Jan 8, 2023
How to make New Year's resolutions.
I tried a number of different resolution-focused tactics last year, ranging from buddy accountability to gamified apps to die-hard todo-tracking. It didn't really work: I only accomplished a handful of resolutions, and the ones I did complete didn't make me a whole lot happier.
The answer was pretty straightforward: my goals were neither aligned with my long-term goals nor designed to be attainable. Their specificity and resulting inflexibility was also causing problems1, on top of a slew of older "cue-behavior-reward" advice that wasn't working for me.
To address these challenges, I pulled together tips and advice from across the web, spanning topics in habits, resolutions, and goals. I've compiled all of that research into this blog post, into a resolution-making guide. The tl;dr? The remedy for defunct resolutions is two-fold: distill values and design habits.
Our goal in this first phase is to distill your goals into overarching objectives that matter to you2. The key idea is to find recurring themes among your goals and to incrementally build a bigger picture vision of what your goals achieve. To do this, follow these three steps:
Write an exhaustive list of all your goals on a piece of paper or on your computer.
- Include only goals that you've considered again and again. Here's why: It's difficult to tell if goals you brainstorm now are just whims. However, If you've been thinking about this goal often, it either has a recurring need or a deep-seated motivation. Arguably, that makes these goals more important.
- Include all of your goals, no matter how specific or how vague. Offload all of your longstanding goals onto paper, including any unfinished resolutions from last year that you're still keen on. Take your time to complete this list: While you're waiting in line or commuting, try to remember all the goals that come up repeatedly.
Group up similar goals. "Similar" here is intentionally broad. Apply any categorization you would like and however you see fit.
- Start with very niche categories, such as "cooking", "reading", "being more social". In fact, some goals may be subsets of another goal. For example, if you have "Limit screen time" and "Limit video games", you can use the first as the category for the second.
- Then, group up categories into higher-level super-categories, such as "hobbies" and "relationships". Continue to group categories until you have maybe 3-5 or so overarching categories. For example, all of my ambitions are grouped into "work", "side projects", and "personal".
- The most important part of this mental exercise is to understand the relationship between your different goals. In the end, you should at least conceptually have a hierarchy of categories.
Determine what you value in each group. Month over month, what you value won't change, but how you achieve that may. Take this time to really understand what that value is, by looking for what is constant across your goals and desires.
- For every top-level group, look at the subgroups and assess the importance of each subgroup. Are the goals in this category critical to your happiness? Are they a part of your vision for yourself in 5 years?
- Once you've determined a subset of high-priority subgroups, write a general objective for each one. This general objective doesn't need to fit all the goals in that group. Instead, the general objective should give you an a-ha moment, making you realize it's one way to make a deep-seated desire concrete. In particular, this objective should express what you want and not how you'll get there.
As an example, let me walk through my own thoughts, as I followed these three steps. First, I made an exhaustive list of all the goals that nagged me over the year. I've included a subset here:
Second, I grouped up similar goals — finding recurring motifs and themes across goals.
|Travel to a new country.||Travel||Personal|
|Try a Michelin-star restaurant.||Socializing||Personal|
|Cook a larger variety of dishes.||Cooking||Personal|
I then used these tags to organize these goals according to a hierarchy of categories.
flowchart LR NC(Travel to a new country.) MS(Try a Michelin-star restaurant.) CV(Cook a larger variety of dishes.) HW(Hangout weekly.) ER(Exercise more.) SS(Eat healthier.) Travel --- NC Socializing --- MS Cooking --- CV Socializing --- HW Health --- ER Health --- SS Personal --- Socializing Personal --- Travel Personal --- Health Personal --- Cooking
Third, I determined what I valued in each top-level group. In this "personal" goals category, I asked myself "Who do I want to be a year from now?" Then, I worked backwards from the goals in that category to determine the kind of person I wanted to be.
In the personal category above, I had the "health", "travel", "socializing", and "cooking" subcategories. I realized that the latter three categories were really about being more adventurous, so that (a) I would have fun stories to tell and so that (b) I would have more memories to look back on. As a result, I wrote the general objective:
Have fun and be fun.
This objective checks off both boxes: It definitely expresses a desire of mine, and it's also general enough to give me wiggle room in how I achieve that. Try this now, applying the above process to your own longstanding, nagging goals:
- Write an exhaustive list of all your goals. Right now, grab a sheet of paper or a document and write 3 goals that you've been thinking about. If you keep writing, perfect! Keep going. Include goals of all kinds — anything that's been nagging you.
