It’s that time of year again: the time to make resolutions for the coming year. I always feel torn about this process: I’m excited by the prospect of getting my life on track, but I’m also anxious when I remember the experience of past years. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably made resolutions that have fallen by the wayside within the first months of the year.
It’s difficult to start something new, and even harder to start many new things at once. Our energy is limited, and our old habits are deeply entrenched. Even when you know that something needs to change, even when you want it to change, there’s still a large and powerful part of you that resists this change.
So how can you make resolutions that will actually stick—not just for a month or two, but for all of 2020 and beyond? There are a lot of techniques out there, but this year I’m going to try taking it one month at a time.
What I mean is pretty simple: I’m going to make a resolution (or two) for each month of the year —or possibly for every quarter—rather than trying to tackle a whole list all at once in January. Here are some of the perks to this approach to resolutions:
01. Sometimes, less is more.
There’s nothing like a 10 step to-do list to make me shut down, especially when it’s dark mid-January and I’m in the post-holidays slump. Starting your year with just a couple of resolutions will help you stay excited about these changes. If you don’t feel overwhelmed, you’ll have more energy and willpower to direct towards that month’s resolution. It’s also much easier to “get back on the horse” when there’s only one horse waiting there rather than a whole bunch of horses (forgive the terrible metaphor, but I think it makes the point!): fail at one thing today, succeed at that same one thing tomorrow. Fail at ten things today, get overwhelmed by the size of your failure and the enormous strength it will take to succeed, and abandon horseback riding altogether.
02. Make it stick.
You give yourself time for habits to “stick” before moving to the next thing. There’s a myth wandering around that it takes only 21 days to form a habit, but this is a misreading of the findings of Dr. Maxwell Maltz back in the 1950s. The study cited in this article suggests that it takes up to 66 days for a new habit to become automatic—that is, done easily and without resistance. If you give yourself a month or two to focus on a new habit, you’re more likely to allow that habit to develop deep roots: it can then go on autopilot the next month or next quarter as you direct your attention to the next new thing, and you can be more confident that, with a little direct maintenance, the new-old habits will stick around.
03. Make it fit.
You can adapt your resolutions to different needs and times in your life. If you think back over the past years, there are probably particular things that became issues—either in a given season or at a particular period in your life. For example, “winter me” always struggles with getting out of bed in the morning, while “summer me” struggles with consistent exercise. Are you facing any large changes this year? A career move? A new city? A new relationship? What do you want to take on (or maintain!) as you make those changes? As you look over your past year and look ahead to the new one, assess where you want to change and pick the appropriate month or quarter of the year in which to do that thing.
04. Take baby steps.
Common New Year’s resolutions generally take the form of “getting in shape,” “living more mindfully,” “making/maintaining friendships,” “being more grateful”—large-scale life-overhauls, so general that it’s almost impossible not to fail at them. If you really want to grow in one of these areas, it’s important to be concrete with your resolutions and to commit to small, achievable goals. If you take the monthly/quarterly approach I’m suggesting, you’ll likely already start breaking down your goals this way, but it’s worth paying particular attention to. If you want to focus on fitness for January, say, commit to an achievable weekly exercise regimen. If you haven’t run in several years, don’t commit to running five days a week—you won’t want to, and you won’t be able to! But committing to running twice a week for the first month (or even three months!) of the year is less daunting and therefore more achievable. If you want to make new friends, resolve to talk to one stranger every week for the first month of a year. To maintain friendships? Call one friend every week. You see where I’m going with this. When your resolutions are incremental, you can start small, build a strong foundation, and achieve larger goals in the long run.
I’m excited to make this month-by-month plan for the first year of this new decade, and I think that by easing into the year you can build up momentum to roar through the 2020s. Happy new month to you!