I don't want to make New Year's Resolutions. I want to actually get stuff done!
December 14, 2007 11:17 AM   Subscribe

It’s almost the New Year! There’s a lot I want to accomplish in 2008, but I find New Year’s Resolutions to be kinda lame, plus I always end up forgetting them by February. I’d like some sort of substitute that will get me excited about self-improvement right away and still keep me going strong for months/years to come. Ritual value is nice, but more importantly, it has to work.

This past year has been full of accomplishments I’m proud of; however, there’s still a long way for me to go. There are things that I really have to get done (e.g. get my finances in order, find a better job) as well as things I want to do (learn to jump rope, be a better blogger, etc.) These aren’t really things that I need to start on January 1 – in fact, the more pressing ones I need to start right now – but I’m not sure how much I can reasonably accomplish while navigating through the stress and baked goods of the Christmas season. So New Year’s it is, for practical as well as symbolic reasons.

However, I don’t really like the idea of the New Year’s Resolution; they seem like an empty gesture to me. I never remember any resolutions I make for more than a few weeks, so of course I never stick to them. I also don’t want to do everything at once starting in January; that seems like a recipe for instant burnout.

What I’m looking for, in short, is a way to plan for the year rather than a list of resolutions.

I’ve already started with some of this by getting a notebook and tracking my goals and progress, though even that is not completely organized. I’m naturally disorganized and not a great planner (another thing to work on this year), so any and all suggestions are welcome. Bonus points, of course, to something that you or someone you know has tried with success.
posted by Metroid Baby to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Something like 101 Things in 1001 days?
posted by unexpected at 11:26 AM on December 14, 2007

Um... sounds like a problem of semantics to me. Goals, resolutions, landmarks, etc... Doesn't matter what you call them, they're the same. You've already listed some in your question. In my humble opinion, one reason why you might think "New Year's Resolutions" are lame is because everyone makes such a fuss about them and rarely ever follow through. Basically, the new year is simply a convenient time to make such goals, as there is a feeling of renewal and a sense of momentum leading into the year. To make those goals stick (and this is something people rarely seem to do), you need to make them actionable. In other words, break them down from abstract goals into something manageable and physical. If your goal is to "find a better job" then state as specifically as possible what that means to you. What are the criteria for the job being "better"? How are you going to set about looking for this job? For the sake of brevity, the main concept here is specificity. What is the result that lets you know you have achieved your goal? What are the steps you need to take on a daily basis to arrive at the result you desire?
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 11:32 AM on December 14, 2007

Get a life-size version of a human skull - set it on your desk facing you and realize this is your future. Prop your list of goals (written on 3x5 card or whatever) up next to it and look at the skull and then your list everytime you sit down at your computer. This should help with motivation and prioritizing. As for a specific system, I'm not sure.
posted by philad at 11:35 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

What I’m looking for, in short, is a way to plan for the year rather than a list of resolutions.

Then that's the answer to your own question, I'd say. You need a New Year's Plan for 2008, instead of a resolution. Yes, sometimes New Year's resolutions end up being empty gestures because they mostly sound like "good intentions", instead of actions that are in a person's possibilities.

In order to have a resolution and still be working on it, say, around June, people could think of one or two things (instead of a list of 10 where you know you'll finish 0), state them in general terms, for example "Get a better job", and then also state a "why", a reason for wanting to go through with the resolution. And after that, develop a list of actions and due dates for those actions that are needed in order for it to work. It all comes down to getting for yourself both motivation and a "map" to know where you're going.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and you say you're "naturally disorganized and not a great planner", but hey, this could be a good opportunity for a double resolution: accomplish "x" while working on my organization and planning skills.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 11:39 AM on December 14, 2007

