10 Tips for Making New Year’s Resolutions You Might Actually Keep

If the smell of a new calendar inspires you to make drastic changes in your life, you’re probably gearing up to make some new year’s resolutions.  And since no one plans to fail, you’re probably also seeking out those elusive goals that fall in the narrow crack between “beneficial” and “achievable”.

Then reality sets in, and you find yourself a year older, barely the wiser, and clutching a tattered list of unaccomplished dreams that seemed so realistic just a few months ago.  (I should know; of the 21 goals I set for myself last January, I achieved a whopping nine, and half of those had to be amended midway through.)

But fear not.  As a grizzled veteran of failed new year’s resolutions, I’ve finally understood how to strategize for a year of galvanizing personal rebirth.  This year, whether you want to eat healthier, quit smoking, get laid or simply build a fountain by hand from recycled LEGO blocks, I’ve got you covered with the following ten tips.

1.  Understand How Your Own Mind Works

It’s the end of the year, and you just survived two months of office parties, family reunions, copious overeating and endless travel.  You’re feeling contemplative, introspective, nostalgic.  And if you’re lucky, you’ve had at least a week’s vacation between Christmas and New Year’s to evaluate your life and ask yourself where it’s heading.

Which is why you’re now preparing to commit yourself to a year’s worth of Herculean tasks that would make Greek poets weep with inspiration.  Do yourself a favor: dial it down.  Because two weeks from now, when you’re knee-deep in unreasonable deadlines to make up for that holiday break, you’ll think that only hitting the snooze button twice is a sonnet-worthy accomplishment.

2.  Understand How Your Own Motivations Work

Everyone has an idealized self-image that they aspire to.  Everybody envisions themselves as being healthy, organized, romantic and self-confident, and they believe their own personal nirvana of self-actualization is merely a matter of two or three “small changes that make a big difference,” or some other piece of self-help claptrap.

Don’t set your goals on behalf of others.  Don’t overestimate your own resilience.  And don’t do what you think you should be doing if it isn’t what you also want to be doing.  Nobody quits smoking unless they want to quit smoking, no matter how pressured they feel.

3.  Budget for Sanity

So much of what we want to change about our lives requires money, or at least the resources that money can buy.  But unless one of your goals is “Become a millionaire by June,” you’re going to make about as much money, give or take, as you did last year.  And unless you have a spare thousand dollars loitering in your bank account right now, you probably don’t earn the kind of cash that lends itself to whimsical expenditures intended to supercharge your self-esteem.

Look back over your major expenses of the past year.  Couple that with the amount of expendable cash in your possession right now.  That’s how much money you can realistically allocate for next year’s resolutions.  If you want to update your wardrobe, take a class or go on vacation, you can probably swing it.  If you want to do all of those AND donate four figures to charity, you’re asking for seasonal depression to set in come next December.  Be realistic and you’ll feel better about what you did accomplish, rather than what you failed to afford.

4.  Start Small, Finish Big

Want to read 12 books this year?  Or see 20 classic films?  Or write a novel?  Those are the kinds of goals that require accomplishment in increments — and that takes time.  So make use of these long winter nights to get a jump on some of your easier resolutions.  The progress you make now will help ease the guilt when real life (and the natural high of summer) derails your clear-eyed January resolve.

And if you should find yourself behind schedule on any goals as autumn sets in, relax.  November and December are rife with snowy weekends that provide ample opportunities for movie marathons, culinary experiments and an excuse to lock yourself away in the den and finish that goddamn screenplay.

5.  Grow a Pair

If every goal you set is easily accomplished, you’re not pushing yourself.  New year’s resolutions are an opportunity to make significant changes to your life, and the desires that drive these urges are unlikely to be satiated solely by resolutions like “Catch Up On Mad Men.”

But checking off those tiny goals does build your confidence while freeing up your plate so you can allocate more of your energy and willpower toward tackling those one or two massive changes you really can pull off this year.  Exercising five times a week?  Finding a better job?  Volunteering at an animal shelter?  All much easier when you have a storehouse of smaller checkmarks propping you up.

6.  Change with the Seasons

What you want to change about yourself today, when the sun is only shining for five minutes a day, is not what you’ll realize you need to improve at the first flush of spring or the stark chill of autumn.  Allow yourself the freedom to adapt your goals as your self-awareness evolves throughout the year.

As you come to grips with the fact that you can’t possibly accomplish everything you set out to do in January, you’ll decide which of your goals are the ones worth sticking with and which ones you no longer feel compelled to attain — or which ones you might need to circle back around to next year.

7.  Avoid the Small Print

When it comes to reaching numerous goals simultaneously, flexibility is key.  “Watch 20 French Films” is far more attainable than “Netflix a Godard Film Every Thursday Night.”  Don’t lock yourself into specifics when loosely-interpretable definitions will do.

8.  Nothing Tastes Better Than Free

As mentioned above, you’re not made of money.  But your financial status doesn’t need to prevent you from setting goals; it just means you need to be more creative when finding ways to complete them.  If one of your goals is to “Watch 50 Movies,” don’t feel obligated to see them all in theaters.  What would cost you over $500 at the multiplex only costs $50 at the redbox — or nothing if you go to the library.

Likewise, turn an eye toward what you already own.  Want to read more?  Start with all those books on your shelf that you “never quite got to” in college.  Want to learn how to change your own oil, ride a motorcycle or play the guitar?  Ask around.  One of your friends (or Twitter followers) probably knows how, and would be happy to teach you in exchange for a similar exchange of knowledge from you.  Which brings us to…

9.  You Are Not an Island (of Resolutions)

Yes, you want to be a better person.  So does everyone else.  Which means we can all stand to help each other out with our new year’s resolutions — so share yours with the people you think will be supportive (or, if you really want a challenge, with the people you think won’t).

Whether it’s as simple as reminding your dad that he resolved to eat healthier, or as serious as helping your coworker stop drinking, playing your part in other people’s rise toward their own goals will help you keep your own in perspective — and it increases the chances that at least one of you will succeed.

(Bonus points if you actually make resolutions with someone else.  Improving communication with your spouse, taking a morning swim with your roommate or a competitive challenge at work keeps us all connected — and accountable.)

10.  “Hoping for a Miracle” Is Not a Resolution

You are where you are, and you know where you want to be.  But while your eyes are currently fixed on the prize, you’re also ignoring all the steps between here and there.  And since identifying those milestones can be depressing when all you want to do is get “there” now, you may be inclined to set overly optimistic goals for yourself today, only to be waylaid by misery and depression when you find that your reach dramatically exceeds your grasp.

Instead of seeing those stepping stones between “here” and “there” as the unimportant intangibles you want to believe they are right now, see them for what they really are: goals unto themselves.  Sure, you may want to lose 100 pounds, but first you have to lose 50, and first 20.  Baby steps aren’t just for babies; they’re for adults who don’t want to lose their way.

Yes, you can do anything you set out to do (within reason).  And yes, by this time next year, you want to be a better person than you are today.  But don’t expect to run a marathon before you can jog around the block without passing out.

Best wishes, happy holidays, and I’ll see yinz all again next year.