Three Steps to Better New Year's Resolutions

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Like just about everyone, I've spent some time this week coming up with my New Year's resolutions. I have goals I'm happy to share in casual cocktail party conversation, and others that I generally reserve for my private journal. I will now make those public.

Truthfully? In 2017, I want to write three books: a mystery novel, a non-fiction trade book, and an academic book; lose 6 pounds, and sleep more. Guess what? I just looked at my goals for 2015 (yes, two years ago) and they write three books, lose weight, and sleep more. Feel free to laugh.

In reality, it's been six years since I submitted my first (and only) book for publication, I've steadily gained a pound a year since then, and I'm exhausted.

Clearly, I'm doing something wrong and I know I'm not alone. So, this year I resolve to make better resolutions, and here's how:

1. Spend serious time planning.

Sometimes planning feels like procrastinating, but according to quite a bit of productivity research, goals are meaningless without a plan.

For example, a common New Year's resolution is to lose weight, but by December, few people with a weight loss goal have made much progress. They (okay, we) would have made more progress with specific action steps, such as: go to the gym three days a week; find an accountability partner; and prepare the week's healthy meals on Sunday.

Rewards and punishments might help, too. I love the idea behind commit to a goal, set stakes, like donating money to a charity completely opposed to your values, and can track your progress, plus get support from a referee or other community members.

2. Be realistic.

People who set exercise goals, like running half marathons or saving $1,000, typically understand the amount of effort it takes on a weekly basis to reach that ultimate goal, and there are endless internet resources to make sure they do. It's not the case with most other goals that take the same amount of planning.

For example, want to write a book? Do you know how much work goes into a book? Part of it will be a certain word count per week, but even for fiction there will be a significant amount of research needed as you write. And, once you're "finished" there's editing. And if the goal is to publish, not just write, the list of tasks triples.

To set a realistic goal, think about where you're starting from, not where you wish you were starting from. If you want to run a half-marathon but are more "couch" than "5K," perhaps the best place to start is a much shorter race. Want to watch less TV but are addicted to three different Netflix series? You might want to start by cutting gradually and replacing your TV watching with something else you enjoy instead of trying to go cold turkey before you find out what happens to Elizabeth in The Crown (hint: she becomes the queen).

3. Recognize the limits of your willpower.

As Roy Baumeister and Jon Tierney have shown in their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the human will operates like a muscle. Just as we don't have endless strength to lift something heavy, we don't have endless willpower. That's why setting too many New Year's resolutions is ineffective. We simply don't have enough willpower to avoid the donut, pay off the mortgage, visit Grandma once a week, and double our productivity at work. Maybe we can do all of those things within a calendar year, but we can't try to do them all at once. We have to pick one or two goals to focus on at a time.

Think in terms of quarterly goals, rather than yearly resolutions. Break down your own secret list of resolutions into four parts and focus on only one or two per quarter. Weight loss goals are great to schedule for the first two quarters because you'll have lots of company, probably feel gross from holiday food, and have some consequences built in with warmer weather ahead. Swimsuit season cometh.

You can time your work productivity goals, like seeking a big promotion, to align with the months just before your annual review so that you can really wow your boss. And if you hope to save money it's probably not a good idea to go hard on that goal at the same time as summer vacation or holiday shopping.

So how will I put this advice into practice?

First, instead of focusing on that same stupid six pounds, I'm going to try to lower my cholesterol, which has been a little high for three years running. As my first quarter goal, I'll set a follow up test with my doctor for three months from now (accountability and a shift in focus). My only other first quarter goal is to plan the structure of one of the books I want to write and to write 10,000 of those words. Since I'm a professor and the first quarter of 2017 is also the start of my spring semester, I know that I need small goals to be realistic. I'll be plenty busy with work.

During the second quarter, particularly once my classes end, I'll aim to work out four days a week and join an accountability group (I have one in mind) to keep me on track. I'll also probably use and set up to donate to some terrible charity if I don't stick to my goal.

I also know that I can ramp up my writing once my sabbatical starts (woo hoo!) in June and I can plan to finish one book by the end of the third quarter. And a year from now, if I've finished one book and lowered my cholesterol (which you know will mean I've started to take off those few pounds), I'll be able to consider this a hugely successful year. Anything else I can fit in will be a bonus. How will you make better resolutions for 2017?