how to set resolutions you'll actually keep

We spend the last part of any given year eating too much sugar, listening to countdowns, and reading best-of lists. We spend the first part of a new year thinking ahead to a lofty, ambiguous future, setting unattainable goals, and hoping for the best. And somewhere in this make-believe world is where we spend time setting New Year’s resolutions.

Reality check, anyone?

Laura Vanderkam has one for you. She’s a time management expert who has studied the habits of busy people and written a number of books about it, including her most recent, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. And through the research for this book, she discovered just how elastic our schedules can really be.

“‘I don’t have time,’ often means ‘It’s not a priority,’” said Laura during a Ted Talk she gave this October. “Using this language reminds us that time is a choice.”

Since so much about keeping New Year’s resolutions comes down to choosing how our time will be spent throughout the subsequent year, we have a lot to learn from Vanderkam’s research. But it’s one thing to decide to prioritize our time, and another to actually do it. How do you ensure that you follow through on your New Year’s Resolutions this year? Again, it’s pretty simple, according to Vanderkam.

how to set resolutions you'll actually keep

1. Give Your Future Self a Performance Review

Capitalizing on that reflective tendency brought on by the passage of another year on this planet, we’re tempted to treat the New Year as a time to give ourselves a performance review, like a boss would. And while this is also helpful, says Vanderkam, what if we were to look ahead to the next year, and give ourselves a performance review for the year ahead — before it even happens?

That’s right: Vanderkam wants you to think ahead to the next New Year and congratulate yourself on your future accomplishments. You know those holiday letters? Think about the one you’ll be able to write next year.

“Please, don’t send it,” adds Vanderkam, clarifying with a chuckle. “But you can write it. And now, between the performance review and the family holiday letter, we have a list of six to ten goals we can work on in the next year.”

2. Break Those Goals Down Into Steps

Maybe it’s that you’ve envisioned telling others about your accomplishments, or that you’ve thought more realistically about what you can actually accomplish in the coming year, but Vanderkam’s idea about looking back on your future seems to result in a list of much more attainable goals. The rest should be easy: You just have to make your goals happen in the time you have.

Every goal can be broken down into steps. This is something you’re probably already doing, but consider this a helpful reminder. For example, if you’re going to save money to go on an amazing trip this year, you need to create a budget, cut out some expenses, plan time off, plan the travel, etc. And each week, you need to think about how you’ll fit these steps into your life before you hit the ground running.

How about looking ahead to the next week each Friday afternoon? You’re often tired and aren’t going to spend time actively working on your goals, but you’re willing to think about them. “So take a little bit of time Friday afternoon, and make yourself a three-category priority list: career, relationships, self.” Then, take that list and plug it into your schedule.

3. Actually Take These Steps, One at a Time

Does anyone else do that thing where you make goals, plan the steps, and then try to do them all at once? This last tip isn’t part of Laura Vanderkam’s amazing Ted Talk (which you should absolutely take 12 minutes to listen to or watch), but I thought it worth adding, anyway.

Friendly reminder: you can’t do everything at once. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to. Which is extremely overwhelming. It’s hard when you’re ambitious and you want it all; trust me, I get that. But we’re all guilty of planning a post-New Year routine that is so stringent, it doesn’t make it past the third week of January.

So this year, be more realistic. Take each step as it comes, and don’t try to skip ahead. You may find that you even enjoy the process.