Every January 1, a handful of my friends embark on dry January — a month dedicated to good, clean fun (read: not one sip of alcohol).
On week one, they’re pumped — proudly declining invitations to happy hour, opting instead for more cultural activities, like a night at the theatre or a new art exhibition.
By week two, they’re reveling in their newfound energy and professing the benefits of life san alcohol.
But come week three, their motivation starts waning. They’ve scaled back their ambition to a dry-ish January, allowing themselves a few sips on the weekends.
On week four, they’re rueing the day they swore off their beloved after-work cocktail and planning their epic break from sobriety.
Productivity hacks are only effective when we know why we’re avoiding something in the first place.
92% of the time, people abandon their resolutions altogether. Dry January is just one example of why I think New Year’s Resolutions are typically useless.
They don’t cause us to really change our habits. Instead, we focus on one discrete result and rarely shift the thinking that led to the behavior we want to change.
That doesn’t mean we can’t use a new year as a motivator for positive changes. To do so, we can start by learning why most resolutions don’t work, and focus on creating the kind of goals that stick.
Why those resolutions are so darn hard to keep
Wharton professor Katy Milkman’s research confirms that personally meaningful time markers produce a “fresh start effect” — stronger motivation to change yourself for the better.
Regardless of our goal, a new year inspires us to improve. And most resolutions involve improving the quality of our lives.
A 2016 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that 55.2% of resolutions were health-related (exercise: 31.3%, eat healthy: 10.4%, have healthier habits: 13.5%), and 33.3% were financial (save: 20.8%, get out of debt: 12.5%).
And yet, despite our fresh motivation and best intentions, our inspiration plummets — quickly.
About 80% of people fail to stick to their New Year’s Resolutions for longer than six weeks.
There are various reasons why this tends to happen:
1. We don’t have a system in place.
Do you know someone who’s training for a marathon? I sure do. A growing number of friends and colleagues seem eager to cross “run 26.2 consecutive miles” off their bucket lists.
If you’re chasing that goal, you have my best wishes. But I also want to share an important term: post-marathon syndrome.
This is a well-documented state of sadness, worthlessness and letdown that often follows the big day. It’s a natural human reaction.
We make grim New Year’s resolutions. We eat nothing but kale for 30 days. We sign up for bootcamps, undertake grueling home renovations, and set dizzying sales targets.
But setting big goals can make use miserable (I wrote about how to build systems in case you are interested in reading in detail).
Instead of being seduced by audacious goals, we need to work our systems, every single day (and be sure to enjoy the ride).
2. We psych ourselves out.
As I’ve written before, overthinking can be our worst enemy.
Say you make a resolution to publish a new article every month. Before you even write your first paragraph, you start wondering whether you’re creative enough to meet this goal; then obsess over how to optimize the traction and use growth hacks; then there is the editing process; the social media sharing. Soon enough, you’re doubting yourself — and you haven’t even begun.
Overthinking how arduous our resolutions can be a strong motivation killer. It’s one of the main psychological reasons why people don’t follow through with their goals. Once we start fearing failure, we’d rather not start at all.
3. We make resolutions that aren’t important enough.
Often people make a New Year’s commitment without considering the big WHY of it all. Why is this particular resolution important to me?
If you’re pulling a Dry January, is it to be healthier in general? Or perhaps to wake up fresh and well-rested, and be able to write for an hour before work.
A goal should be personally meaningful. Writes author and Wharton professor Stewart D. Friedman,
“Keep it specific, simple, and important, and you’re much more likely to take realistic action.”
Otherwise, even if we stick to our resolution for 30 days, we’re more likely to jump back into old habits soon after — and all of our hard work was for naught.
Making goals that stick
As we’re nearing the end of December, I’m taking stock of the past year.
JotForm made big strides in 2018, gaining one million new users so far this year, putting us over the 4 million mark in total.
I’m also thinking about what I want to accomplish in 2019.
To set goals (and follow through on them), here’s how I plan to map out my 2019 resolutions, and I hope it can be useful for you, too:
1. Get perspective.
Before committing to any goals, I’m going to take a step back and get altitude on my life and career. I’ll re-articulate what I want to achieve, big picture.
For me, my career goal remains the same: to provide an exceptional product. All of my new sub-goals will relate to that overarching mission.
The same goes for JotForm. While we improve our core product, we also spend a full calendar year tackling a strategic project (big picture).
Take time to consider (or likely, reconsider): what’s your big picture? If you could be anywhere, doing anything, by the end of the year, where and what would that be? In order to reach that place, you have to picture it first.
2. Consider your values.
A friend of mine resolved to learn to play the mandolin last year. In January, she was taking weekly lessons, happily showing off the newly formed calluses on her fingertips.
By December, the mandolin was gathering dust in the corner of her bedroom. Asked what happened, she said she chose the mandolin because she liked how it sounded. But playing music wasn’t particularly important to her.
Too often, we choose goals that sound cool but don’t pertain to our larger life goals and values. Reviewing values, however, is an important step for formulating your goals.
Take a page from Tom Tierney, the former CEO of Bain and co-founder of Bridgespan. As the year nears its end, he’ll dedicate a full day to writing in his journal about whether he’s lived according to his values and, if not, what he can change in the year ahead to become more capable of doing so.
The same approach helps me stay on track even though my business idea has never been my true dream. My top three values are fulfillment, inspiration and contribution. Though online forms aren’t my passion per se, I find that providing people with a tool to make their lives easier is very fulfilling.
3. Maybe don’t make goals for the year.
Let’s be honest — committing to anything for a full year is daunting. Circumstances also change over the course of 12 months, and what was aspirational in January might be impracticable by April.
Like my gym membership, I prefer to subscribe to my resolutions on a quarterly basis. That way I can evaluate the progress, adapt and stay on course.
Also, setting more reasonable targets helps me not just to maintain a healthy business — but also to live a more balanced, meaningful life.
Dorie Clarke, author and adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, agrees with this approach. Says Dorie,
“Instead of creating annual New Year’s Resolutions, I set six-month goals. In 2015, for instance, my professional goals for the first half of the year were ‘Double the size of my email list by the end of the year’ and ‘Successfully launch my new book, Stand Out.’ For the latter half of the year, I retained the email list-building goal, and updated the latter to ‘Sell the proposal for my next book.”
4. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Research shows that for highly achievement-oriented people, their motivation is optimal when they succeed 50% to 70% of the time — i.e., they’re failing 30% to 50% of the time.
Let that soak in: high-achievers tend to fail half the time they do things. And that’s when they’re most driven and most motivated.
Bottom line: get comfortable being ok with failure, and it may push you to succeed.
Your 2019 resolutions
New Year’s Resolutions have gotten a bad rap. A mere 8% of us manage to stick with our annual goals.
As discouraging as that sounds, we can still take advantage of the “fresh start effect” to accomplish things in 2019.
Before you start drawing up your resolutions, take a moment to reflect on the bigger picture. Write down what’s most important to you, and set new objectives that are personally meaningful.
Work your systems, one step at a time. And be sure to enjoy the ride.
I wish you a great 2019.