New Year’s resolutions are really easy to get wrong, where wrong typically means unviable (e.g. too vague or unrealistic to be able to follow through on) and/or ill-conceived (i.e. even if you did follow through, this would never get you the change you really want).
Both failings can be easily sidestepped by paying attention to how well you can get your feelings of “I ought to do this” (which may be a strong motivator as you toy with the idea of setting a resolution) aligned with the feeling “I want to do this” (which is what will carry you through meaningful change long after that 1 Jan glow of inspiration has faded).
Here are 10 steps to making a New Year’s resolution that has a decent chance of really working out well for you this year, illustrated with a toy example: starting with a hazy sense that maybe you want to get fewer takeouts and cook for yourself more often in 2023.
If you like, take an hour with a pen and paper this New Year’s Day and see where you end up!
1. Choose something you actually care about, not something you think you should. It can be either a) something you want to rid your life of or b) something you want to bring into your life. If you get the want right, the should will fall naturally into place.
What is it you really care about with this replace-takeouts-with-massages idea? Is this mostly about saving money, about developing your culinary skills, about getting healthier, about losing weight, about having evenings that feel different…?
2. Define success ultra-clearly: What precisely do you want any changes you make to achieve for you? Why? Why? (until you really feel it)
Once you’re done with brainstorming around your territories of desire, now you get specific on your intended outcomes. Maybe you’ll start with: I want to waste less money on home delivery so I can get more massages instead. Or: I want to have a repertoire of 7 meals that taste decent that I can cook for people when they come round. Or: I want to get better skin with fewer breakouts. Or: I want to lose 5 lb. Or: I want to spend time cooking as soon as I get in from work, to help my mind switch off and mark a boundary to stop work and start my evening. Then take what you just wrote and do the repeated why’s on it.
Some of your wants might survive the why’s: e.g. I want to spend less on takeouts/delivery because I want to get 2 massages a month, because I feel so much better when my muscles are more relaxed and fortnightly is about ideal.
Some may fall at the “I really care about this” hurdle: e.g. I want to spend less on takeouts/delivery because I feel guilty about how much I spend, because I get the feeling my parents think it’s ridiculous to spend that much, but actually, do I care what they think? Maybe not. I have enough money and I like being able to spend it this way.
Others may reveal themselves as generally incoherent or indefinable: e.g. you may not be able to say anything much about the precise ways in which this change involves you getting healthier (or why you care).
Others again may turn out to involve a self-deceiving kind of mismatch: between the claimed benefit (e.g. weight loss) and the thing you really want (e.g. to feel confident in your body, which you realize you also didn’t when you weighed less a few years ago). (Weight loss is one of the standard realms in which cultural norms drive self-deception, making us think we aspire to things we actually don’t.)
Or the mismatch may be of the implementation type: between the thing you really want (clearer skin) and the proposed method (dietary changes). Once you do some research on whether dietary fat intake has any effect and conclude it probably doesn’t, you might realize you need to think about direct skincare options instead.
If any of these obstacles arise, you need to work out whether you’re still on to something important with your desire and this type of method, or whether the whole idea is misguided in some way. A chat with someone sensible may help!
You should end up with something that when you read it back makes you think: oo, yes.
3. Brainstorm methods for achieving that change, emphasising a) ultra-specific and b) appealing.
Here you might come up with ideas like: set up a “Massage” savings pot; stop in at Waitrose after work on Thursday; choose some kind of meat or veggie substitute plus veg plus a dessert for Thursday and Friday nights; keep the receipt and work out roughly how much I saved relative to the usual UberEats; transfer that amount to the savings pot straightaway. At this point you might realize the twice-weekly takeout savings aren’t likely to cover the twice-monthly massages you were hoping for, so then you might have to get creative (maybe one less eating/drinking-out per week as well?) or downgrade your aim (just one massage a month?). You may thus have tricky questions to ask (again!) about how much this matters and whether this is really the right route to it.
4. Choose your method.
Select whatever is the most viable and appealing combination of tactics to get you what you really want (as specified in 2). If there seems a hard tradeoff between viable and appealing, I’d suggest going with appealing, e.g. if Waitrose costs a bit more but is a more enjoyable shopping experience than Tesco, go with Waitrose, to give this new habit a better chance of getting embedded; you’ll probably manage to get viability enhanced (e.g. not buying all the very finest meats) once you’re actually doing it. Doing anything different at all is usually the hard part.
5. Decide how long is a reasonable timeframe for this change to achieve you what you want. Make that your review date and mark it in your calendar, summarizing your desired state by this point as a reminder.
You might conclude that the massage idea will take a month to try out and give a proper chance to improve your life, and set a review date for the weekend just after a full month has elapsed (Sat 4 Feb). Maybe you’ll add it to your calendar in question form, like “Did the takeout/massage cut-paste made me feel more chilled in January?”.
6. Do any planning you need to get ready to make this change.
Not much planning is needed here, just maybe setting a calendar reminder for the four Thursdays just before you leave work, doing a quick bit of online inspiration-seeking for things you might buy in week 1, plus prodding your friend again for their massage therapist recommendation.
7. Make a contingency plan. If you notice it’s mid-Jan and you haven’t been doing what you said you would, how are you going to respond?
Planning for failure here might look like: If I miss a Thursday, get to Waitrose the next day. Or you might prefer just to write off this week and get back on track next Thursday.
8. Get yourself a new notebook or save a new document to keep notes on the change and what it’s doing for you, to help you savour the benefits, make any adjustments that may be needed, and generally be attentive to this process of change and its consequences.
Dig out that notebook you got for Christmas and write “My 2023 New Year’s Resolution journal” on the first page, then make a few notes when things come up. Maybe you notice on the first rainy Thursday afternoon that you’re feeling a lot like not bothering with this idea. Maybe on Friday afternoon you realize that it’s really nice knowing there’s food in the fridge for dinner. Maybe on a Saturday early evening you feel some resentment at eating something quick before going out rather than getting food in town. And maybe on your way home after the first massage you have the thought that you’d forgotten just how blissed-out this makes you feel. Explore what comes up in writing, whether in the spirit of finding solutions or just accepting and reinforcing what you still intend.
9. When the review date comes, take 20 minutes to answer (in writing) the question “Did I achieve what I wanted?” and explore anything that flows from your initial answer regarding the how, the why, and the what-next.
Reflect, with your journal’s help, on how this month has felt overall, how well the inevitable tradeoffs worked (overall did the benefits outweigh the costs?), and whether you want to keep it up or change something or abandon the whole thing. Perhaps here you’ll realize that even though the foody savings don’t quite pay for the massages, you like both enough to keep them up anyway, and you can cover the additional massage costs from other sources.
10. Decide what happens next, and do it!
Your conclusion might be: This is great and I want to do it for February too, apart from the third weekend because it’s my birthday and I’m eating out / at friends’ places Thursday to Saturday. So I’ll just get one massage, sometime that week, and I’ll try that other massage place I saw. I’ll check in again on the 26th to decide what to do for March.
This might seem a rather involved process, but if it gets you something you really want this year, it should be well worth it.
Alternatively, if even contemplating doing this makes you realize there’s nothing you want that much, fine, enjoy not setting any resolutions this year!