How to Set New Year's Goals You'll Actually Stick To

How to Set New Year's Goals You'll Actually Stick To

A lot is different this Christmas: smaller family gatherings, no big office parties, and online shopping instead of last-minute, in-store scrambling. Yet something that’s stayed the same is that many people will still make at least one New Year’s resolution. Often this is focused on fixing an existing bad habit or is more aspirational, like joining a gym or running your first 5K. Yet according to a study conducted at the University of Scranton, 81 percent of people fail to follow through on these aims, and many are abandoned as quickly as that string of lights that frustratingly failed to glow. Here are five techniques to help you set better goals for 2021 and stick with them.  

1) Set Better Goals

We’ll get to some tactics for achieving your aims in a moment. But we’d be remiss to not begin with the actual goals themselves, as the direction you start heading in largely determines where you’ll end up. As such, when you sit down to brainstorm which targets to hit in the next 12 months and beyond, don’t overwhelm yourself by writing down a lot of small or random goals. Rather, start with the areas of your life that you feel are essential, such as family, work, health, and education. Then write down one dream goal for each area that’s so ambitious it scares you a little. Next, write a big outcome goal (get a promotion, break three hours in the marathon, etc.) as well.

In their insightful book The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling reveal that, “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” As an antidote, they suggest identifying a small number of “wildly important goals” and then dedicating sufficient time to pursuing them. Your goals should be a source of inspiration, energy, and motivation, not a sword of Damocles dangling above your head all year. So if you write one down and it doesn’t make you feel excited about working toward it, cross it out and go with something else instead.

Once you’ve settled on your dream and outcome goals, it’s time to go down a level and establish some stepping stones. Figure out how you can break your bigger goals down into smaller ones that will get you closer to the finish line, and then assign a target date to each. Write all of this down and refer to it often to keep yourself motivated and on track.

2) Identify Missing Puzzle Pieces

Think about a dream or outcome goal as a complete jigsaw puzzle. If you laid out all the pieces you currently have at your disposal and started fitting them together, which would still be missing? (This is also good practice in case your aunt insists on buying you or your kids one of those infuriating 1,000-piece puzzles for Christmas for the sixth year in a row).

In his brilliant book Can’t Hurt Me, former Air Force Tactical Air Controller, Navy SEAL, and Army Ranger David Goggins reveals that he failed the Air Force entry test twice before he and his mother realized that he lacked a system for studying effectively. It took hiring a tutor to create and implement a methodology that worked, and after hundreds of hours of study, he finally passed the test. Goggins believes that being brutally honest with yourself about what you’re lacking (and then going out and filling these gaps) is just as important as doing an inventory of the resources and skills you already have. “If you need more education, remind yourself that you need to start working your butt off because you aren’t smart enough!” he writes.

3) Rally the Troops

The African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” is particularly apt when you’re chasing a big goal. If you’re one of those rare people who has the self-motivation, drive, and determination to keep forging ahead by yourself, then good for you. But most of us need a helping hand along the way and can benefit from having someone we trust walk alongside us on the path to our goals.

In fact, The Association for Talent Devlopment  found that if you just think about a goal, you only have a 10 percent chance of achieving it, which goes up to 50 percent if you write out a plan. But when you bring in outside assistance, your odds improve significantly. When you tell someone else about your targets, there’s a 65 percent chance that you’ll end up hitting them. And if you have this person schedule a regular accountability check-in with you, that rate soars up to 95 percent.

So identify a friend, family member, or mentor who you know is a good motivator and share your goals with them. Then schedule a monthly meeting – even if just for 10 or 15 minutes – in which they’ll check in on your goals and help you problem solve to overcome any obstacles you’re encountering.

4) Check Your Course

Just as it’s crucial to set up appointments with an accountability partner, so too should you deliberately carve out time to take a fresh look at your goals by yourself. These periodic check-ins aren’t merely to see how much progress you’re making and which sub-goals you can check off your list. They will also give you an opportunity to see what’s working and can stay the same and, conversely, what’s not working and needs to change.

An easy way to fit in regular goal assessment sessions is to combine them with the calendar blocking we advocated in a previous post. On a Friday evening before you step away from your computer, calendar all your appointments and to-do items for the upcoming week, and then spend the next five to 10 minutes honestly assessing what you’ve done to work toward your goals over the past few days. Just as you would if trying to navigate a trail with a map and compass, see if you’re still on the right course and if not, figure out how you need to alter your bearings so that you get back on the path to success. 

5) Do Your Dailies

 Atomic Habits author James Clear wrote on his website that “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.” What he’s getting at here is that you can’t achieve an ambitious aim overnight, but you can slowly build your way up to it if you show up and put in consistent effort over the long haul.

With this in mind, start each day by thinking of at least one thing you’re going to accomplish today that will help you get closer to your dream and outcome goals. This is what national championship-winning Alabama head football coach Nick Saban refers to as sticking to The Process. “I’ve convinced myself through the years that the process-oriented approach is much, much better, and it is much better for competitors because it keeps them focused on the right things,” he explained. “Not the results, but what it takes to get the results.”

You can augment this “slow and steady wins the race” approach by giving yourself a micro reward when you reach a new milestone. For example, if you’re writing your first novel, treat yourself every time you bang out another 5,000 words. Or if you’re going back to school, go ahead and buy something on your wish list when you finish the next course module. Such positive reinforcement will keep you pushing toward your final goal.