- Group up similar goals. Right now, group up at least two of your goals. Find commonalities and recurring themes.
- Determine what you what value in each group. Right now, write an overarching objective for one top-level group of goals. You can borrow mine if you'd like, as long as it speaks to you. Focus the objective on what you value rather than how you'll accomplish it.
At the conclusion of this phase, you should have a list of values and general objectives that really underly the most important goals you have. For me, I have one general focus for the year, which is to "Focus on relationships," and from that stem three overarching objectives.
Keep these overarching objectives in your back pocket, as we now need to break them down into more actionable bits.
Our goal in this second phase is now to break down your overall objectives into actionable and accessible habits. The key idea to reduce lofty objectives into easily achievable, focused habits that we can build over time. To do this, follow three steps:
Filter goals. Use your objectives to focus your list of goals.
- Get rid of goals that directly contradict a value or objective you care about. For example, if you value "health" and your objective is "Eat healthier," eliminate your goal to eat out at more restaurants. In fact, remove any goal that encourages you to eat excessively.
- Get rid of irrelevant goals for achieving your objective; other goals are now distractions. For example, one of my categories is "3d design," as I've always wanted to design cute 3d characters. However, this category contributes to none of my existing objectives. As a result, I'll deprioritize this goal.
- Limit the number of goals per category. Find goals to deprioritize within categories that are less important to you. You could deprioritize because these goals conflict or are redundant.
- Note you don't need an even number of goals per objective, but make sure any imbalances reflect your excitement.
Formalize goals. Massage your goals into more concrete statements that you can assess and flexibly adapt, as needed.
- Make your goal assess-able. You should be able to answer "Did I achieve this goal?" For example, one vague goal that I had was to "Cook a larger variety of dishes." To make this assess-able, I could rewrite it as "Cook dishes from Ethiopian, Egyptian, and Thai cuisines." Much more specific, and easier to check off.
- Make your goal flexible, because an overly specific goal is easy to assess but also easy to miss. Adding some flexibility can make a goal more reachable. One way is to specify a total count instead of frequency. For example, specify "300 times" annually, instead of "daily". This gives you the chance to catchup. Another way is to keep the goal broad, giving you the flexibility to pick details later.
Translate goals into habits. Translate your goals into more immediately actionable habits. There are two parts to a success-inducing habit.
- A habit should be exceptionally easy to start. Said another way: build a habit before you perfect a habit, because mile-high goals will always be too lofty to get started on. Instead, start simple, and tack on bells and whistles after. Take each of your goals and break it down into incrementally easier habits to build. If the habit looks daunting, break it down further, until it seems easy as pie.
- A habit needs to be under your control. One of the oft-quoted terms from Atomic Habits4 is a "system". The recommendation is to create "systems" for reaching your goals. One common example is translating a goal like "Lose weight" to "Walk for 10 minutes daily." The first component of this translation is above: Make the habit incredibly easy to start. The second component of this translation is to put the habit under your control. You can directly control whether and how long you exercise, but you can't really control how much weight you lose.
As an example, let me walk through my own thoughts once more, as I walk through these steps. First, I'll filter my goals.
- Two of my goals are "Meal prep in under an hour." and "Try cooking a larger variety of dishes." The two goals conflict and cooking is not a major focus, so I would only pick one goal to keep.
- I'm also perfectly aware of and happy with a large number of side project goals. My side project section eclipses my personal section by a longshot, but this disproportionate allocation of goals reflects my relative excitement for each category.
Second, I'll formalize my goals.
- Rather than write "Blog weekly," I would write "Write 52 blog posts." These goals are almost functionally equivalent, but this way, I can miss a week and make up for it later to still achieve my goal.
- I previously wrote "Cook dishes from Ethiopian, Egyptian, and Thai cuisines". However, this adds unnecessary rigidity. What if I fancy Maxican flautas instead? As a result, I revised it to say "Cook dishes from 3 non-Taiwanese dishes." I intentionally didn't specify which cuisines, so that I can pick later, based on the ingredients I have.
Third, I'll translate my goals into habits.
- One of my longstanding goals is to "Redesign my website." That seems like a massive undertaking, and because I've never found the perfect week to sit down and do it, I never did it.
- This went on for probably 5 years, until I recently reformulated this as "Redesign my blog homepage." — less daunting but still needs a solid day or so.
- Eventually, I broke this down to "blog weekly". With more blog posts up, I would be more motivated to improve their presentation on the blog homepage.
