. Set one major objective.
My New Year’s resolutions used to look like a laundry list of wishes for the self-help genie. I’d resolve to finally lose the last 10 pounds, quit biting my nails, run every single day, make it through the Bible in a single year, you know the drill. After about three days of living this new, impossible life, my self-imposed “good habits” would fall away like old Band-Aids. I’d be right back to where I started with an extra measure of frustration and disappointment thrown in.
But in 2012, when I decided to run the marathon, it was different. So keenly aware was I that running a marathon is a capital-c Commitment, that I set no other goals for myself. My nails can stay spatulate and short for another year. That kind of thing. I had the laser-focus of having to do only that one thing to keep me focused. It was just enough to motivate me without overwhelming me.
Try this: Set one goal. (And I don’t mean “get a six-figure book advance,” which is really a grand culmination of tinier goals that include “writing the damn book.”) Start at square one. I’m going to finish my nonfiction book this year.
I’m going to win my first regular freelance client.
I’m going to finish NaNo this year if it kills me.
Whatever your goal, make that your number-one focus. And let the rest of your life just be, unchanged and un-self-helped, until you’ve gotten a good grip on That One Thing.
3. Set a minimum goal and a stretch goal.
When businesses build out their yearly strategic plans, they decide on their objective (like you just did in step 4), such as “Increase customer visits in 2014.” Then, they set minimum goal, like “Increase by 10%” and a stretch goal, like “Increase by 35%.” Try this when you make your New Year’s resolution, and target your actual goal somewhere in the middle of this range.
For example, if I said I wanted to complete two novels and three literary essays this year, my minimum goal would say, “one novel, two literary essays.” My stretch goal would say, “two novels, three literary essays, two short stories for anthologies, and a nonfiction manuscript.”
Your minimum goal helps motivate you when you fall behind; your stretch goal gives you something to shoot for when everything’s humming along nicely. One fights frustration; the other fights complacency. Think of them like bumper bars on the lane at a kid’s bowling party. When you use them, you’re guaranteed to knock down at least a few pins.
2. Invest in some serious rewards.
I timed my marathon right before a vacation we took. It was a beach vacation. Part of my payoff for finishing a marathon was liking how I looked on the beach.
But there were other rewards I built in along the way. In March of 2012, I invested in a really nice pair of running shoes to replace the tired old ones that had seen a few too many miles.
In June of 2012 I went to an athletic store specifically for a great running outfit I could comfortably wear at the race. And so forth. You get the idea.
Likewise, build in rewards for your hard work, and build them in early (like, right now). Anticipating finishing your latest first draft around April or so? Buy yourself a gift certificate for a massage now to celebrate the future milestone (don’t use it ’til you hit the milestone, obviously). Planning on finishing a marathon this year, or even your first 5k? Once you’re in the running groove, find a pair of the most ridiculously colored running shoes you can (so you get excited every time you look down at your feet).
My point is: Put your time and treasure behind building in a few rewards for yourself.
1. Refuse to change your mind.
I don’t know about you, but the moment I resolve to do something, I suddenly become an expert in all the reasons why I won’t be able to accomplish my goal. When I signed up for the marathon, this was the first thought I had after I clicked “Submit” on my race reservation:
But you’re going to get shin splints. You always do. You could give yourself a hairline fracture. Why are you even bothering? Remember that bout with runner’s knee last year? You’re going to aggravate that injury on your first long run.
Does that kind of pessimistic nattering sound familiar?
The thought underneath it is always the same. Like the drum beat of the distant but supremely irritating bass system in a teenager’s car, your nervous mind will repeat: I’ll fail. I’ll fail. I’ll fail. What happens when I fail?
But you won’t. If you build your resolution smartly, using these tips and others that you glean from the Internet, you have every single tool you need to achieve a goal.
I don’t mean to sound like some kind of blogging bumper sticker, but it’s true. As long as you haven’t picked an outlandish goal, like, “Spontaneously grow unicorn horn,” you’re going to achieve your goal. All you have to do is decide to do it, and refuse to change your mind..
What about you? What are your resolutions (if you’re the resolving type) for 2014? What strategies are you using to get it done? Share them in the comments.