A new year is coming, and for many people that means it’s time to make a list of resolutions. I used to be one of these folks, carefully cataloging the faults I’d like to fix every winter. Not anymore.

It’s not that I’m perfect — as my wife would attest, I’m far from it! — but I’ve learned that a long list of resolutions was a sure path to failure. There’s a reason you see stories every April about how most people aren’t able to meet the goals they set at the first of the year.

Now, I do something different, something that’s actually proven to be successful. Instead of tackling many resolutions every year, I only tackle one.

This year, for example, I focused on fitness. In fact, I dubbed 2010 The Year of Fitness. My aim was to lose fifty pounds, and I tried to weigh every decision with that one goal in mind. You know what? It worked. Though I didn’t lose fifty pounds this year, I did lose forty. More than that, I’m stronger and faster than I’ve ever been in my life. My Year of Fitness has been a success.

A year ago, the only exercise I got was walking to and from my office every day.
A year ago, the only exercise I got was walking to and from my office every day.

The main reason I was able to do this was that it was my only goal for the entire year. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t have other objectives clouding my view. I set one goal, and I worked hard to meet it. I picked the one thing in my life that most needed change, and I committed to changing it.

One problem, one correction
A couple of months ago, my fitness trainer wrote about this very subject in the context of exercise. Cody Limbaugh owns a Portland Crossfit gym, where he guides people like me toward our fitness goals. In October, he wrote:

One of the teaching skills that is developed in good coaches is the concept of “one fault, one correction”. The idea is to take the most important correction needed and just focus on that one thing. Attack it from different angles if needed, but be tenacious on correcting the biggest fault only. Once that has been achieved, the Coach and Athlete can move on to the next biggest fault, then the next and so on, in a never-ending journey toward excellence.

Limbaugh says that by focusing on one thing at a time, you’re able to:

  • Obtain greater focus. When you try to correct more than one thing at a time, it’s easy to get distracted. You can’t do any one thing well because you’re trying to do many things poorly. But if you concentrate on a single goal, you’re able to obtain a laser-like focus that better helps you achieve that objective.
  • Reduce stress. If you try to tackle too much at once, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It seems like you’ll never get it all done. When you focus on one thing at a time, you know that’s the only thing you have to worry about. This relieves a lot of pressure.
  • Build confidence. “Honing in on one challenge and overcoming it can give you a tremendous feeling of success,” Limbaugh writes. This can help boost your belief that you can overcome other obstacles. When you kick ass on your first goal, you know you can kick ass on the next one.

Limbaugh puts this philosophy into practice every day in the gym. He uses it when coaching me on squats, for example. When I started at his gym last April, my form was awful. I couldn’t do an actual squat — not even without weight. By correcting one thing at a time, I’ve made great progress. (I can now back-squat my body weight!)

This same “one problem, one correction” principle applies to meeting other goals — including financial goals and New Year’s resolutions.

How to set New Year’s resolutions you’ll actually keep
Over the past five years, I’ve written a lot about goals at Get Rich Slowly. I believe in the power of goals. By setting and pursuing big goals, I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought possible. And I believe that you can set and achieve big goals, too.

So, let’s put everything together. Let’s summarize all of the lessons I’ve shared about setting goals since 2006. Here’s how to set New Year’s resolutions you’ll actually keep:

  • Don’t make resolutions — set goals. This may sound like picking nits, but I’ve found that setting goals keeps me on task in a way that setting resolutions never did. Goals are the fundamental building blocks of success. When I set goals, I don’t feel like I’m trying to become somebody new; instead, I’m trying to achieve something that the current me already wants.
  • Make your goals smart. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the notion that good goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timed. This is true. But don’t forget that the best goals are personalthey mean something to you. There’s no use setting a goal to get out of debt if you don’t know why you want to get out of debt. Make your goals meaningful and smart.
  • Pursue one goal at a time. I had great success setting a big goal for 2010 and then making that my only objective. If you have a big goal — getting out of debt, saving for a down payment — I encourage you to make that your only project. If you do set more than one goal, work on only one at a time. Get out of debt before you start saving for the down payment on your house. Lose 20 pounds before you start training for a marathon. Correct one problem before trying to correct another.
  • Keep your goal in mind. When I’ve been successful in the past, it’s because I’ve kept my goals in mind every day — if not every hour. If you’re not constantly reminded of your goal, you’re not going to remember to pursue it. To keep your focus front and center, you might use web-based tools like Joe’s Goals, StickK, or 43 Things. You might find an accountability partner. Or you might advertise to yourself.
  • Be prepared for setbacks. Let’s face it: You’re not going to meet your goals without mistakes and setbacks. Stuff happens. The best way to deal with problems is to prepare for them. Have a plan. Before trouble occurs, know what you’ll do to handle it. (My solution for all the food around Christmas? I ate less during the week before. This is just like spending less before a vacation to make room in your budget for souvenirs.)

After all of this, what’s my goal for 2011? To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of weeks, actually, and for once I have no glaring flaws I want to correct. (And isn’t that nice for a change?) There are lots of little things that need work, but I haven’t decided what to focus on next year.

What about you? What are your goals (or resolutions) for 2011? What strategies will you use to make your resolutions stick?

This article is about Planning, Psychology, Self-Improvement