How to Set Goals and Resolutions You’ll Actually Keep

Welcome to 2016! I hope your year is off to a great start.

Because it's a new year, a lot of people are making lists of resolutions. I used to be one of these folks, carefully cataloging the faults I wanted to fix every winter. Not anymore.

It's not that I'm perfect — as Kim could attest, I'm far from it! — but I learned a long time ago that making a bunch of resolutions was a sure path to failure for me. There's a reason you see stories every April about how most people aren't meeting the goals they set at the first of the year.

Nowadays, I do something different, something that actually works for me. Instead of tackling several resolutions each year, I only tackle one.

Last year, for instance, my goal was to explore the United States by motorhome. (I just posted a trip summary at my personal blog, by the way.) In 2014, my aim was to publish and publicize the Get Rich Slowly course.

Here's a more relatable example: In 2010, I focused on fitness. I wanted to lose fifty pounds, so I tried to weigh every decision with that one goal in mind. You know what? It worked. I didn't lose fifty pounds that year, but I did lose forty. I lost the rest by the middle of 2011 and was the fittest I'd ever been in my life.

[Weight Loss Progress]

The main reason I was able to do this was that fitness was my only goal for 2010. 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

Turns out I'm not the only one to champion the “one goal at a time” approach. The magic of single-tasking is well known. For example, my friend and trainer Cody once 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.

Cody says that by focusing on one thing at a time, you can:

  • Obtain greater focus. When you try to correct more than one thing at a time, it's easy to become 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 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,” Cody says. This boosts 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.

Cody 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, my form was awful. I couldn't do an actual squat — not even without weight. By correcting one thing at a time, I made great progress. (At my peak, I could backsquat 245 pounds, which was 150% of 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 Resolutions You'll Actually Keep

As you all know, I'm a big believer in the power of goals. That's why the very first step of the Money Boss method is to create a personal mission statement from which you can derive secondary goals. By setting and pursuing big goals, I've accomplished more than I ever thought possible. And I believe that you should set and achieve big goals, too.

Based on everything I've learned about goal-setting over the past decade, 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 personal — they 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've had great success setting one big goal every year and 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 or StickK. You might use a smartphone app like Strides or Nozbe. You might find an accountability partner. Or you might advertise to yourself.
  • Consider going “all in”. For some folks, like me, the “all or nothing” method works best. If I want to reduce my intake of ice cream or alcohol, for instance, I'm better at abstaining than I am at moderating. And Josh Dorkin claims that it's easier to exercise seven days a week than it is to work out three days a week. Some people are good at balance and moderation. If you're not one of them, going “all in” could be the best approach.
  • Be prepared for setbacks. Let's face it: You're not going to meet your goals without mistakes and detours. Shit 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. If I'm trying to eat well, for example, I practice pre-commitment by keeping good food in the fridge; if I slip up and go out for Mexican food, I have a safety net at home so that I don't descend into a downward spiral.

There's one last key to meeting your goals or keeping your resolutions: To succeed, you must do the work. You can't just talk about what you want to do; you have to actually do it.

Action is Character

Back when I worked at the family box company, my cousin Nick and I had lots of philosophical discussions. On more than one occasion, I'd be lamenting that X was a priority in my life — where X could be exercise or getting out of debt or reading more books — but that I never seemed to have time for it. Instead, I did a bunch of other stuff.

Nick would always tell me, “Then X isn't a priority.” If I tried to argue, he'd point out that the things we actually do are the priorities in our life. What we say doesn't matter; it's what we do that counts.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson. I used to be what I call a Talker: I talked about all the things I wanted to do, and I felt like I had the solutions to everything, but I never actually took action. I was full of hot air.

Somehow, I've turned into a Doer. Most of the time, I get things done. Instead of lamenting about the man I want to be, I'm working hard to be that man. I've built a new life out of doing the things I used to only talk about before. (Note that I'm not always a Doer. I still spend plenty of time Talking, but my ratio of action to words has increased in recent years.)

In his notes on The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Action is character.” Fitzgerald meant that what a fictional character does defines who that character is in the reader’s mind. The same is true in real life: If you never did anything, you wouldn’t be anybody. You are defined by the things you do – not the things you think and say.

To up it another way, we are what we repeatedly do. (This is Will Durant's interpretation of an idea from Aristotle, though many people mistakenly attribute it to the latter.)

  • You can say that health is important to you, but if you don't eat and act healthfully, it's just not so.
  • Thinking about writing doesn't make you a writer; writing makes you a writer, and if you're not writing, you're not a writer.
  • You can say your life's too busy and you want to slow down, but so long as you keep scheduling things, you're showing that you value the busy-ness more than the downtime.

Action is character. We are what we repeatedly do.

If you want to make your New Year's Resolution stick, you have to do the work. Doing the work creates a virtuous cycle that makes it easier to keep doing the work. And doing the work shows the world (and yourself) who you really are.