This is really more of a mindset problem. I'm trying to work this stuff out for myself as well. Check out this great post on the subject from the 30 sleeps blog. That blog is really awesome, definitely go through the archives. Then check out some other personal development blogs like Steve Pavlina's blog and Zen Habits. Of course, make sure you're not just reading about how to improve yourself, but actually working to do so.
posted by stratospark at 11:40 AM on December 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

assign yourself a new task every month. (january: become a vegetarian. february: get your finances in order for tax time. march: join the gym. etc.)
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:50 AM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

David Seah has this year been trying out and blogging about an alternative mindset to New Year's Resolutions which he calls Groundhog Day Resolutions. The idea is that, instead of making empty resolutions right after a busy, frazzled period of the year, wait until the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day), and make your resolutions then. Then on 3/3, and 4/4, and 5/5, etc., have a review of how you're doing.

It's a bit cheesy, and not really so different from making resolution at New Year's, but sometimes your brain needs a little hook like that to engage it in something.
posted by chrismear at 12:07 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I find breaking idealized goals down into actionable steps ("get to the gym 3 times this week" vs. "exercise more"; "complete one painting" vs "be more artistic") to be helpful. I also find it beneficial to very specifically avoid any sort of phrasing or thought pattern that seems to frame goals as punishments for the kind of person I currently am. Many resolutions focus on the negative, such as "quit smoking" "don't be so lazy" etc., and on "shoulds." I prefer to make little lists of things I want to do during the year. Not things I "ought" to do, or things framed around a dislike of a current habit -- things I want to do, things I'll enjoy, or things that will bring me closer to something I want to be able to do.

For instance, for turning around bad habits: if I don't like that I've become a couch potato, rather than frame something as "I need to exercise more and stop being such a lump," I go more for "I'd like to do something active like take a bicycling trip -- let's start training for that." Need to stop wasting your money? I'm cutting back on expenses so I'll have enough money for a trip I want to take, not punishing myself for extravagance by tightening the belt. It's the same ultimate activity, but it's set in a way I can take as an accomplishment -- something to move towards, rather than something to escape. Sounds silly, but it makes a lot of difference in my motivation and attitude towards the relevant project.

Practically, I find lists like "30x30" (thirty things to do in the year before you turn 30, as an example) fun motivators, and less overwhelming than the 101 things concept, which only seems to encourage me to plan endlessly rather than get going. It has a year time limit rather than a generalized "sometime" deadline, which will get you moving, and it's not so long a list. Want to get out more? Put "go to a restaurant I've never tried" or "see a gallery exhibit" on your list. Want to be more social? Put "start a conversation with a stranger." It can be full of tiny things, all centered around bigger changes. It's the little things that build upon each other to make a larger life change.

I also like the personal motto. I find it a lot easier to focus on my overall philosophies and aims in life if, in moments of stress, I can turn to the easy-to-hold motto that encapsulates the kind of person I want to be, the kind of behavior I want to exhibit. I'm not going to tell you mine, but I think you can come up with a "slogan" that sums up the overall idea behind the improvements you want to make. In my case, I found that checking in with "the motto" at most moments of decision meant that I've been much more likely on a macro-level to make choices that are consistent with my goals. It's easy to lose track of those little choices, but combined, all of those little choices over the course of time send you on the path you are striving to walk on, rather than aimlessly slipping from your original high-minded "resolutions." You want to be the New You? Ask yourself frequently, "Is this choice New Metroid Baby? Or Old Metroid Baby?" New Metroid Baby will sometimes be uncomfortable, or anxiety-provoking, but it will get you to where you want to be, rather than stagnating in your old, easy habits.

Hope that helps, and good luck!
posted by tigerbelly at 12:09 PM on December 14, 2007 [4 favorites]

But you're already tripping yourself up by using phrases like "get my finances in order." It sounds good, but it's (to me) and easy way of letting yourself off the hook later, because it's vague enough both to sound good and to apply fear to it. Big huge amorphouse goals intimidating, so not keeping up with them is to be expected from someone like you and me, right?

