Five Tips for Planning Effective New Year’s Resolutions.

Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I know I always do. I’m more inclined to make resolutions than ever, in fact, because if my happiness project has convinced me of anything, it has convinced me that resolutions – made right – can make a huge difference in boosting happiness.

So how do you resolve well? This is trickier than it sounds. Here are some tips for making your resolutions as effective as possible. Remember, right now, you’re in the planning stage. Don’t feel like you have to do anything yet! Just start thinking about what would make 2010 a happier year.

1. Ask: “What would make me happier?” It might having more of something good – more fun with friends, more time for a hobby. It might be less of something bad – less yelling at your kids, less nagging of your spouse. It might be fixing something that doesn’t feel right – more time spent volunteering, more time doing something to make someone else happier.

2. Ask: “What is a concrete action that would bring about change?” One common problem is that people make abstract resolutions, which are hard to keep. “Be more optimistic,” “Find more joy in life,” “Enjoy now,” are resolutions that are hard to measure and therefore difficult to keep. Instead, look for a specific, measurable action. “Distract myself with fun music when I’m feeling gloomy,” “Watch at least one movie each week,” “Buy a lovely plant for my desk” are resolutions that will carry you toward those abstract goals.

3. Ask: “Am I a ‘yes’ resolver or a ‘no’ resolver?” Some people resent negative resolutions. They dislike hearing “don’t” or “stop” or adding to their list of chores. If this describes you, try to find positive resolutions: “Take that dance class,” “Have lunch with a friend once a week.” Or maybe you respond well to “no.” That’s my situation. A lot of my resolutions are aimed at getting me to stop doing something or to do something I don’t really want to do. Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Follow the one-minute rule. There’s no right way to make a resolution, but it’s important to know what works for you. As always, the secret is to know your own nature.

4. Ask: “Am I starting small enough?” Many people make super-ambitious resolutions and then drop them, feeling defeated, before January is over. Start small! We tend to over-estimate what we can do over a short time and under-estimate what we can do over a long time, if we make consistent, small steps. If you’re going to resolve to start exercising (one of the most popular resolutions), don’t resolve to go to the gym for an hour every day before work. Start by going for a ten-minute walk at lunch or marching in place once a day during the commercial breaks in your favorite TV show. Little accomplishments provide energy for bigger challenges. Push yourself too hard and you may screech to a halt.

5. Ask: “How am I going to hold myself accountable?” Accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions. That’s why groups like AA and Weight Watchers are effective, and there are many ways to hold yourself accountable. I keep my Resolutions Chart (if you’d like to see my chart, for inspiration, email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin.com–just write “resolution chart” in the subject line). Or you could track your resolutions online using the tools at the Happiness Project Toolbox. Or you could form a goals group – or even a happiness-project group! (For a starter kit for starting a happiness-project group, click here.) Accountability is why #2 is so important. If your resolution is too vague, it’s hard to measure whether you’ve been keeping it. A resolution to “Eat healthier” is harder to track than “Eat salad for lunch three times a week.”

Have you found any strategies that have helped you successfully keep resolutions in the past?

* I always find a lot of posts worth checking out on Lisa Belkin’s New York Times blog, Motherlode.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 30,000 people get it)
Pre-order the book for your friends (or yourself) — here’s an e-card to let them know it’s coming
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • http://www.mybodytutor.com/ Adam Gilbert

    Gretchen, fantastic list!

    I find that accountability is absolutely the secret as well. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to rationalize and justify our poor choices.

    I also think a very helpful resolution is to not let yourself make excuses. The problem with that, though, is we’re incredibly good at rationalizing. But being aware of it, is the first step to overcoming it!

    Usually when we’re making excuses we’re giving into our short term, irrational self. Simply asking yourself the question, “What benefits my future self?” can guide you in the right direction and push you to take the action you really want to take deep down anyway!

  • http://jonathanbegley.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Begley

    Great Tips! Thanks for all the happiness! In response to your “yes or no resolver” I am definitely one who resents negative resolutions. I have set goals such as “watch less television” and have failed. Striving to do something that makes me happy, such as reading or running, instead of watching tv is the way for me.

  • http://www.sharinakagawa.com/ Shari

    I’m part of a peer mentoring group. It’s 4 of us, all around the same age. We meet every 6-7 weeks and discuss our goals, what we have done to meet them and if we have any new ones. We provide each other with feedback, accountability and suggestions. We have been meeting for 2 years and in that time I have gone back to school (for photography), gone from doing no exercise to taking 9 dance classes a week (a gradual progression over the two years), done a full year of “saying yes” to any invitation in order to get out more and currently, taking a picture a day for a year as a creative exercise. I never would have done any of these things on my own. It’s so awesome.