“There is what you believe and there is what you want and these things are fine. But they're just ideas, in the end. History, like any single life, is made up of actions. At some point, the thinking and believing and deciding fall away and all that's left is the doing.” — Jess Walter, Citizen Vince

The Bottom Line

After all of this, what's my one goal for 2016?

To be honest, it's fitness. I haven't lost all of my gains from six years ago, but I'm not where I want to be. (Looking back at my spreadsheet from 2010, I'm at the same place I was at the end of July in that year.) Kim and I have both struggled with food and drink on this trip, and especially with lack of exercise. It's time for that to stop. Once again, fitness must be job one.

For at least a little while, that means choosing not to consume alcohol. It means watching my portion sizes. And, especially, it means making exercise my top priority. That's why I got up New Year's Day and ran a mile. I did the same on Saturday. And yesterday. Running one mile every day is a totally achievable goal (for me), and one that will start a sort of “health snowball” (ha!) that can help get me back to where I want to be.

If I follow my own advice, I should be able regain a modest level of fitness by the time we hit the road again in April — and then keep it during the six months it takes us to return to Portland. But the key is to make fitness my one job for the year, and to take action instead of just talking about it.

What about you? What are your goals (or resolutions) for 2016? And what strategies will you use to make your resolutions stick?

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JoDi
JoDi
4 years ago

I am going to work on fitness and learning Spanish this year. I struggle with sticking to habits after a while. I go through phases of working out regularly and then not. I really enjoy it, but I’ve had a hard time making it automatic so I’m always debating myself about whether or not I’m going to work out on a particular day. I read Better Than Before recently and enjoyed it. I know I’m a Questioner, but I’m also a bit of an Obliger. I definitely stick with my workouts more when I belong to a gym, but the… Read more »

Molly
Molly
4 years ago
Reply to  JoDi

Fitness and Spanish are two priorities for me this year too JoDi! One of my favorite resources has been the Pimsleur audio CD series which is comparable in price and what it can teach to Rosetta so I’m told but I understand Rosetta has you sitting at a computer and I liked being able to listen and speak back to audio while cooking, driving, running etc. I also found at least 60 hrs of Pimsleur at libraries so it cost me exactly free-ninety-free! There’s also a cheesy but fun 90’s Spanish learning video series soap-opera called Destinos that your library… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 years ago

I started writing a book a couple of years ago and never finished it. It is a study guide for passing the PMP exam. My biggest setback was that every time I sat down to write I ended up spending most of my time editing text I had already completed instead progressing further along into the book. My primary goal for 2016 is to compete this book and get it published in the Amazon bookstore. I also plan to continue with the daily habits I developed from pursuing goals that I set for myself in prior years: 1. Track spending… Read more »

Thehappyphilosopher
Thehappyphilosopher
4 years ago

JD, I’m not a fan of the New Years resolution, but I like the framework of setting goals that you have outlined. If I start with a vision or a set of goals I’ve found more success in actually following through. In spite of detesting resolutions I have made three (sigh). 1. 100% truthfulness. I wrote an article about this. I’m using your ‘all in’ principal here. 2. Read 1 book per week. My reading list is so long, and I always have an excuse for not picking up a book. 3. Write and publish 1 post per week. I… Read more »

Mysticaltyger
Mysticaltyger
4 years ago

I think sometimes weight and fitness goals can actually be 2 separate goals. Weight is really more about what you eat than exercise (probably 80/20 ratio). I’m not always in the greatest physical shape but I reeeeaaaly don’t like being overweight, so I cut back on the bad food and big portions as soon as I get 2 lbs. over my ideal weight range. It works. I don’t think I’ve ever been more than 6 lbs. over my ideal weight. Fitness is more about exercise, which is a whole different set of behaviors.

Lane
Lane
4 years ago

I’m setting my goal as: Get rid of ALL extraneous stuff.

There are many sub-goals to this, but having a single goal I can focus on eases my mind and my “does this …” process of evaluating choices.

Geert
Geert
4 years ago

Another tip I once got is not to put a goal in negative terms but focus on a replacement activity instead. So not ‘I will stop eating junk food’ but ‘I will eat 1 piece of fruit and 200grams of vegitable every day’

Mag
Mag
4 years ago

That’s a great approach! I find that I always have so many ideas about what I want to achieve in any given year, that I need to re-read my own list to remember them all.

This year, my goal is to meditate every day for at least 10 minutes. It sounds easy, but somehow there is always something that distracts me and I realise by the end of the day that I haven’t done my meditation practice.

Nate
Nate
4 years ago

I really agree with the idea of focusing on just 1 goal. Its also one of the main principles behind one of my favorite productivity books, “The One Thing”:

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

For me, its a specific business goal that I don’t share publicly because I feel like announcing goals publicly actually decreases your motivation to complete them. I know that goes against what most self-help gurus preach, but it works for me!

Eldeen
Eldeen
4 years ago

Today is the first day that I actually sat down and browse on your blog and this topic interest me the most. What a wonderful way to start my Saturday morning. Good info and full of ideas that I can used and work on.

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