New Year’s Resolutions. Taking the most (and the worst) out of them.

So here we are. That time of the year. December 31st.

Most of you know that I am obsessed with personal and professional improvement (so obsessed that I started a business out of it. If we feel the need to improve ourselves, why we shouldn’t do the same for documents, processes, performances, etc.?). However, despite many conversations, lectures, and mentoring sessions on the matter, I have rarely written about my experiences (aka achievements and failures). So I decided to post about it. Someone says that an expert is a person who makes a lot of mistakes in a very narrow field. I don’t know if I can be considered an expert, but I certainly made lots of mistakes.

What has worked for me so far:

  • 28- and 100-days challenges. Clear and simple. Maybe because lunar cycles have a thing on me, maybe because three months are what our brain needs to create significant habits, or maybe because my body and my mind need consistent data to track, but 28 and the 100 days challenges – without breaks, resting days, etc. have been very effective for me. So, if a year is too long, how about shortening the timeframe and doing/not doing something daily?
  • Incremental progress. When I decided to cut coffee from my diet (a long time ago, now I’m a coffee-lover again), I used to drink it with 2 spoons of sugar in each cup. In the first month, I reduced it to 1 spoon, in the second I changed it to cane sugar, in the third I cut out the sugar. Finally, the fourth month I was able to cut out coffee (and stick with tea). It took a while, but it was effective. 
  • Repeating the challenge when you fail. It took me six years of effort (yes, six years) and a catchy name for the challenge (“The Warrior Alarm”) to be able to avoid snoozing for 100 consecutive days. And it took me several years of attempts to do one year of daily meditation (at least five minutes). So be gritty, and great things will come.

What hasn’t worked for me:

  • Bucket lists with too many goals. Cutting the number of goals is the hardest thing for me, by far. Put together a holistic way of seeing things, a passion for life, and an overachieving nature, and you have the perfect mix. Unfortunately, I had to accept that the amount of willpower is limited (if you want to know more about the concept, read the great book from Roy Baumeister and John Tierney). So if you have too many goals, it is highly probable you will fail. Or that you will realize just a part of them.
  • Unclear goals. We think our goals are specific, but most of the time they are not. When I say “cutting sugar”, what does it mean? Does it include every food with sugar or just pastry? And how about the granola? If I say “limit the daily screen time”, how will I be able to manage the working urgency? Unfortunately, the devil is in the details.
  • Challenges with an undefined end period. Every challenge needs an end. I am aware that we should only implement the habits that are – at least theoretically – sustainable for life, but – at least for short and mid-term goals – we should include a specific end period. The idea of closing a chapter (yes, the Gestalt effect), and the consequent release of serotonin and personal pride, is too useful not to take advantage of it.

Some tricks from my experience:

  • Track your progress. Data doesn’t lie. Progress should be clear and understandable. Set a time in the day (for me it’s the evening, before bedtime) when you take note of what you have done. You can use a spreadsheet, a diary, or a piece of paper. Whatever works for you is fine. 
  • Stick with the goal you chose. There is a reason why you chose a specific goal. That goal. And that’s the reason why you should not give up. I know it’s easy to change goals, and you could have many arguments in favor of new and different challenges, but unfortunately the best choices turn out to be the hardest ones. 
  • Start little. One thing is improving your elevation. Another one is dunking. One thing is improving your flexibility by stretching daily. Another one is learning the horizontal split. Unfortunately, we overestimate our capabilities and underestimate the amount of time, effort, and willpower that most of goals we set need.
  • Be careful with negative self-judgement. Having a Christian Catholic background, I guess that shame and guilt are a part of me. Paradoxically, I feel blessed and I appreciate it when I notice it how they helped me pushing trough for all these years. On the other hand, I need to stress that shame and frustration can be counterproductive and difficult to manage if we don’t see the benefit of them. So yes, it’s highly probable you will fail. But it’s up to you if you want to frame this process as a failure or as a learning experience.
  • Decide in advance if you want to share your path with someone. Usually sharing progress and results with buddies, fiancés, etc. can be useful. Same with posting on social media. But I don’t think it’s for everyone. Someone prefers to stay silent in order to avoid external judgements, someone wants to share her story because it motivates her. Whatever works for you, go for it, but plan accordingly.
  • Play with the rewards. The idea of choosing a reward for a specific effort can be very useful. However, to me the hardest is not choosing a reward proportionate with the effort. Or spoiling myself after an effort. It is connecting that reward only, and I stress only, with the challenge. So, if I say to myself “I will buy a new car only when I will lose 20 pounds”, there should be no excuses. Which means that I should buy a new car only in that case. What if your car breaks down before you achieve your goal? Use your bike or walk. Being accountable in the long term is way more important. (note about it: research shows that – in the long term – rewards can be dangerous and we should find pleasure in the goal/task itself for long term sustainability. Easier said than done).

According to a 2007 study from Richard Wiseman, 88% of New Year’s resolutions end badly. I don’t know if if it’s true, but I am surely aware of tons of attempts that failed miserably. Even on my side.

Despite that, most of us already decided to do something for the better in 2024. I hope this post will help you achieving your goals and winning your challenges. 

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