Rethinking The Resolution: 4 Tips To Make Those Goals Stick

by Maxwell Tielman


New Year’s resolutions seem to happen, by and large, in three phases. Phase one is what I like to call the Blindly-Optimistic-Shameless-Binge period. This happens not long before January 1st, shortly after your resolutions are written. You have determined that this is the year in which you will eat healthier, floss more, take yoga classes, and actually read that stack of New Yorkers that until now has functioned as an overly-expensive coffee table ornament. You feel good about these goals. They seem, from the haze provided by way too many holiday cookies and cocktails, remarkably achievable. In the last few days before the New Year, you kindly grant yourself one last cigarette, one last side order of deep-fried mac n’ cheese balls, one last Saturday spent in bed binge-watching Breaking Bad with a box of Lucky Charms. It’s okay, because in the new year, you’ll be better.

Phase two comes promptly after the obligatory New Year’s Day hangover begins to fade. You get out of bed, brew a fresh cup of coffee, and feel utterly rejuvenated at the prospect of the new year and the new you. The potent image of a more vibrant, responsible, and decidedly grown up you is intoxicating and, for a short while, you become drunk on its motivating power. As you flit about, expertly checking off the list of things you want to accomplish—obtaining that gym membership, making the long-overdue therapy appointment, buying copious amounts of organic produce for juicing—you might find yourself being lulled into a false sense of accomplishment. You’re unstoppable.

Phase three happens right about the same time when it no longer is appropriate to wish people a happy New Year. You’ve been at this “new you” thing for a solid few weeks and the whole sparkling novelty of it is beginning to wear off. Instead of feeling rejuvenated and empowered, you feel exhausted, starving, and disappointed that you still don’t look like Nicki Minaj. You also really want cake. Before you know it, you’re lying face down in a pool of self pity and Dorito dust, the resolution list tacked above your desk only serving to remind you of what an abject failure you are. If any of this sounds even the slightest bit familiar, let me just say that (1) you are not alone and (2) STOP IT RIGHT NOW, you are almost certainly going about this all wrong.

I wouldn’t call myself an expert at resolution-keeping. In fact, I would most certainly place myself in the Still-Getting-It-Together category. However, if my obsessive personality and years as a nerdy teenage online-journaler have taught me anything, it is what to do and what not to do when it comes to making (and going through with) your resolutions. Since about 2002, I’ve been a persistent resolution-maker, some years more successful than others. Luckily (or mortifyingly), I came of age on the Internet, so many of these resolutions have been posted out in the open for the whole world to see. I’ve gone through all of them and come to a few conclusions, all of which I will share below. May they help you on your own journey to self-betterment!

1. Don’t get bogged down in specifics. Give yourself some wiggle room! I have found that the quickest and surest way to “Phase 3” of the resolution shame spiral is by getting too deep into specifics. The number of times that I’ve resolved to read more books, cook healthier dinners, or get a driver’s license [we all know how that turned out] is enough to tell you how difficult it was to make any of those resolutions stick. Sure, seeing any goal through to the finish can be a challenge, but I think there’s something more at work here. By giving myself specific, explicit goals, I placed a limit on the ways that I could improve myself and my lifestyle. And when those goals fell through the cracks, I inevitably felt disappointed and discouraged.

2. Broaden your horizons! Want to know what resolutions did work out? The ones that hinged less on specific duties or activities and more on general concepts and ideas. Didn’t work: go to more art museums. Did work: stay inspired! Both of these resolutions sought to accomplish similar goals, but only one of them allowed me to do it in a way that was open-ended and actually feasible in countless ways.

You know those cute little motivational posters that seem to be in every home these days? The ones that, in some on-trend typeface tell you to “FOCUS!” or “Carpe Diem”? Whether you find them inspirational or obscenely saccharine and grating, there is something undeniably on-point and succinct about them. They’re not about specifics, but they do get down to the core of the issue. In the fight to improve one’s self, a trite saying can be a lot more powerful than an oppressive to-do list. Mind over matter, etc.

3. It’s not what you resolve to do but how you resolve to do it. When you approach your resolutions like a checklist, it’s easy to start seeing them as part of a competition against one’s self—one in which there is a clear “winner” and “loser.” Once you get in the habit of seeing your goals in this way, it can become more about the short-term sense of completion than the long-term effects of self-improvement.

When it comes to setting any sort of goal, it helps to never lose sight of what it is that you really want to do: make yourself a better, stronger, and happier person. Being too hard on yourself or setting yourself up for disappointment is beyond counter-productive. It has a tendency of digging you even deeper into the hole you were trying to get out of. If your resolution to hit the gym every day is turning out to be more of a pipe dream than an attainable reality, it’s okay to switch gears a bit. Take your dog on a longer walk. Get out a few subway stops earlier on the way to work. You want to be healthy, not crushed by 10 tons of disappointment.

4. Always, always stay positive. Okay, okay. Be forewarned: This is where things are going to get decidedly Kumbaya. I have found that the resolutions that are the most accomplishable and have the most long-term benefit are the ones that have to do with a positive mindset. Be happy. Be open-minded. Go with the flow. I think this is because these have much more to do with how you approach certain situations and less to do, again, with the specifics. If you can re-train your brain to look at the world through a positive lens, to channel mindfulness and positivity in every situation, you will be much better off than, say, if you were able to remember to floss twice a day. The impact of organizing your desk is finite. The impact of approaching the world with positivity is endless.

All that said, I definitely don’t see anything hard and fast about these tips—they’re not so much rules as guidelines. You want to make a 10-page list of goals you want to accomplish this year? GO FOR IT. Just make sure you go at it with a positive, flexible, and open mind. Here’s to avoiding the New Year’s Resolution shame spiral! Carpe diem! —Max

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  • YES. Every year a make a list of resolutions and every year I fail. MISERABLY. Which makes me miserable. Resolutions are initially meant to inspire, but in the end, they somehow become an energy suck and a source of angst and negativity. This year, I’ve decided to focus on gratitude, positivity, and courage. That’s it. So when I feel down in the dumps or stuck in a rut, I simply give myself a pep talk, find gratitude in the daily life, and build up the courage to brush off the dust and move on. And voila! Resolution met. Cheers to the New Year – and thank you for your excellent tips!

  • Love these tips. I agree with not being too specific when setting goals. Giving myself some wiggle room has helped me become more open minded and find more creative ways of reaching them. Being too explicit with your goals can shut you off from the opportunities that are right in front of you.

  • I so agree with this. I’ve tried following the advice to set really specific goals with definate deadlines… Bu

  • This year, I made some of the most ambitious goals I’ve ever set, but I also gave myself plenty of wiggle room. I’m feeling every bit as accomplished as I do normally when my goals are very specific and measurable, but I also know I’ll stay motivated if I miss a day of meditation or slip up in some other way. Thanks for sharing these tips, Maxwell! They’ve given me even more confidence that my resolutions are achievable.

  • it’s so disappointing when you fail yourself after making resolutions to be better/do better in whatever way you’ve chosen. i totally agree with broadening the specifics of resolutions so it’s easier to follow through with them.


  • I try to do a combination of both, like — “Let creativity flow through” and “Fill up this water bottle at least twice a day” so that i can feel like i’ve crossed something off my list, but simultaneously don’t feel as though I’m not sure if I’ve accomplished something.

  • I try to just make goals, and break them down into things I can do every month. This year I want to save a certain amount of money, so every month have a task: pay of credit cards, or only go out to dinner once a week. Changing it up regularly makes it stick – last year I managed to move, visit a new country, do some woodworking – all pretty big things I’d been wanting to do but could never be buggered to unless I broke it down!

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