New Year’s resolutions are so last century, right? I mean, who really even believes that they’ll follow through with anything, who believes that they’ll actually make that change? What if you’re going about it all wrong, this year and every year?

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SO HERE we are, going into 2022. Given the two years we’ve had, and the direction that Covid seems to be taking, perhaps all you’ll have to do for 2022 to be a better year than the previous two is to just show up! Ha ha. However, we can’t be naïve about that. Each year has its thing, so we do have to approach it consciously, for sure.

So, the first thing I’d say, as for any year, is that you don’t have to conquer the world in one year; see the year for what it is: a single year in a chain of many years. People often focus on the short term, on this year, as though it’s the last chance, the only chance, they’ll ever have. They want to go from being, say, a couch potato to climbing Kilimanjaro all in one year. They think they have to shoot the lights out.

That’s fine if it’s realistic, but often it’s not—and not even necessary. It’s just to prove a point. Or it’s because you carry this unexamined notion that your life is nearly over because you’re 35, or 55. I often see that in people. They’re desperate to do something because they think they’re old. If you take a good look, you’ll see that you can still be fit and agile at 75, let alone 55. That means that if you’re either of those ages, or younger, you can still set a long-term goal and build towards it. It might be a fitness goal, and it can also be a career goal, or a relationship or any other goal. This often surprises people. I’ve had clients in their late twenties, desperate because they haven’t “changed the world” yet. I tell them I’m in my fifties and I’m only just getting started. They look at me gobsmacked.

Just keep showing up

When I visit my chiropractor, he often remarks that I’m in the best shape of any of his clients my age. I joke and say, do you want to know my secret? Well, my secret is, I’ve always made New Year’s resolutions, although I’ve never tried to shoot the lights with any of them. Instead, I’ve kept showing up, year after year, always seeking to improve on the one before. In terms of exercise, for example, I’ve kept up my daily stretch routine, my two to three gym visits a week and the odd short run. Each year, I’ve tried to do just a little bit better than the year before. To beat my time, or to be more consistent in how often I go, or to put in that little bit more effort than I did last last year.

What has driven me? I’ve always had a clear long-term vision of being healthy, fit and agile, well into old age. I trade in wisdom, and so it follows that I’ll only reach my peak when I’m older, and I want to be able to perform at my best when I do. That’s my main driver, my big goal, and it’s essential to have one of those if you want to make a sustainable change. If you make a short-term blast because you think you should, or to prove a point, but it’s not taking you anywhere meaningful, then it won’t last. Then you’ll prove the cynics right that New Year’s resolutions don’t work.

Sure, there have been times within a year when I slacked off. I’ve always allowed myself those times and then eased my way back. And that’s the thing. Instead of giving up, or, conversely, feeling guilty or getting angry with myself, and then overreacting, I’ve been forgiving, understanding, and gentle with myself. There were also times when I was injured. I took all the time I needed to recover. Six weeks, three months, sometimes even longer. I never hurried it, or treated it like my time’s up, like I’ve got to get back, run this or that race by this or that time, prove a point. I’ve just waited until I was ready and then gently eased back into it.

Ease back into it

By “ease” I mean the first time I go back to gym after a break—especially if it’s at the beginning of a new year—I don’t try to shoot the lights out. I know that if I overdo it, I’ll regret it when I spend the next few days hobbling about, being stiff. Instead, I just show up and go through the motions. I might do bench press or curls with only the bar and no weights. Then, the next visit, I’ll add small weights. Within three to four visits, I’ll be operating at full strength, without ever once straining myself excessively.

About a year ago I climbed the steps at Red Rocks, in Colorado, with my then 21-year-old son. It’s a climb of close to 400 steps from the lower parking lot to the base of the amphitheatre, and another 138 to the top entrance. And it’s at altitude. We measured our heart rates when we got to the top. Mine was at 90—lower than my son’s—within a minute of reaching the top. “That’s not bad, old man!” he said, rather sheepishly.