Instead, list out what your life would look like if your finances were in order. For example: 15% of your income in savings/investment vehicles. A liquid account where you sock away $ for emergencies. Credit card debt paid down or on the way there. And the ability to throw away money on soul-saving things like weekly coffee with friends, or paying for a hobby.

And guess what -- we are all born naked and crying. Within reason, no one is a "born organized" person. Instead, certain people learn to become more perceptive about the causes and effects of being organized or disorganized. In my case, I was raised in a family where being lax about money was a way to show how devout you were. "See? We have no money! We are sooooo not tied to the things of this earth! We are sojourners for Christ!" And my parents finally managed to buy a house a few years ago, at age 53. And they will be working for many years to pay for it instead of enjoying retirement.

So perhaps a clear vision of what your life will look like if you do or don't specify and reach your goals is more important than making grand gestures. I think this applies to more than money issues.

(Also: if it's finances that worry you, look at your traps: friends who push you to spend more than you have, who tell you "you deserve it", etc... Keep them as friends if you like them, but try to control the environment so you aren't tempted beyond your means.)
posted by mdiskin at 12:18 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

My most successful "resolution" was about 5 years ago when I gave up getting angry in the car/letting jerky drivers get under my skin. I gave it up for Lent.

Why I think it worked: Lent starts after the NYR period so I did not have to start January 1. I only had to go 40 days and for me that was a lot less intimidating than going forever. Forty days broke the habit, though. I am not a very orthodox person at all but I did grow up in a family (Episcopalian) where some family members observed Lent to some extent so for me there was ritual value. Perhaps that tying a change to a cultural or spiritual period might work for you?

Disclaimer: For me personally this wasn't about religion, it was more about the "hey, people around me are taking on or giving up stuff for Lent, I bet I can do this if they can". I won't even try to pretend that being competitive is spiritually lauadable, but it worked!
posted by pointystick at 12:22 PM on December 14, 2007

If you're looking for a way to make sure you actually follow through, one way is to arrange for something unpleasant to definitely happen if you don't. For instance, write a postdated check for $1000, and give it to someone you can rely on with instructions to donate it to a loathsome cause (for instance, the Republicans if you're a staunch Democrat, or vice versa) if you don't attain certain goals by certain dates. Make sure the goals are measurable, unambiguous and attainable or you may wind up cheating yourself.
posted by ubiquity at 12:36 PM on December 14, 2007

Thanks for the advice so far!

A quick clarification: I intentionally vague-ified some of my goals for the purposes of asking this question, since the details aren't really relevant here. Additionally, there are some things that I do want to accomplish that are indeed kind of vague and fuzzy, and I hope to be able to break those down into concrete things I can actually do.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:31 PM on December 14, 2007

Top down:
Create a personal strategic plan. Then you can think about breaking things down into action steps and measurable objectives, etc.

Bottom up:
Or, if that's too intimidating or work-like, you could do it the other way around. The best thing I did to help get my finances in order was to simply open 8 personal finance blogs (bookmarks - open all in tabs) every day. It's like having a support group that meets whenever you have 45 minutes. So, I never sat down on Jan. 1 and said "getting my finances in order means these four things, and to do thing 1, I will need to first do A, then do B..." This was like having a group of advisors feeding me ideas to implement as fast as I could.
posted by salvia at 4:09 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have two suggestions, both of which I have used extensively with success.

A guy named David Allen wrote a personal task organization system called Getting Things Done. It's greatest strength is in providing a framework for systematically dealing with your workload, whether professional or personal. GTD does, though, also touch sort-of holistically on higher-level thinking about life goals and such... this last part is a little weak, but it's at least a place to start. You may actually have the high level thinking taken care of, in which case GTD is perfect because it provides exactly what you're asking; a good way to break down large goals into steps and then figure out how to act on these steps.

