How to make a New Year’s resolution that you’ll keep


The way to keep a New Year’s resolution is to pick a good goal and then overhaul your life to in order to meet it. Duh.

But some of you are saying, hold it, my goal isn’t big enough to require an overhaul of my life. Maybe your goal is to, say, clean out your closet. But look, this is not material for a New Year’s resolution. This requires you to cross a day out on your calendar and tell yourself that’s your closet day. Done.

Do you know why most people don’t keep their New Years’ resolutions? Because the resolutions are terrible. The hardest part of a New Year’s resolution is choosing one, not keeping it.

Most resolutions are goals to change our behavior: Stop smoking, stop eating crap, stop being late. This is not a small change. This is a change that requires a massive overhaul of our daily life – hour by hour.

Most of you are saying that you can’t afford to overhaul your whole life to meet your goal. You have a job, you have kids, you have friends who would think you have lost your mind. But you know what? If the goals you set are not worth overhauling your life for, then ask yourself why not?

Pick only one
We can each meet one or two big goals a year. We can’t change a lot of bad behavior – the more resolutions we make the less likely we are to keep them, according to Roy Baumeister, psychologist at Florida State University. But we can change one. Pick the one that’ll mean the most to you. And, you will be pleasantly surprised to find out that changing one habit actually requires so many small changes in your day that you also end up being able to change other habits, because the patterns of your life change.

A goal is creative, not analytic
I think a lot of the time we don’t let ourselves see what we really want. Maybe because it seems too hard to get. Often we don’t let ourselves really see ourselves living the life we want, and I think this is a failure of imagination.

To that end, I love this art exhibit (not safe at work) by Alison Jackson because it is a bunch of photos of scenes I wanted to see but didn’t’ even realize I wanted to see until I saw them. Then I thought, oh, that is so fun to see. It made me realize how much work it is to be really conscious what I would really want. It takes a great imagination.

A worthy goal means you can imagine life after meeting the goal
Jim Fannin makes a living teaching people how to imagine themselves doing behavior they want. (My interview with him is one of my favorite lessons in goal setting, ever.) Fannin says it’s nearly impossible to meet a goal if you do not know what you’d look like meeting it.

He takes this to the extreme and has his clients (many major league baseball players) play movies of themselves in their heads – movies of them meeting their goals. It’s a good test for you. If you can’t imagine in your head the moment when your meet your goal, then it’s probably not a good goal.

If you can’t meet the goal, consider that it’s not you, it’s the goal
I spend a lot of times trying things out to help me find my core goals. I am a big fan of writing things down to understand oneself. After all, that’s probably why I am a blogger. Sometimes I write lists of things that bug me, and I learn from that. And one year I discovered that writing letters to odd people in my life revealed a core goal.

Even when I have my goal that I’m focused on, I check in with myself frequently to reaffirm that it’s the behavior in my life that is most important to me to change – like renewing one’s vows.

So think very hard before you make a New Year’s resolution. Because setting your goal is much harder than meeting it.

25 replies
  1. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    The most important thing about having a goal for the new year is not just writing it down, but putting it in front of you all the time. My friend Chad has his goals printed and laminated, then has a copy on his desk, one in his care and one in his shower. Yes, this guy actually has his goals for the year taped to the wall of his shower.

    But by doing this, he never loses sight of the goals he has set for his business, his family and his soul. Out of sight is out of mind.

    When you constantly are reminded of your goals, it makes it easy to make choices that pop up in life. If your goal is to lose ten pounds and you think of it throughout the day, it makes it easy not to eat that b-day cake in the break room at the office. If you are distracted from your goal, the cake looks good…and wammo, you eat the cake. Focusing on your goal makes the choices a non-issue as you know what you really want and temptation is not so tempting.

    While I think your idea of not too many goals is good, I think you need more than ONE. You need at least one goal for each area of your life. That means work, personal / family and one that I call a “soul goal”. A “Soul Goal is either your spiritual side or a hobby that you love (soul does not have to mean “religious”, but rather that part of you that is your center).

