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Why New Year's Resolutions often fail, and what to do instead for lasting success.

The phrase ‘North Star’ popped up last week. I was talking with some fellow trainers and coaches on strategy and plans for the year ahead. It’s about now that statistically we have all chucked any New Year’s resolutions we made and are beating ourselves up about our lack of resolve, our inability to achieve those things we think we should be achieving. Only 9% of those who set resolutions keep them [1].

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions if I’m honest. In the past I have struggled to come up with anything beyond the typical – eat better, drink less, exercise more, get back into those jeans, be a better person, do something meaningful… and there are many clues there as to why I haven’t been successful.

Why do so many New Year’s resolutions fail?

  • We make them too vague: I want a better job. I want to be fitter. I want to be kinder… By not defining our target and getting really clear, we are unable to set milestones that help us stay motivated. Our goals need to be SMART and/ or HARD.

A 2020 study found that people who set SMART goals are much less likely to love their jobs, while people who set HARD goals are 53% more likely to love their jobs. [3]

  • We fail to anticipate and therefore plan for obstacles and setbacks: this one is a toughie. Things are going to go wrong at some point. It is going to get hard. If we have acknowledged this and planned for it, then it becomes part of the journey as opposed to the reason we tell ourselves there’s no point and give up. Research shows successful people experience at least 14 setbacks in a two year period, proving resilience is key. [2]

  • We don’t feel the passion or make it personal: we so often set resolutions because we think we should or are influenced by others around us. But for the change to stick we need to really want this for ourselves and understand the why behind it. Ask yourself: for the sake of what?

  • We try to take on too much. If we set ourselves multiple mountains to climb be are diluting our focus and energies. Prioritise and decide what’s most important. And remember balance – we are not machines. We need to incorporate rest, nourishment, and time for relationships.

I’ve come to understand that it was exactly this lack of clarity that was part of my issue with commitment and therefore delivery. My resolutions lacked an end target, they lacked milestone points, and they lacked a strategy, a route to getting there, and ultimately, they lacked accountability.

And of course, the clincher – I just didn’t care enough. There was always a distinct lack of passion behind those resolutions. I was creating them for the sake of it because I thought I should (there’s that word again), rather than because I actually believed in them and wanted them.

Yet having a framework for our year, our career, our life even, does have an allure and value. Many of my clients are seeking clarity and this lack of clarity causes a frustration, a concern that they haven’t got things ‘sorted’. Clarity can bring a sense of peace and certainty, a direction.

Last week, on a training course, I drew these two differing approaches to planning:

The tangle was depicting me. I have a sense of what I want this year to be, personally and professionally, but as yet, I don’t have clear goals and as a result, I don’t have a clear plan or path. The other side of the coin appeals. I understand on a logical and rational level that I am far more likely to experience success if I have a plan and when I define the stepping stones that will not only tangibly move me towards my goals, but will also give me bursts of motivation, as I achieve throughout the process, as opposed to having to wait for that gratification.

So, January is dwindling, does this mean I am too late in planning for the months ahead? Certainly not! Perhaps the best time to plan for a year is the year before, but the next best time is now. I am therefore moving into a new planning phase, where I start with the question of ‘what is my north star for 2023?’ - what is the point to which I choose to navigate? And in doing so I shall save myself anxiety and stress, wasted meandering, and hours of my time in areas that do contribute towards my milestones.

An hour of planning can save you ten hours of doing. Dale Carnegie

What’s important for planning the year ahead?

So, if like me you are looking to start, start again or build on what’s ahead for you, here are some of my tips on how you can move forward.

  • Reflect. Take some time to pause and reflect on what has gone before. Consider last year and even preceding years. What went well? What did not go well? What do you want more of? What do you want less of? Take the lessons forward.

  • Clarity. I’ve spoken and written many times that the pursuit of the one perfect answer is dangerous territory. Perfect is the enemy of progress. So yes we need to get clarity on what we are looking to achieve and navigate towards, but take care not to throw in the towel because we aren’t sure. Patience.

  • Flexibility. Building on the above. So perhaps we don’t or can’t nail it first time. We can change it. It’s ours. And anytime we uncover new information, gain greater insight, or simply change our minds – we change our course. We don’t need to decide forever right now – we just decide what’s next.

  • Tangible. Make it real. Build the road to your destination. Take your end goal and break it down into smaller milestones. When you can measure and assess your progress you are far more likely to stay the course. Remember SMART and HARD – and build in some check ins of how you feel and how you are leaning into your values (more on values here - why they matter) as well as where you are.

How do I make a plan for the year?

There are so many options here and there is no one answer, here are some from my toolbox:

  • Vision Board: this is a great tool for those who perhaps struggle to articulate what they want their goals to be. Collate pictures of what you want in your life – you can tailor the piece to focus on your career, your personal life or make it a combination. More on visualisation here.

  • Vision Statement: the picture route not resonating? For the wordsmiths amongst you do it with words, statements, quotes… mind map your way.

  • Set an intention: This is a lovely one for balance. Let’s say you want more fun, you want better work life balance, or you want to change roles… state your intention: “in the year ahead I will… “ and then build in “for the sake of” (the why)

  • Define a word or motto for the year. This year I landed on the word Abundance. For me this means expansion, being open to more in my business and my life. It means being bold, leaning into new opportunities, variety…

  • Write a business/project/target plan. If formal and tactical are your jam – break out the project planning tools or your excel spreadsheets. Make it your own.

There will be so many more ways and there are no rules, so be as creative, or not, as you feel.

How do I stick to my plan?

Having the strategy is one thing, but as we know from the statistics, achieving it is something else.

  • Commitment: you have to want it – I mean really want it. So, ensuring you have the passion for this plan is a fundamental piece. If the passion feels lacking then consider that you may not have landed on your true North Star. Ask yourself what you are saying yes to about your goal – with this you are reinforcing again your why.

  • Create routine: The P word people. Practice. New habits, new behaviours, new choices. If it’s new, we need to practice it to lay down those new neural pathways. The easiest way to practice anything is to create routine around it. Habits stick – it’s why breaking them and creating new ones is hard. So, for example your goal is to change roles? A goal within that maybe expanding your network. Your routine could be reaching out to 5 new people on LinkedIn every day/week. It could be attending a networking event every week/month…

  • Acknowledge. When you achieve a milestone – celebrate it. We often skip past appreciating how well we are doing as we strive on. Acknowledgement really anchors and reinforces our overall intention.

  • Light hold. Back to flexibility. It’s a fine line between committing and sticking to your plan and making changes to it where it’s not, or no longer serving your purpose. Loosen your grip and be prepared to bend with the wind.

As we look ahead into the year, having our North Star, our plan, our goals defined, allows us to move forward with purpose. It gives us the beacon to follow, confident in the knowledge that our direction of travel is considered and in line with not only our values but also our intentional strategy for our career and life. It allows us to forgo the directionless faffing about, the time wasting and the excuses we often make to ourselves. I for one shall be sitting down with my pens and investing some time.

If you are curious about how I can work with you , you can speak to me directly, you can book a free initial 30 minute coaching session and chat with me here and there's no hassling from me if it's a no thanks after that.

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[1] [2] The top 3 reasons New Year’s resolutions fail and how yours can succeed HARD Goals not SMART Goals are the key to career development.

[3] Betterup: Going somewhere? Write the 5-year plan you need to achieve it.

[3] Leadership IQ: Are smart goals dumb?

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