New Year's Resolutions: The Skeptic's Guide

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Most New Year's resolutions don’t succeed. There is a better method to make the improvements you want at any time of the year.

Posted by Nicholas R. Hahn on January 5th, 2017

Happy New Year! We’ve made another trip around the sun. And with the dawn of the new year, inspired by all of its limitless potential and opportunity, comes the obligatory barrage of New Year’s resolutions we’ll all be hearing and thinking a great deal about. Enduring the process can feel like a mandatory annual rite of passage.

Like birthdays, the prospect of time passing has profound psychological effects on many of us, making us more introspective--even if only briefly. Many think: “How’d this year go? Am I where I want to be in life? What are the things I want to change about myself or my relationships? What do I wish I did more or less of? Should I make a list? Can I become a ‘new me’ in the new year? This is my year, surely.”

Tradition guarantees nearly everyone will give some level of thought to this concept around this time of year and that’s both a good and bad thing:

  • The good: it’s healthy to step back and evaluate yourself and your life in an effort to make the changes that can move you towards your overall goals. If there are things you want to be different, then it’s great to be aware and to acknowledge that, and want to makes changes that will make you happier and feel more fulfilled.
  • The bad: a high level of scrutiny of one’s life can lead many people to be depressed--and depression and/or feeling overwhelmed makes you less likely to act. When down, people are more likely to feel that changes are too hard to make, that they will take too long, or that maybe it’s just too late. Simply giving thought to this once a year is not sufficient to inspire meaningful change and it doesn’t help create long-term objectives that can positively influence your life.

We’ve all heard (or lived) the typical New Year’s resolution stories and read the articles. Gym memberships skyrocket, diets begin, people quit smoking or drinking cold turkey, and relationships breakup or change. Often, the next day, week, or month, something changes and the progress stops; frequently induced by a stressor or overwhelming sense of futility, a mistake or event causes a return to the original state or behavior. If the reason why isn’t diagnosed and corrected, unwitting acceptance of the failed attempt ensues, often accompanied by feelings of defeat or depression. The next significant attempt at correcting what was seen as inadequate likely comes with the next introspective moment, New Year, or birthday.

As a concept, New Year’s resolutions and their likelihood of success have been almost entirely reduced to a joke. Research demonstrates that only 8% of people are successful in achieving their resolution, so it’s wise to approach them with skepticism.

But there’s good news:

The high failure rate means most people are just doing resolutions wrong. There are proven and effective ways to achieve goals that make the process easy, where both self-evaluation and self-scrutiny can be combined for your advantage. Planning and achieving goals begins with understanding your underlying purpose: what matters most to you, your values, and how you go about accomplishing goals that support those things. Just remember:

  • Change usually doesn’t happen overnight--and it doesn’t have to.
  • Progress isn’t linear. And that’s okay.
  • The greatest determinant of successfully achieving your goal is probably not what you’re doing--but how you are doing it.

That’s good news because “how” we go about pursuing goals is controllable. There’s a simple process you can follow and it doesn’t matter when you start:

Perspective and Mission + How + Determination = Progress

What you care about, what you want, and why (your perspective and mission) is up to you to decide. As Ray Dalio, founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates, succinctly puts it, “I don’t care whether it’s being a master of the universe, a couch potato, or anything else--I really don’t. What is essential is that you are clear about what you want and that you figure out how to get it.”

Why do most New Year’s resolutions not succeed? Because many people simply can’t figure out how to get what they want so they set unrealistic goals, make mistakes, and give up. An ideal process begins with how you think.

Perspective and Mission:

Your perspective matters most of all; it is your guide in life, it influences your consciousness and how you interact with reality in every way. A healthy perspective and purposeful mission can provide the guidance to establish appropriate goals as well as the energy and inspiration to achieve them. You cannot just set goals that are not justified in your life and realistically expect to achieve them.

When you discover your beliefs and values, you can influence everything in your life: your purpose, your viewpoint, and ultimately the behavior that influences your goals and relationships. It’s our responsibility to ourselves to give careful, honest consideration to what we care about, how we feel the world works (and should work) for us, what makes us happy, and what our purpose is.

There are many methods to seek clarity. Consider meditating; try simple introspective thinking. Try whatever will work best for you to find clarity and seek depth:

  1. Ask questions about your life, career, values, and your relationships. Answer What, who, why, how, where, when: What and who matters most, what do you believe in, why do you care, what do you want, how are you going to get it, where and when do you start? Take time to consider and research these answers. Write down your ideas in a simple manner. If you’re interested in inspiration or depth on this subject, there’s an interesting TED Talk worth examining further: Start With Why.
  2. Develop a healthy perspective. The way we each view the world and our role in it has perhaps the greatest influence on our behavior. Your outlook is unique and essential to providing guidance and dictating how you interact with reality. Take control. Support yourself by pursuing the things that you want to, reflecting upon your best qualities, and remind yourself to embrace special moments and consider your potential consistently. Remember to embrace opportunities and find the simple actions that can lift you in difficult times. Develop a perspective that empowers you and instills confidence. While it is difficult to change overnight, at the very least be aware of how your perspective influences you aim to evolve it. Take time to consider and research this. Again, if you’re interested in more depth here, there’s an interesting TED Talk worth examining: Perspective is Everything.
  3. Develop a mission that will motivate you daily. What are you striving for? Whether it’s a reinforcing mission statement, or a list of things or people that matter most to you, the more specific and deliberate your thinking is, the more it helps guide your decision making to be beneficial. Consider using the What, who, why, how, where, when method. (An example mission is “never stop improving and learning.”)
  4. Elastic Expectations: Don’t expect your life to follow a rigid map. Remember that you can’t control everything. Be fluid and be open to opportunities. Where you end up probably won’t be exactly where you planned but you’ll likely encounter a lot of opportunities that align with your goals along the way. A mission and perspective are your guide to help achieve incremental progress. There are a lot of different versions of this philosophy but one of the more simple personifications is Youtube celebrity Casey Neistat's Tarzan Method.
  5. Record everything. Keep a spreadsheet or document that simply reflects your mission and answers to your questions, which can be easily updated. Take a few minutes to review this periodically in a useful timeframe, whether everyday, week, or month.
  6. Take action: When you’ve determined what’s most important, turn towards making incremental steps to support your overall goals.

Done effectively, this process can help you develop a roadmap that will guide your entire life, rather than just one year.


Seek Incremental progress. Accept that you probably won't achieve your goals right away. And that’s okay. The most important thing is to set up a framework that will allow you to set goals and track your incremental progress towards achieving them. Look back at what matters most to you, categorize and determine the most important outcomes. Try not to overwhelm yourself. Start with the basics, you can always add more later. Focus on what matters most. Here’s how to set yourself up to successfully achieve:

  1. Clearly define your goals and success metrics. Be specific. For example, if you want to lose weight, do not leave it at that. Determine how much weight you want to lose and how quickly. Think big and act small. Review your overall mission and think about realistic goals that can be built upon in support of your objective, and how you’ll measure when you achieve them.
  2. Talk about your goals and seek input. Discuss what you’re working to achieve with your friends, coworkers, or family. Be open to hearing what they have to say (for example, if you're setting unrealistic, unachievable goals), but the final decisions are yours. Making public commitments and discussing them can provide support and help motivate you.
  3. Build habits by starting small. Don’t attempt to go from not exercising at all to running 1 mile every day. Instead, consider small steps that would allow you to build up to that. A useful guide to building and tracking successful habits can be found here. Start small and then once you’ve developed a habit you’re consistently performing, you can build upon it.
  4. Track your progress. Keeping track of the details of how you perform is critically important. Have a good system for tracking this. The ideal system will allow you to see if you’re achieving your goals simply and, if not, diagnose the issues that are impediments. Is it laziness, is it an issue of time, is it not getting enough sleep? Analysis is the only way to find out. Evolution 2, for example, is a habit tracker that allows you to document progress and diagnose issues that inhibit success. If you don’t want to use a tool, then consider developing your own method. The most important element is to understand why you’re not succeeding and then take steps to correct behavior.
  5. Be patient. There will be ups, plateaus, and downs on the path to change. Understand that going into the process and know that if you stick with making incremental steps and are honest with yourself about your issues, you are guaranteed to make progress towards your objectives. If it really matters, and you keep striving for it, you’re more likely to get what you want. Don’t forget to celebrate your successes and be proud of yourself.
  6. Schedule it. If your goal is to exercise more, for example, but you know you don’t have time in the evening after work, then you need to schedule time before work. If you don’t set time aside, specifically, for certain tasks they will not be given priority.
  7. Learn about yourself. Embark on a journey to know yourself better. Don’t harshly criticize yourself for making mistakes or not meeting objectives. Instead, seek to learn something about your behavior and yourself. Consider the entire process a mission of personal discovery. It’s much worse, for example, to deny being a procrastinator than to acknowledge that you have those tendencies and attempt to integrate that information into how you approach things. The greatest investment any of us can make is in knowing ourselves on a deeper level. Gaining knowledge and wisdom makes us better at work, relationships, and life.
  8. Iterate: Do not just set goals and check back next year to see if you achieved them. Put time on your calendar or on your to-do list to go back monthly or quarterly to review progress. If you have and follow a process of reviewing your goals, determining issues, following best practices, and remain honest with yourself, you exponentially increase your chances for success. Keep challenging yourself.

All of this can be hard to keep track of so we created a free spreadsheet that can help you make sure to take all these factors into account.


Whether it’s your mission, your values, or a mantra, seek something that will motivate you everyday to act--and then use it to take action.

Approaching your New Year's resolutions with a healthy, realistic perspective and a plan to achieve incremental progress towards your goals--and to manage setbacks--will make you exponentially more likely to move in the direction you want to go. Invest in implementing a method that can help you guide progress and meet goals for the rest of your life, not just the next year. And if you don’t care for some or all of this strategy, then take any useful ideas as inspiration to develop one that works better for you. You have the power to make the changes you desire and you don’t have to fundamentally change your life overnight or pick a specific date or time of year to begin.

The power of incremental progress is stronger than an abrupt change in your life because the habits you build will last and you will be able to apply this method to any challenges you confront.

Interested in assessing your new year’s planning? Here’s a quick assessment that can help you measure your effectiveness.

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