    I set three in each area. I do not hit all of them (as i try to make them stretch goals that are more complicated than just cleaning a closet)…but I do improve in striving for these goals even if I come up short.


  2. Jim C
    Jim C says:

    " – it's safe for work, but don't miss the one of Marilyn Monroe masturbating."
    Obviously your "work" is a very different workplace from mine. If I ever had a picture like that on my screen I would be open to charges of sexual harrassment, misuse of computer resources, and a few other things.

    * * * * * *

    I did poll three people before declaring this safe from work. But I think you’re right. It’s not good for a lot of offices. So, thanks for this comment. I made a note at the link.

    – €“Penelope

  3. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    Goals are delicate – too many and you feel guilty that you didn’t meet them. Too few and you won’t get that overwhelming sense of accomplishment. You have to structure your goals carefully as well. Take losing 10 lbs. I can and have lost 10 lbs in a month – i’ve also gained 10 lbs in a month…so what happens after that month when I’ve lost 10 lbs? I’ve reached my goal right. Well, my actual goal was to reach a target weight and maintain a healthier life style. Maintaining a healthier lifestyle is the actual goal and the 10 lbs is a by-product. In achieving goals I like to start in and move out – meaning, what are the goals that will most fulfill me, make me a better person? From there others will fall in place. The most important part, like this blog post states clearly, is picking that set of goals that will start the dominos.

  4. Ernie
    Ernie says:

    A quick question. How do you think your blog will hold up, now that your Yahoo articles are not linked here?

    * * * * * * *
    So far traffic has gone up.


  5. Monica
    Monica says:

    I would argue that this isn’t always the best approach in for every goal. Let’s say you want to improve your career – but when you go all out to do so you neglect your family in the process. Simplified example, but something to consider. So you should not only create a worthwhile goal, but also create a realistic plan to keep it without taking too much from other parts of your life

  6. Tim
    Tim says:

    I’ll agree that reminders are a big help in fulfilling those nagging resolutions. Nagging yourself is the key for a large project. My goal is to finish a book and I leave text message reminders, e-mails, and sticky notes for myself to remember what I need to do.

  7. Jeremiah
    Jeremiah says:

    I never really got into the whole Resolution thing. If I’m going to do it then I’ll do it. I’d rather set goals when I’m ready to do it than when the calender changes :)

  8. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    I agree that setting one resolution is key to actually meeting your goal, because, really, a year is a lot of time. Here’s why people don’t do it: they don’t have the excuse of “well, there were so many that I just couldn’t meet them all” at the end of the year as a cushion for failing to meet any. Safety in numbers, as they say.

    I for one have never really gotten into the resolution thing, but I used to begin a new journal each new year. To have that feeling of starting fresh, of a new page. Some years I filled them, others I didn’t even get halfway in. I haven’t journaled much since I got into blogging. And I think I sort of miss that time of personal reflection. So maybe this year I need to resolve to journal again so that there’s a place in my routine just for me. . .

    Thanks for the inspiring thoughts!

  9. Jerry
    Jerry says:

    PT –

    I htink a good resolution or goal should not only stretch what you already know and/or do but it should either get you to a place you want to be or start you on the road there. It should also be something that’s a constant reminder of what you are trying to accompish or become. It needs to be in front of you every day and become such a aprt of your life that you don’t think about – you just do it.

    Keep Writing & Happy new year,

    Jerry Matthew

  10. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    Maybe a thread for people who have a goal and would like encouragement or who would like to encourage others meet their goals might be helpful. Then, by the end of 2008, we can all look at ourselves to see if we’ve attained those goals. Sort of like an online support group.

    My goal for 2008 is to pass all four sections of the CPA exam. I’m scheduled to sit for the Regulation section on January 30.

  11. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    Good post, but I think bigger than the failure of imagination is the failure of execution.