    (PS, love your blog… just added it to my reader last week!)

    • Donna

      I like the idea of a peer mentoring group. The only ones I’ve heard of were connected to a school or company. I’d like one among older, semi-retired women! Any suggestions how to start? Maybe you blog about this. Thanks for the idea

      • gretchenrubin

        Yes, what a great idea!

        Check out this kit for starting a happiness-project group yourself, lots of
        ideas:
        http://happiness-project.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=b4bb6f56200fe4fe93f580b
        f3&id=d4435269fd

        I just joined a happiness-project group myself! It was SO FUN! And it has
        made me happier.

      • http://www.sharinakagawa.com/ Shari

        Hi Donna,

        The group I’m part of met at a YWCA conference where the keynote speaker was talking about peer mentoring. I would go to a local community center, the YMCA or something like that and see if you could start one. My only suggestion is not to do it with friends. Friends will let you off the hook. These ladies have become my friends but because we came together for a purpose, we stick to that purpose. We also have rules for our meetings. Cheers

    • kaps23

      WHAT AGE GROUP DO YOU BELONG TO AND WHATY TYPE OF ACTIVITIES DO YOU DO.

  • qconklin

    When it comes to setting goals i think a mix of yes and no statements are important. We become the person we want to be by eliminating the negative behaviors and building positive ones.

    Accountability is important when it comes to sticking to our resolutions, but equally important is making resolutions that we honestly want to keep. If we try to avoid doing what we relay enjoy it becomes a burden that we will gladly put down. If we are working for something we want we will keep going and going.

  • http://whynotstartnow.wordpress.com/ Patty – Why Not Start Now?

    Hmm, I’m in a time of my life when I’m not too interested in making resolutions, but instead living each day to its fullest. I guess that does sound sort of abstract, but deep down I know what it means and how to do it. Ironically, I find it helpful to look back rather than forward for those clues, and I just wrote about that. That said, however, I appreciate your list and the energy you bring to it.

  • Danielle

    I don’t remember where I heard or read this (maybe here?) but I really like the idea of nixing use of the word should. So instead of “I really should run today” I say to myself “I deserve to take care of my body and run today”. Using “I deserve…” can turn around the negative connotations that might come along with a resolution “should”.

  • brainygirl

    So…what if your main problem is #1? You don’t actually KNOW what will make you happier? This seems to be the reason why I’m just not sure what direction to take or what to resolve????? Short of “Figure out what makes me happy” which is not too quantifiable, I’m a bit stuck…
    :(

  • http://mensplaybook.com/ Torrey

    Gretchen,

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding resolutions. I especially like making sure there is some level of accountability involved. Bringing others in either in person of via web is a great way to stay motivated.

    I suggest the same thing when helping people get out of debt. Get others involved in your journey. That way you can keep each other inspired.

  • http://www.mummyzen.com/ Mummy Zen

    These are great tips and all important considerations for making new year’s resolutions. I particularly think #1 and #4 are crucial. It’s all too easy to think about what you ‘should’ do but doing something that will actually make you happier means it’s a lot easier to follow through. Starting small, like you say, is the key to not giving up on your resoltuions and also I think applies to not making too many resolutions all at one time. Whilst January is a traditional time of year to make resolutions, you can of course start a new resolution at any time.

  • pamwalter

    These are wonderful suggestions. After reading them I can see why many of my resolutions fall by the wayside by January 7th.

  • http://www.justoneweek.net/ Erin

    Resolutions are, in effect, habits – and I am very, very interested in how people make and break both mental and behavioral habits. Resolutions can bring more bad than good if you are unable to keep the resolution and instead keep a lot of guilt for not keeping your resolution. That’s what often happens to me, and I’m sick of feeling guilty all the time. I’ve started looking through my projects list and thinking – how long has this been on the list? Would I rather finish it – or remove it from the list and thus remove the guilt! One thing that I hope helps me follow through with my resolutions is my accountability to my blog readers and my husband and friends I’ve told about my resolutions.

  • http://tenaciousme3.wordpress.com/ Laura Lee Bloor

    Once again, an excellent post, Gretchen. I’ll be linking back to it when I do my end-of-year review and make my new goals, or resolutions, for 2010.

    I’ll mention again that I love your Happines Project Toolbox! Thanks so much for creating it!

  • http://www.my168hours.com/ Laura Vanderkam

    I like the line about overestimating what we can do in the short run but underestimating in the long run. The overestimation one is why people are always late! But I’ve been thinking about resolving to run a marathon this year, and have broken it down to what it would actually require: about 10 hours of training per week for 4 months. Could I do that? That doesn’t seem so overwhelming. We think of life in grand abstractions but live it in small actions and hours.

