Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I know I always do. Now that I’m obsessed with habits, I’m more inclined to make resolutions than ever, in fact. If my happiness and habits research 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 2015 a happier year.
1. Ask: “What would make me happier?” It might be having more of something good – more fun with friends, more time for a hobby. It might be having less of something bad – less yelling at your kids, less regretting what you’ve eaten. It might be fixing something that doesn’t feel right – more time spent volunteering, more time doing something to strengthen a relationship. The more your life reflects your values, the happier you’ll be. That’s why I love habits–habits help me ensure that my life reflects my values.
2. Ask: “What is a concrete habit that would bring about change?” One common problem is that people make abstract resolutions, which are hard to keep. “Find more joy in life,” or “Enjoy now” are resolutions that are difficult to measure and therefore difficult to keep. Instead, look for a specific, measurable action that can become a habit. “Watch a classic movie every Sunday night“ or “Drink my coffee on my front steps every morning” 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 woodworking 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.
For instance, my sister is a “yes” resolver. Last year, she decided that she wanted to stop eating french fries (her Kryptonite) and that, at least for french fries, she was an Abstainer, not a Moderator. I asked, “But how did you manage to say ‘no’ to yourself?”
She said, “I tell myself: Now I’m free from french fries.” She found the way to see this habit change as a “yes.”
4. Ask: “Am I starting small enough? Or big enough?” Many people make super-ambitious resolutions and then drop them, feeling defeated, before January is over. 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), it might be too much to 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.
But the opposite of a profound truth is also true, and by contrast, some people do better when they start BIG. If they start small, they lose interest or get discouraged. For them, a big transformation generates an energy and excitement that helps to foster habits. Steve Jobs reflected, “I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why.”
There’s no right or wrong approach. What works for you–do you prefer to aim small or aim big?
5. Ask: “How am I going to hold myself accountable?” For many people, accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions, 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). Belonging to a group is a good way to hold yourself accountable, part of why AA and Weight Watchers are effective groups. (For a starter kit for starting a Better Than Before habits group, click here.) Accountability is one reason why #2 is so important. If your resolution is too vague, it’s hard to be held accountable. A resolution to “Eat healthier” is harder to track than “Eat salad for lunch three times a week.”
Special note to Obligers: Obligers, remember that external accountability is the key for you. It’s crucial. If you’re serious about wanting to keep a resolution, you must figure out a way to create external accountability.
Have you found any strategies that have helped you successfully keep resolutions in the past?