Of course, it’s not fashionable to write about one’s own experience like this. It sounds like I’m boasting. It would be more fashionable to report my failed attempts and joke about how useless I am and how all those self-help programs are therefore impossible at best, or downright fake at worst—and, of course, that new year’s resolutions are pointless. Well, I don’t ascribe to that view. I’ve always wanted to know what works, and so I’ve gone out and tried things, and tested them, always striving to be the best version of myself that I can be. And this is my answer. This is what I’ve found works when it comes to making any resolution, including a New Year’s resolution, and sticking to it.

Be in love with your goal

What’s most important is to have a long-term goal that you’re in love with (the sidebar below explains what I mean by being in love with your goal), as against deciding impulsively on a one-year shot at glory. Your New Year’s resolution is then simply a cementing of your resolve to get connected to that goal, and to let that connection guide you with gentle ease to take on the attitudes and perform the behaviours that will get you to your goal. In other words, you see it as one step on a greater journey to being your best self, one phase of a never-ending journey of self-improvement. True, this resolve could happen at any time, and sometimes it’s difficult to make a change in midstream, when you’re busy with the momentum of your year. Sometimes it’s easier to use the end-of-year break as a marker, and the new year as a tipping point. If that’s what you need, then do it, and it’ll work because your overall context is one of self-improvement. You’re not just trying to stop some habit that you know is bad for you. (Those New Year’s resolutions seldom work, because they’re done for the wrong reason: there’s no love for the goal.)

As you move into the year, and you get busy, and tempted to fall into old habits, you can remind yourself of how important the long-term goal is. To the degree that you connect to that goal, and the benefits of that goal, and how much you’re in love with that goal (see sidebar below) you’ll find yourself willing and able to surrender to the actions that are needed for you to move towards that goal. By that I mean you simply give up your resistance, get out of your own way, stop listening to your own excuses, stop distracting yourself with other “more important” things, and find yourself doing the activity that you need to be doing to get you to that goal that you love. (For more on how to get going, see The Five Motivational States blog series.)

You can think of this long-term, slow-burn approach as taking a few pennies or pounds—or dollars, or rands—and, instead of spending them on some sweet that would taste good for a few minutes, dropping them instead into a piggy bank, or a savings account, and smiling when you think about the withdrawal you’ll make one day—including all the interest you’ll have earned—and what you’ll spend it on. For example, you might imagine yourself climbing hundreds of steps at altitude and hardly showing any signs of your age. If you put enough away, you’ll be able to make that withdrawal many, many times.

So, in short, if you want to make a New Year’s resolution that counts, make sure it’s linked to a long-term goal that really matters to you—a goal that you’re in love with.

Being in love with your goal. Or, why don’t people maintain their New Year’s resolutions?

goals new year resolutions

Think about it, if you’re in love, you’re not going to wait until new year to call the person, you’re going to call them now! It’s the same with your goal. If you’re not doing it already, then you’re not in love with the goal. In other words, you’re not totally captivated by the ultimate outcome of the activity. You don’t want it enough. You’re more in love with what you’re currently doing instead, and you’re tolerating the outcome that you’re getting. You want the sweets more than the savings, and you’re putting up with the bad moods, or bad teeth, that they’re giving you.

You have to get present to the benefits of your goal, and you have to be connected to it so strongly that doing the right actions is inevitable. The action will be as natural as calling—or, these days, texting—that person you’re in love with. Of course, you may be shy to contact your love interest. You may make excuses about the activity, but if the attraction is strong enough, you’ll get there in the end. You’ll find a way. And if a New Year’s resolution is what’s needed to give you the tipping point, then fine, use that.

If you’re not feeling that way towards your goal, or your New Year’s resolution, then you’re probably looking at a “should” goal instead of a real authentic “this-is-who-I-am” goal. A “should” goal is one that you have because you feel you should. It’s right, it’s good for you, it’s what everyone else is doing, or what everyone else expects of you. You need to let go of those shoulds, and explore what’s really meaningful for you. Who, or what, do you really love?

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