- Finally, I formulated this as a habit: "Blog on notion when bored". This small step made a massive difference, and after three months of jotting notes in notion, I've now put up a dozen blog posts, redesigned my blog homepage, and am on my way to incrementally redesigning my website, page by page.
Try this now with your own goals — filtering, formalizing, and translating goals into habits.
- Filter goals. Right now, eliminate any irrelevant, contradictory, or redundant goals. I generally try to slim down my list of goals to about a dozen or so.
- Formalize goals. Right now, formalize at least one of your goals. To do so, make your goal assess-able and flexible.
- Translate goals into habits. Right now, translate one of your goals into an actionable habit that is easy to start and under your control.
At this conclusion of this phase, you should have a list of goals and corresponding habits. For example, for my personal category, I have the following:
|Original Goal||Formalized Goal||Habit|
|Exercise more.||Run 1000 miles.||Run for 5min when I get home.|
|Eat healthier.||Limit <100 unhealthy items. 3||Log "food sins" when I eat unhealthily.|
|Blog weekly.||Write 52 blog posts.||Blog on notion when bored.|
With this, you now have a set of well-defined habits and actionable habits. The last part of this post focuses on tips that I found particularly helpful, for executing goals.
There are a wide variety of different tips across the web for keeping your resolutions. Some older advice says to design a cue and reward yourself, but this hasn't worked very well for me. Instead, here is a collection of the tips I found effective:
- Prime your environment for your habit. If your habit is to shoot more videos, keep a permanent studio setup, so that you can record in a heartbeat. In my case, I'd like to drink more water. Knowing that I instinctively grab and drink whatever cup is sitting in front of me, my habit is to keep a bottle of water on my desk at all times. This makes your default and laziest option a habit you would like to keep. As many YouTube videos say, old advice centers on you, trying to discipline or reward yourself; new advice says to control your environment rather than yourself.
- Plan for a week. As the old saying goes, "People overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a year." For me, a week seems to be a happy medium, where I can reasonably estimate what I can tackle. By planning for a week, I build in leeway as well, as I can handle unexpected day-to-day activities and push back todos for a day if need be.
- Break down annual into monthly and weekly goals. To reduce the mental load of resolutions, I pick a few resolutions to work on at any given time. For a given month, I may pick a handful of resolutions, then break down what needs to be done by week. This keeps my work aligned with my resolutions and also allows me to separate planning from execution. When I'm working, I can focus on working, instead of wondering which resolution I've forgotten about. Note you don't need to do this every week — if you've having an existential crisis, feeling demotivated or lost, then come back to plan for your next week.
- Peer pressure yourself with accountability buddies. Many resources suggest finding an accountability buddy, and at least for my fitness, this has helped tremendously. I keep weekly iWatch competitions running with family friends at all times. If I'm far behind, they'll ping me. If they're far behind, I'll ping them. I also repeated this for my blogging, workout, and side project goals. The accountability buddy can be someone to gym with, or simply someone that reads your blog posts every week. ("Where's this week's post?")
- Reassess habits and resolutions as need be. To make them your resolutions more flexible, keep in mind the overarching objective that motivates every resolution. This objective tells us what we value. So, when we're looking at changing a resolution, we need to determine if (a) what we valued has changed, and if not, then (b) if our approach needs to change or (c) we've just met a challenge that needs surmounting. If your value has changed completely, then it's time to start from phase 1 of this post, listing all the goals you have in mind.
Knowing the above now, pick a tip to act on. Change up your environment, message a friend with a common resolution, or decide what you'll work on this week.
Best of luck with your resolutions this year, and have a happy new year!
In some sense, resolutions are faulty. They're planned only once, with knowledge from previous year, at the beginning of the year. Several people I know object to the idea of resolutions for this reason. However, I would argue that resolutions are still worth setting. See Tip #3 for how to keep resolutions malleable. ↩
You could call these values, mission statements, objectives, resolutions, whatever you want. The differences between these terms aren't relevant, and I may use these terms differently than you'd expect. By "goal," I mean a specific actionable item. By "overall objective", I mean a more vague bigger picture desire. ↩
This goal might not be met. However, at the very least, my habit of writing down my food sins will make me more conscious of the unhealthy foods I am eating. Unhealthy foods for me include snacks, desserts, and deep fried foods. A sandwich doesn't count. As bad as carbohydrates are, I'm looking more so to limit the 2000-calorie desserts. ↩
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Got a question? Ask me on Twitter, at @lvinwan. Want more tips? Drop your email below, and I'll keep you in the loop.