    A bit like signing up to a gym, and mistaking that for the goal rather than seeing it as the first step in the process that will get one to lose weight or improve balance or whatever else.

    Setting a goal, then having a plan to get there as a checklist and then working to meet the goal would be an appropriate strategy. And of course, I cite my favourite line:

    "Planning is everything. Plans are nothing." – Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke (1800-1891)

  12. Red Jello
    Red Jello says:

    I set a goal at the beginning of each month, and evaluate my performance at the end of the month. That way, it is easier to assess, as well as to achieve. I use New Years to celebrate all of my accomplishments.

    I don’t care what your age is, you need to practice setting goals — and working to achieve them. Otherwise, why get up in the morning!?!

  13. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    “Baby steps get on the elevator… baby steps get on the elevator… Ah, I’m on the elevator.”

    A great quote from Bill Murray in the movie What About Bob. Sometimes we forget about the “manageable” aspect of goal setting. Instead of going all in, sometimes it’s best to move forward a bit at a time. That way you don’t give up after two days at the gym.

    With that being said, it’s time for baby to step on the treadmill.

  14. Sifi M
    Sifi M says:

    I have resolved to entertain people at home or in a restaurant at least once a month this year. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, just sincere. One of the best ways to take stock is to see your life through others’ eyes. Also, it forces you to clear away the clutter!

  15. deepali
    deepali says:

    Another reason why goals fail is because we lack the attention span to hold to something so big in a year. We expect to see instant results and we don’t, so we get frustrated and by July we’re back to our prior behavior.

    That’s why I like the idea of setting a yearly goal that can be broken down into months (and possibly even weeks). If you can do that, then you’ve also committed fully, which is another important factor.

  16. Resume Writer
    Resume Writer says:

    In my newsletter, I addressed New Year’s resolutions from the vantage point that most of the time we break them. The question is then “How do we respond?” Here is my Note from the Editor entry:

    Well, 2008 has arrived, and with the New Year comes the promises and resolutions that are supposed to change our lives for the better. But sadly, before too long most of them are broken.

    Because of how “hallowed” the resolution is to most of us, we consider it a promise that we have broken and lost forever (at least until the next year when we can make the same resolution again). But sometimes we forget that there is nothing wrong with getting back on the horse.

    Whether your resolution involves staying off sweets, reading more frequently, or keeping in touch with loved ones, don’t let a slip be the end of it. Sulk for an hour or so if you must, but set the ship right and bring that resolution back in line!

    This year, let’s all add this to our resolution list:

    “I resolve to continue any resolution on which I slip or break”.

    In life, we will all take our hits … it is how we respond that determine where we end up in life.

    I wish everyone a safe and prosperous New Year!

    William Mitchell

  17. Kuwaiti Woman
    Kuwaiti Woman says:

    My goal for 2008 is maintaining a blog to record my spending habits in order to budget my expenditures. Writing down everything has been an eye-opening experience. I always knew I was a terrible spender but it didn’t seem real until I typed it!

    My two big goals for the year are to save and invest money. The fact that I put a budget together is a big step in the right direction.

    I have been reading through your archives and have enjoyed many of your posts. Thank you!

  18. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    If you can do this any time of year then that’s great. Personally I find something inspiring in the blank slate of a new year that is conducive for goal setting, especially coming right after all the fun and jollity of December.

  19. Ex smoker
    Ex smoker says:

    I always like the idea of 4 goals. One covering each of:- work, spirituality, family, learning/development and health. Writing them down each day has always kept them in the forefront of my mind.

  20. Life Coach
    Life Coach says:

    Each and every new people will take resolution in their life.Resolutions will be how to live? What we have to do in this new year? Life coach is very good for all people in every new year.A Life coach will help you think clearly and support you in overcoming the challenges and in answering the important questions along the way.

  21. Coffee substitute
    Coffee substitute says:

    It’s not just about goal setting…its about having a clear mind so that the goals you set actually bring you the most joy versus the effort involved in reaching them.

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