Use this approach for your New Year’s resolutions

New Year’s resolutions fail because they are goals without a process to back them. Sure, chose an ambitious goal, but don’t stop there. Identify small actions you can take frequently to increase your likelihood of succeeding. Formulate your New Year’s resolutions in terms of systems, not goals.

New Year’s resolutions are notoriously short-lived. Exercise tracking company Strava identified January 19th as the day when most of its users give up on their resolutions, while a study from the University of Scranton found that only 55% of people who committed to a New Year resolution stuck to it for more than four weeks.

I suspect misguided goal-setting contributes to many New Year resolutions being quickly forgone. I’m not referring to picking the wrong goal but to setting a goal in the first place. As Scott Adams writes in How to fail at almost everything and still win big, “To put it bluntly, goals are for losers.”

Most goals put you in a binary state: achieved vs. yet to achieve. This all-or-nothing thinking is dangerous because it can make you feel like a loser until you achieve the goal. Let’s say I put on 3 kilos feasting on delicious homemade Italian food over the Christmas holidays, and I resolve to lose that extra weight. I’ll be in a failure state every day until I’ll finally reach my target weight—if I’ll get there at all.

A better approach is to shift the focus from the result you wish to achieve to the process you need to get there.

A process-oriented approach to my weight loss aspirations would be to resolve to walk briskly for 45 minutes every day and only eat dessert on the weekend. This, using Adams’ terminology, is a system.

With a system, you succeed every time you complete the system’s action. If your system is made up of daily actions, you’ll get a little win every day. This kind of frequent reward is strongly associated with actual persistence in a long-term goal, a study by the University of Chicago found.

Using systems instead of goals shifts the focus from the outcome to the process. If you can find satisfaction in the process itself, regardless of the outcome, you’re guaranteed to be more fulfilled.

Adams is the first to acknowledge that the systems vs. goals model is “burdened by semantics.” Isn’t “exercise every day” a goal, too? Technically, yes. But where a goal merely defines an outcome, a system is one or more actions to take frequently that increase the likelihood of achieving a given outcome.

Whichever your New Year resolution might be, don’t stop at the goal-setting stage. Design a system to help you get there.

One final tip. If, in designing your system, you pick an “every day” or “every workday” action, beware of the don’t break the chain fallacy. Don’t let failure to apply the system one day derail your entire effort.

An excellent way to build resilience in your system is to build an emergency reserve into it. Research suggests having an emergency reserve in your schedule, an allowance for skipped days, helps to stick with resolutions over time. For example, a system such as “exercise seven days a week with two emergency skip days” is more likely to succeed than both “exercise five days a week” and “exercise seven days a week.”

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