How to Win at New Years Resolutions

I am a big believer in New Years resolutions. I am also into birthday resolutions, Rosh Hashana resolutions, and summer resolutions: basically I will take any opportunity to try to be a better person.

For 2008 I resolved to get more sleep. For 2009 I resolved to make my writing more of a priority. For 2011 I resolved to get in shape. For 2012 I resolved to be more charitable. For 2013 I resolved to cook for myself. For 2014 I resolved to do something about my anxiety. Not only did I take steps toward all these goals in the years that I resolved them, but I have continued to work on all of them ever since then.

A successful self-improvement regimen takes discipline and willpower, but it also requires a smart approach. Here’s what I think about when crafting resolutions:

1) Operationalize it. This is my best piece of advice and I am very serious about it. Always ask yourself HOW? HOW am I going to achieve this goal? What is my PLAN for putting it into action? It’s all well and good to say “I’m going to be more productive at work” or “I’m going to be more respectful to my parents.” But those are not good plans, they are merely good intentions. And the minute your focus wavers, your intentions get away from you. You need to create measurable, achievable steps. I didn’t say, “I’m going to get more sleep”: I said, “I’m setting an alarm for 11:30pm every night and when it goes off, I will drop whatever I am doing and go to bed.” I didn’t say, “I’m going to prioritize my writing”: I said, “I’m going to set aside one night every week to come straight home from work and write.” Every day, or every week, I could look back over it and see whether I had done my plan or not.

2) Be realistic. If every meal you currently eat is takeout, or crackers and peanut butter, or Annie’s mac and cheese, you are not overnight going to turn into a person who cooks for yourself seven nights a week. And if you resolve to turn into that person, you will find it impossible, and you will feel overwhelmed and give up. Set a goal you are capable of achieving so that you don’t set yourself up for failure and quitting. For my “cooking for myself” resolution, I created a google doc listing meals I’d cooked, and my goal was to add to the list at least twice a month, so by the end of the year I’d have 25 meals I had made. Maybe I ate cereal for the other 340 days that year, but it was a start–and it gave me the foundation to do even better the next year.

3) There’s no time limit on becoming the person you want to be. If you don’t actually join that gym in January, do it in February. If February gets away from you, do it in March. I didn’t get around to my 2014 resolution until October, because at that point I was like, “Shit, this year is almost over, and I haven’t yet fulfilled the promise I made to myself.” So I did it then, still got it in before 2015: it still counts.

4) Prioritize yourself. A commitment that you make to yourself is every bit as meaningful and binding as a commitment you make to someone else. You wouldn’t cancel dinner plans with a friend because at the last minute you were kind of tired and didn’t really feel like going out in the rain, so you sure as hell can’t cancel on your own plans to go to the gym or write 500 words. To make it easier to hold yourself to your promises, make a list of every time you do the thing you’re supposed to do, or a calendar where you give yourself a star sticker for every day you do it. In 2012 I made a list of every month of the year and then wrote in which charity I donated to each time. I put an appointment in my calendar for each month: “Give to April charity.” An appointment is a real thing, and you can’t ignore it–even if the appointment is with no one but yourself.

5) Doing something is better than doing nothing. Every soda you don’t drink, every cigarette you don’t smoke, every day you do go for a run, every email you do respond to quickly–give yourself credit for every one of those. Yes, there will still be the soda you DID drink, the day you DIDN’T go for a run, the email that’s been languishing in your inbox for four months, but so what? It’s fine if you don’t get all the way to the person you want to be. All that matters is that you’re taking steps in that direction.

That’s basically it. At the end of the day: have a plan. Put it in your calendar. Do what your calendar tells you to do. Trust the strategies you laid out for yourself more than you listen to whatever it is you “feel like” doing when the actual moment comes. 2016, let’s do this.