Planned Resolutions: meeting goals, rather than just making them

So often when we make resolutions to change our lives we fail to carry through on them. Setting a goal and telling ourselves we’ll achieve it requires no sacrifice and feels good. It’s the actual effort to achieve that requires willpower and sacrifice, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we set goals more often than we actually take significant steps towards achieving them.

But another, important part of the story as to why resolutions are so often ineffective is that they often lack a plan. Sure you want to be more productive this year. But what strategies will you use to boost your productivity? And what will you do to increase the chance that you stick to these strategies?

To become more effective at meeting our goals, we need to go beyond just deciding what we want to achieve. We should stop making just resolutions, and instead make Planned Resolutions. A Planned Resolution is made by answering each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to achieve? This is just the standard question that is answered when making any resolution. But by itself, it’s not enough.

2) Why do I want to achieve this? Understanding why you want to achieve your goal can help prevent you from wasting time attempting to achieve something that won’t benefit you, or whose purpose can be more easily achieved in another way. People waste years in pursuit of a goal that they haven’t questioned for a mere hour. Sometimes when we understand why we are motivated to achieve something, that motivation disappears. For instance, if we’ve crafted some of our goals based on what others want us to do, rather than what we want ourselves to do, recognizing this may begin to shape what we want.

3) Is there an easier way to achieve the same underlying purpose? Since most of our goals have a deeper purpose behind them (even though we aren’t always aware of our underlying motivations), we may discover that there are more effective ways to achieve this purpose than through the original goal that we set. For instance, suppose that you’ve decided your goal is to get into a PhD program this year, and upon reflection, conclude that you want this because you’ll enjoy the job of being a professor. Well, even if you are correct that you would enjoy such a life, there may be other jobs that are far easier to get which would require much less time investment. Before setting yourself the goal of getting into a PhD program, it’s almost certainly worth spending some time to carefully investigate these other possibilities. Sometimes there is an easier way to achieve the true goal beneath the surface goal.

4) What strategy can I use to achieve my goal? Knowing where you want to go isn’t enough to get to that place, you have to know how to get there. If your goal is to lose weight, do you plan on dieting? If so, which diet will you try? It might be worth taking a look at the research on weight loss to see if some diets have proven to be more effective or easier to stick to than others. Or suppose that your goal is to improve your social life. Are you going to achieve this by seeing your existing friends more? Which friends? Or by meeting new people? If so, where will you meet them? Convert your abstract desire into a plan of action.

5) What can I do right now to get myself to apply this strategy? One of the other big reasons that resolutions fail is because people don’t actually follow through on pursuing the goal they set. Even if you plan a strategy to achieve your goal, it still raises the question as to how you’re going to get yourself to carry out this strategy. Four months from now will you remember the goal you’ve set? Will you have the willpower and motivation to carry out the plan you’ve chosen? Will you actually make the time to do it? Take a few minutes to plan out how you can get yourself to actually apply your plan. A few suggestions are:

  • Put reminders (right now!) in your calendar that recur periodically to remind you of your plan.
  • Tell a couple of friends that you need their help making sure you stick to your plan. Ask them to check in on you about it.
  • Use stickk.com to put money on the line, betting that you’ll actually achieve your goal.
  • Put a sticky note reminder in a place where you’ll see it pretty often (but not so often that you stop noticing it altogether).
  • Make a list of reasons why things would be better off if you meet this goal, and mentally contrast that list to what exists now.

Once you’ve figured out what you can do to increase your chances of applying your strategy, immediately go and do these things. Tomorrow you may not remember, or may not feel the same motivation that you do today.

So stop merely making resolutions, and start making Planned Resolutions. Don’t just think about what you want to achieve, but also why you want to achieve it, and whether there is a more efficient path to achieve your underlying purpose. Then identify a plan of action, and a strategy you can use right now to get yourself to stick to this plan. Here’s a form (in Microsoft Word format) to help you do this.

3 thoughts on “Planned Resolutions: meeting goals, rather than just making them

  1. wallowinmaya says:

    Great post, as always.

    One minor criticism: I would use *beeminder* (https://www.beeminder.com/), instead of stickk.com. It’s similar to stickk.com, only more awesome.

    There is also a good post on LessWrong about it: http://lesswrong.com/lw/7z1/antiakrasia_tool_like_stickkcom_for_data_nerds/

  2. Samuel says:

    Spencer,

    Have you met a goal using this method?

    Samuel.

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      I’ve hit a few goals successfully using variants of this method: exercising more, improving my eating habits, and meeting certain work benchmarks.

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