Want to hear something absolutely astonishing? Statistically speaking, 38.5% of U.S. adults make New Year’s Resolutions – but only 9% actually go on to keep them. Roughly 64% surrender after the first month (with so many quitting by the second Friday of the month it’s been dubbed “Quitter’s Day” by some).
There’s another interesting fact hidden in all the New Year’s Resolution stats: The largest group of people who make resolutions are in the 18-34 age range, while those over 55 years of age are more than three times less likely to bother. If age and experience offer lessons in life, then older folks are broadcasting the message loud and clear: Resolutions usually don’t work.
With that in mind, let’s try a new approach: Learning to set goals and make intentional changes is a little more work than making a promise to yourself when the clock strikes Midnight on New Year’s Eve, but the benefits are exponentially higher.
Start by Aiming for a Change in Your Habits, Not the Big Goal
Here’s the biggest problem: People who make New Year’s Resolutions usually aim big and broad. They say, “I want to buy a house,” but they don’t have savings and no idea what their credit report says. They say, “I want to get in shape,” but they don’t define exactly what that means to them. Does that mean seeing the numbers go down on the scale, or do they want to run a marathon next year?
Experts say that it’s fine to have a superordinate goal – that long-term vision you have of seeing your first novel in print or having your first art show – but you need to start on the subordinate goals, first. Those are things like “I will start saving money out of every paycheck and work on improving my credit score,” with the superordinate goal being homeownership. Or, it’s things like, “I will write 1000 words a night on my book until it’s finished,” with the superordinate goal being to publish.
See what happens here? Your “resolution” to buy a house or write a book automatically starts to become about habit setting. You need to get into the habit of paying your bills on time and lowering your debt to improve your credit. Getting into the habit of an evening walk may eventually turn into jogging, but you need to think small right now and set micro-goals for yourself so that you don’t get discouraged or lost on your journey.
Intentional Change Is All About Persistence, Not Perfection
Ever hear the saying that “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly?” This counters the notion that perfection is the only thing that matters.
Unless you have a savant-like skill hiding somewhere, anything you set out to learn, do or change is going to require a lot of practice – and you have days when you’re frustrated and convinced that you’ll never get any better at what you’re trying to do.
The key is to stay in there and keep doing it, and try to learn something about your materials or yourself. That scarf that you knitted may not be straight, but you learned something about how to keep your stitches straight in the process. That tree you painted may not be what you envisioned, but you learned more about how to shade. You are not incapable of doing what you’ve set out to do – you just need more practice. That’s the message you need to repeat.
When You Fail at Your Habit-Setting Goal, Rest and Re-Engage
You may also have days when you’re simply so distracted or tired that you just don’t have the mental or physical capacity to work on that novel or walk on that treadmill after work. Or, you may find yourself absolutely unable to resist that piece of cheesecake with the salted caramel sauce when you’re at your favorite restaurant one night. It’s okay. One night doesn’t undo all your hard work.
Similarly, maybe you made financial goals – and almost immediately got hit with a car repair bill almost as soon as you had some money saved. You know what? That’s okay: That’s exactly why you were saving up in the first place. Try to remember that your savings account was meant to give you some financial security, and it just did its job. Then, dedicate yourself to maybe throwing a little extra back next month.
A lot of folks feel like if they break their routine or “streak,” that they’re never going to form the habits they want – but that’s just not so. If you’ve ever heard that it takes three weeks or 21 days to form a habit, get that notion right out of your head. Studies indicate that behaviors can become automatic habits after as few as 18 days or as long as 254 – so cut yourself some slack. The real trick is to re-engage and get back on track as soon as possible.
Hold Yourself Accountable, but Don’t Be a Harsh Taskmaster
You may have more success (and enjoy forming your new habit more) when you feel like you have a choice. This is another area where intentional goal-setting is better than a resolution. The term “resolution” sounds demanding and unyielding, while “goal-setting” is distinctly more flexible. It acknowledges that the path to the end may not be as straight as imagined.
This is where the conscious choice to occasionally skip a night or break your budget can come in handy, especially if you give yourself advance permission to do so on whatever schedule you feel is reasonable.
If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, give yourself one “free pass” once or twice a month to eat whatever you want without guilt or regret. If you’re trying to improve your guitar skills, give yourself two passes a week so that you can skip your nightly practice to play games with friends, go out or get extra sleep.
You may find yourself embracing your new habit harder, knowing that you can always throw down your free pass and take a break. In essence, this method reinforces the idea that forming new habits is all about conscious choices – every day. And that, quite honestly, is what will make you stick to new goals.