It’s that time of year again. I feel the need to commit to resolutions for the New Year, but wonder if I should bother when I look at all of the resolutions that never happened last year. What’s the key to setting resolutions that you can actually make happen?


Good question. Setting resolutions for the New Year has become as much a part of the celebration as watching the ball drop at midnight, but, as with many holiday traditions, we don’t take a moment to think through the process before muttering things like “I’ll be more organized this year.”

The first key is to let go of any resolution you made in the past that didn’t come to pass. If you focus on what hasn’t worked before, you ultimately undermine the whole process before you even begin. The very tone of your question suggests that you don’t really believe you can do this. Try to remember that just because you couldn’t or you didn’t yesterday doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t tomorrow.

There are, of course, excellent, real world reasons that you were unable to execute previous resolution strategies. Maybe you were caring for an aging parent. Maybe you had to work overtime to combat unexpected financial problems. Maybe you weren’t truly invested in the thing you resolved to do in the first place. But you don’t need to justify, defend or berate yourself over unrealized resolutions; just let them go. For one reason or another, they weren’t meant to be then. And this is not then; this is now.

The second key is to evaluate what was good this past year, not just what needs improvement. Setting resolutions for the coming year can feel overwhelming because the process is all about resolving to improve upon a certain behavior to gain a better result. To improve upon something, you have to identify its inadequacy, which, inevitably, leaves the identifier feeling inadequate.

Before resolving that you’ll do anything differently in the coming year, first make a list of the things you did well last year. In fact, for every resolution you make, you must have a celebratory counterpart from the prior year. Maybe you took over for the little league coach who tore his ACL, or helped your niece through breast cancer. Perhaps you’re a realtor who took a second job to support his family, or a sales manager who exceeded her goals this year. Did you yell at your kids less? Listen to your inner voice (the one that tells you to slow down) more? Work harder on your rehabilitation? Work lighter on the weekends?

Business management theory teaches us that when critiquing a colleague or subordinate in the workplace, always accentuate the positive first, and then suggest opportunities for improvement. “Well, Bill, let me first say that you really nailed that ad campaign last quarter. What made that work was the edgy, irreverent approach you brought to the table. I think that’s what might be missing from this current campaign. How we can bring the same quality to this project?”

And so it is with you. “Well Bill, let me first say that you were a great support to your wife in helping her stay motivated to lose 30 pounds. What made that work was your loving approach, healthy meal prep, and the time you always made sure she had to devote to exercise. I think that’s what might be missing from your own approach to weight loss. How can we create the same supportive circumstances for you?”

The third key is to start with desired, measurable results, and then work backward to identify the behavior that will get you there. Many people start with the behavior they want to change because they assume it will lead to some better result down the line somewhere. Your resolution focus, however, really should start with the specific result you hope to achieve.

Instead of vague commitments such as “I want to be more fit,” try to identify measurable results and then determine the set of behaviors that will get you there. For example, if your measurable goal is to lose 24 pounds, break it down into manageable chunks. To lose the total weight, you will need to lose 2 pounds per month or half a pound a week…which seems a whole lot more doable than dropping 24 pounds all together. Simply cut out bread or nightly cheesecake or that second glass of wine, and you might just be there.

The fourth key is to remember the real world when making resolutions. You have a real job, and a real mortgage, and a real boss who is a real pain in the…well, you get the picture. Sometimes we slip into fantasy when making resolutions and we forget the real-world obligations and drains on our time and energy that prevented us from realizing unrealistic resolutions from years past.

You may not be able to get to the gym everyday, because you’re late at the office on Tuesdays and Thursday is Super Extra Curricular Day, during which you play taxi cab driver to your four kids, thanks to their multitudinous activities, until you pass out on the couch at 8:30 pm. So be realistic, and shoot for 4 or 5 days a week. The unpredictable demands of real life preclude resolutions from being an all-or-nothing endeavor, so try to avoid commitments that involve the phrases “every single day” or “never again will I.”

The fifth key is to not mistake the resolutions of other people for your own. Sometimes we think that since Jack resolved to golf twice a week, then we should resolve to golf twice a week. But Jack isn’t studying for the bar exam and Jack doesn’t have any business-related travel and Jack’s mother doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. Try not to measure yourself against the resolutions of people who do not live your life and who do not have your gifts or challenges. Resolutions should be as individual as you are, and should respect the unique circumstances you call Your Life.

My final piece of advice on this topic comes straight from my friend and colleague, Christine Kloser, author of “The Freedom Formula.” She says that if you don’t have a picture (or concept) in your mind of where you want to take things next year, you have nothing pulling your forward toward that goal. “Your vision is something that should excite and inspire you,” says Kloser, “and it ought to be big enough that you don’t already know how you’ll realize it. If you know exactly how you’ll experience your vision for next year, it’s not big enough…stretch a little further.”

She suggests that you write a gratitude letter as if today were December 31st of next year. “In your gratitude letter, write about everything you’re thankful for that you want to happen next year,” she says. “Creating this letter from a future perspective will help anchor your vision as if it were already real.”

So my abbreviated letter might go a little something like this:

Dear Jen,
I’m so glad now that no one in Baltimore can even dress for church until they’ve read Just Ask Jen.

Is it working yet?