My other suggestion speaks to your comment about not remembering your plans after a while. The answer that worked for me was to write, write, write. A few years ago I decided I needed to break a long habit of surfing the net too much at work, but because of all the internal and external chaos it was impossible for me to ever focus and remember this goal. So I started journaling, typically just brief paragraphs for each entry. The trick was that I did this *at least three times a day*, EVERY DAY. Since my issue was at work, the first thing I did when I sat down at my desk was write a quick paragraph restating my goal for the day, the things to be careful of that might make me stray from that goal, and tricks I could use to stay on track. Then I did this again at lunch, adding notes about how it went for the first half of the day. Did the same thing at the end of the day, too.

Now sure, this sounds extreme, but I'll be damned if I didn't start going weeks without idly surfing at work.

All the GTD'ing and non-surfing helped me move into management, which brought an entirely new set of problems. The chaos is still there so I still write, but not with the same urgency. It still is the best way to refresh on goals and steer back on course when the insane chaos makes me lose track.

So my suggestion for you; buy the GTD book and read it. If you need long range work, note the parts about 50,000 foot level of thinking and work on that. If you already generally know the stuff you want to improve (learn to jump rope, be a better blogger), then turn those into individual projects, start listing out the steps to actually get there, and identify a Next Action. Write all these down in your notebook. Then either daily if you can manage it, or at the very least on any day with a 'T' in it's name, write about the process as it unfolds.... what you got done and how it went, what you envision success will bring you, whether these goals really should be your goals, things that may stand in the way and what you could do about it, whatever.

Good luck. '07 was a good year for me because of this process; maybe it can help you in '08.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 6:34 PM on December 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

Behavioral Modification Therapy is a little compendium of recipes on how to budge yourself in directions you want to go. It involves more or less biting off small amounts at a time and rewarding yourself for each step forward, including the small ones. If you can find an incremental system by which to reward yourself for small steps forward, you may find yourself getting into good habits. The key is to start small and make the goals achievable. You want to have that sense of accomplishment early and often - it is what keeps pulling you along.

Contrast this with setting huge goals with no clear selfish reward. The assumption here is that we're basically babies and we fold under the pressure of very high goals that take forever to reach. Sure, you know that "getting your finances in order" is good for you, but on a totally childish emotional level - what's in it for you right now? If you can break that goal down into milestones, you'll not only get to feel a sense of accomplishment after each one of them, you'll probably have a better chance of reaching the end goal because you sat down to think about all the steps required to get there. If you can break your goal down into numbers, log them in Excel and keep a running chart. It can be exciting to see the line go up and to the right (or down, if that's what you want) in a visual way.

I myself have not tried much of this very seriously. I have a hard time thinking of things to reward myself with since all my "rewards" are exactly the unhealthy habits I'd like to break (like cigarettes) and I generally have the money and freedom I want to do or buy things I enjoy. The only thing I can think of is setting up artificial gateways, like only allowing myself to read another 10 pages of that great book I started if I meet one of my daily milestones. But setting up that artificial gateway takes behavioral modification in the first place :)

Perhaps getting someone else to mete out the rewards would be a better idea. A nice backrub for every week without a cigarette, for example. If your self improvement plan is about trying to conserve money, think up a system that will allow you to save toward a nice indulgence that's still net positive in the end.

Hope this is good food for thought.
posted by scarabic at 8:25 PM on December 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I understand you. Resolutions are a nice ritual but have no practical meaning for me. I guess I'm not discliplined enough.

What I did two years ago was sign up and pay for a 10-week learn-to-run clinic through the Running Room that started the first monday in January, which IIRC was the 2nd or 3rd. Having paid and prepared mentally a month in advance (and told people about it) meant I felt responsible to actually go through with it. And I did -- I went to every session for 10 weeks and ran a 5k at the end. And it was truthfully one of the best things I have ever done. I am a lazy nap-loving exercise-hater, and if I could do this, anyone can. Anyone.

For me, saying "I'll work out three times a week" or whatever is completely pointless. I am motivated by actions and accountability. If you're looking for a solid step to take toward physical fitness, for example, I highly recommend you look into doing the same thing I did.
posted by loiseau at 7:02 AM on December 15, 2007

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