  • http://www.uncertainchange.com/ Tomas Stonkus

    Hey Gretchen:

    Wonderful reminders for writing my plan for 2010 (it should be a good year because this number is the round and comfy :)!

    Couple of things that I really think are important: starting small and accountability. You are so right with those! Most people want gratification NOW! They can’t wait for long time to reap the rewards. By focusing on small gradual changes you will be much less frustrated and much happier when you are going to see yourself progress!

    If you keep yourself accountable then you now when you are making progress! One does not exist with out the other. Like you mentioned gathering a group of friend can make keeping each other accountable much easier!

    I can add one thing from my own experience that makes thing go much smoother – turn those long term goals into daily easy to do actions. This way this huge and impossible project will seem very simple if you break it down into 365 days :)

    For example, if you want to loose 20 lbs over the year then you have to lose only 0.055 lbs a day! That’s much more manageable isn’t it?

    Thank you for these great questions to keep in mind!

    Best,
    Tomas

  • Grant Parish

    One should never direct people towards happiness, because happiness is an idol of the marketplace. One should direct them towards mutual affection. A beast gnawing at its prey can be happy too, but only human beings can feel affection for each other, and this is the highest achievement they can aspire to.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    • TracyW

      Grant Parish, but the marketplace is one of the most amazing inventions of humanity, and a great boon to us all. The wonder of the market is that it solves the calculation problem of an economy – how do we know if creating a good or service is worth the time and effort that goes into making it? Marketplaces allow trade and mutual benefits amongst more and more people and connect us together in a great web of human closeness.
      Noticeably, people in more market-integrated cultures display higher levels of trust, and deviate more from the economists’ solely-self-interested rational “homo economicus” in pro-social ways than in less market-integrated countries. See “Economic Man in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Behavioural Experiments in 15 Small Scale societies. Corruption is lower in market economies (described as “economic freedom” in this paper) than in non-market econoimes – see Economic Freedom and Corruption.
      Furthermore, while I know of no direct international measures for affection, murdering another person strikes me as a display of the absence of affection (although it often occurs amongst people with a past history that should have brought them closer), and if you compare world homocide rates with economic freedom, you’ll find that for those countries who report homocide rates, more economic freedom is associated with lower homocide rates, even including the USA in those figures. (I estimate the correlation at about -20%, I didn’t spend a long time though closely matching country names).
      See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate/ and http://www.heritage.org/Index/ for the Economic Freedom index.

      Now this does not prove that market economies cause a lack of corruption, a lack of homocide or an increase in trust, the linkages might be the other way (eg you need relatively non-corrupt societies with a high level of trust for tight market integration). But if Solzhenitsyn’s implication that mutual affection is somehow in conflict with happiness as an-idol of-the-marketplace, then I would expect to see societies based around markets displaying fewer signs of mutual affection, in the real world though we see the opposite.

      I also dispute the claim that only human beings feel affection for each other. I have read many repors by zoologists of animals like elephants, dolphins and apes acting in ways around dead relatives that are remarkably like a human might act in mourning.

      I don’t believe in worshipping the marketplace or in making an idol out of happiness (or out of anything). But on the whole, if something is associated with markets that strikes me as probably good for humanity, at least on first reading. And in the case of affection for each other, market societies appear to encourage that.

  • http://budurl.com/79e2 Teresa

    Wow, thank you for these great tips! I have made and let go of many resolutions in the past (losing weight being one of them!). With these tips, I don’t feel pressured at all. Rather, I’m excited to plan and push through with whatever resolution I decide to fulfil next year. Since these questions will allow me to narrow down what I need to do and where to start, keeping a resolution is more realistic. Factoring in happiness, change and accountability as considerations also helps a lot in the process.

    For stories and tips on how to make more, live more and give more in 2010, check out http://www.makemorelivemoregivemore.com.

  • Cristina

    This is the best article I have ever read about keeping New Year’s resolutions, thank you thank you!!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m thrilled to hear that you found it helpful!

  • CoachMarty

    Great post! I love the thoughts around accountability. A great way to make yourself accountable is by making a financial commitment. Healthywage, http://www.healthywage.com pays you $100 to lose weight in 2010 and allows you to “bet” on your ability to lose weight (pay $300 and get paid $1000 for losing weight). The money comes from corporate sponsors interested in empowering you to improve your health.

    Get paid $100 for getting healthy in 2010.

  • karenhphillips

    Gretchen, on New Year’s Eve, as I contemplate my resolutions (very few, mostly specific, and quite modest), your post encouraged me! I think I’m going to blog about this, which will get me back to posting on a regular basis. My copy of The Happiness Project arrived this morning, and I’ve already scoured the back cover blurb and dust jacket, with my place marked to read your “Note to the Reader.” Happy New Year! (no pun intended–or maybe there is)

  • karenhphillips

    I’ve begun–barely–reading my copy of The Happiness Project, which arrived this morning. Gretchen, you’ve inspired me, after following your posts for months, to get back to everyday blogging, probably about the resolutions I wrote down two days ago and how I will work them out and refine them throughout the coming year. Thanks for the motivation to continue being happy and making others happy.

