A new month, a new year, a new decade. Another opportunity for change, full of infinite possibility.
All things considered, each year isn’t necessarily different from any other one. The earth will turn and track along its orbit and in ~365 days, we’ll be back where we started. But focusing on the science of it misses the human context; it’s the events of our own lives that define the differences.
In the midst of these events, we have a habit of divvying up time into more palatable chunks. Always planning ahead, looking forward – what am I doing next week? What am I doing next month? The next five years? The next ten?
This desire to categorize and plan in discrete lengths of time is a natural human behavior; life is chaotic, and we need a semblance of control over our lives. And frankly, without this desire to plan, we’d probably accomplish a lot less anyway.
New Year’s Irresolution
On the other hand, there’s an insidious side effect to planning our goals around arbitrary dates. The clearest example of this can be seen in the New Year’s Resolution.
Every year at the end of December, without fail, people begin plotting out the ways they’d like to change their lives in the coming year. Maybe it’s quitting smoking. Maybe it’s finding a new job or new career path or developing a new skill. A common one is fitness-related goals e.g. “this is the year I’m going to get in shape!”
Let’s take a deeper dive on that last one. According to a 2018 survey by NPR, 44% of American Adults said they were likely to make a New Year’s Resolution, 13% of whom said it would be fitness related, making it by far the most common type of resolution. In fact, 12% (~1/8) of all new gym memberships occur in January. Of these new fitness memberships, more than 70% will stop going within 6 months.
At face value, that’s a pretty disheartening fact! Nobody likes to admit when we fail to achieve our goals. The truth is, it’s entirely human to fail, perhaps the most human thing of all. But it’s also human to learn from our failures.
Setting Good Goals
When you set a New Year’s Resolution, you’re admitting that there’s something in your life that needs to change. But change doesn’t happen by setting goals, it happens through action.
There’s an old saying that I think is pretty relevant here: “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
The reason I use this quote is it paints a good picture of the issue with setting broad goals, as is usually the case with New Year’s Resolutions.
First of all, these goals aren’t usually accompanied by any sort of plan. Most of you are probably familiar with “SMART goals” – an acronym for setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
This SMART framework is a great starting place when it comes to setting good goals. Even if you don’t plot out all the specifics, the mere act of planning and writing it out will make you much more likely to progress.
But let’s move beyond SMART goals, since there’s already a million articles about it.
Watching Your Thoughts
To use a cliché, the mind is a very powerful thing. If you want to change your life, you need to start with changing the way you think. I’ve met so many people that dismiss this concept as some sort of self-help guru mumbo-jumbo, but I’m not Tony Robbins and I assure you I have nothing to sell you.
Let’s go back to that quote for a second. It begins with “watch your thoughts.” What proceeds is a domino effect that cascades through your entire life, and it all begins with a single thought.
Unfortunately, these thoughts manifest negatively for far, far too many people:
- “I’m not smart enough to get that job”
- “I just don’t have the time to get in shape”
- “I’ll never be able to afford that”
- “I just can’t be in a relationship right now”
And most importantly: “I’ll be happy someday, but not today.”
Just to be clear, being unhappy is not a fault. It’s just as human as failure. But constantly doubting yourself is an incredibly limiting way to go through life. Those 70% of January gym-goers who stop going within 6 months have a consistent failure point: they never change their mindset. They all go to the gym, they buy a membership, and they go for a few months, but at some point they say “I don’t need to go to the gym today” which eventually turns into “maybe I’ll get in shape next year.”
Your life will not be defined by what you do next year, it will be defined by what you think and what you do today.
This isn’t meant to discourage you. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day – in fact, it took 120 years just to build St. Peter’s Basilica. But you know what? They started with an idea, they built it brick by brick, and 400 years later it remains just as beautiful as ever.
So if you’re planning on setting a goal for 2020, or maybe even setting a goal for the next ten years, start by believing you can change your life, try to make consistent progress (but forgive yourself when you inevitably stumble), and I guarantee you’ll be well on your way to becoming the person you want to be.