    Happy New Year–pun intended!

  • seebeyond

    Just want to share another way to track your resolution: keeping a journal/diary. I co-founded http://www.lifeentry.com, a journal/photo diary.I hope you try out lifeentry for your tracking tool.

  • suddenlysusan

    5. Ask: “How am I going to hold myself accountable?” Accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions.

    I agree this is so key! My sister-in-law and I decided to become accountability partners for this year’s resolution of becoming less wasteful with time, food, & energy. We’re using FB to accomplish this. I am posting one tip daily that I use to be less wasteful and have invited my FB friends & family to add any tips they have that may be helpful. Just in the last couple of days, I vowed to use the food in my freezer before I buy any new. I found frozen chicken from last June and forced myself to thaw it out and use it. (BTW, it was just fine.) Behind the chicken I found a whole bag of frozen raspberries ~ for me it was like finding gold at the end of the rainbow! Not only have I been less wasteful regarding food, I’ve saved time & gas going to the store to buy stuff I don’t need. This may seem like a small thing but it’s important to me. I have a friend who told me once “just find thing you can change, and do that ~ it’s more than most people do”. And, that’s what I’m trying to do. Just change one thing.

  • suddenlysusan

    5. Ask: “How am I going to hold myself accountable?” Accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions.

    I agree this is so key! My sister-in-law and I decided to become accountability partners for this year’s resolution of becoming less wasteful with time, food, & energy. We’re using FB to accomplish this. I am posting one tip daily that I use to be less wasteful and have invited my FB friends & family to add any tips they have that may be helpful. Just in the last couple of days, I vowed to use the food in my freezer before I buy any new. I found frozen chicken from last June and forced myself to thaw it out and use it. (BTW, it was just fine.) Behind the chicken I found a whole bag of frozen raspberries ~ for me it was like finding gold at the end of the rainbow! Not only have I been less wasteful regarding food, I’ve saved time & gas going to the store to buy stuff I don’t need. This may seem like a small thing but it’s important to me. I have a friend who told me once “just find thing you can change, and do that ~ it’s more than most people do”. And, that’s what I’m trying to do. Just change one thing.

  • http://bridgetable.net/ maggy

    I’m an old lady (90 in March) with a lifelong history of not living up to resolutions. In past few years however I FINALLY completed a really long and difficult one–wrote and published a book on a topic about which I’d been collecting trivia and research for two decades. What was the magic this time? Visualization–Marley forcing Scrooge to see his Christmas future and his own funeral. In mine,my daughter (after I’m gone) has to confront a small mountain of paper (3 x 5’s, books, 60 file folders–it’s a book of 52 short chapters–etcetera, etcetera)and throw all those years of collection into the condo dumpster–wasted notes, never to be put down on paper.
    I resolved I would give myself a generous 2 years (thinking I’ll live forever is one of my character flaws) — one to organize and come up with a decent draft, another to get edited, refined and get it in print. Otherwise I’d have to dump all that stuff myself–not put it on my daughter to do.
    That visualization, a few one-liners posted on the wall near my word processor worked. Best for me was “Failure can not withstand persistence” or in Disneyworld terms, “Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start again.” Silly solution, but it worked!!
    Those two daily, plus dipping into many books along the way (I call it bibliotherapy) and two in particular: If You Can Talk You Can Write by Joel Saltzman and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield’s book is about RESISTANCE, the undermining enemy we have to defeat to keep our resolutions and reach goals. Not that I claim my book (Bridge Table or What’s TrumpAnyway?) is art! But the first chapter makes clear this book is intended for lowliest goals (“tighter abdominals”) to loftiest goals (“pursuit of any calling . . . or creative art”) or just to make more money (“launching of any venture for profit or otherwise”)–all are undone by the enemy, Resistance, if you don’t confront it daily.
    In the introduction he asks, “Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance?”
    It took that Scrooge analogy–visualized in personal terms–to do it for me.

  • http://www.my168hours.com/ Laura Vanderkam

    Having a plan is key. I want to run a marathon this year. So I found a 16 week training plan that looked doable. Then I signed up for a marathon 16 weeks into the year. Now I’ve been executing against the plan. I look at what runs I need to get in each week, check the weather and schedule them in. Since they’re scheduled in, they happen. I’m only 2.5 weeks in, but since I’ve done all my runs including a 13-miler and a 15-miler, I feel pretty good about this one (barring injury of course!)