To Stick to Your New Year’s Resolution, Get It Out of Your Head

Why you’ll never reach a goal by fixating on it

In a fresh new year when everyone is buzzing with motivation and plans to crush it, here’s a killjoy: 88% of all resolutions end in failure.

It turns out that setting a specific resolution is simple. What we do after that is the hard part, a lesson that some learn more quickly than others: 27% of people give up on their New Year’s resolution within the first week.

To keep yourself on track, you might consider adopting a strategy that’s practiced by some of the most successful people and companies: After setting a goal, get it out of your head. Then turn your focus to creating the conditions for your goal to happen.

Think of it this way: Let’s say you’re a gardener. You want to see beautiful flowers, but you can’t spend your days controlling how each specific seed will bloom. You just need to trust that if you follow your usual practices and rituals, the garden will flourish.

Whatever your garden happens to be, these three strategies will help you create the right conditions to succeed.

Measure inputs, not outputs

“Senior leaders that are new to Amazon are often surprised by how little time we spend discussing actual financial results or debating projected financial outputs,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in his 2009 shareholder letter. “To be clear, we take these financial outputs seriously, but we believe that focusing our energy on the controllable inputs to our business is the most effective way to maximize financial outputs over time.”

In other words, instead of looking at results as an indicator of performance, measure their activities. You can’t necessarily control impressions, earnings, and other quantifiers of success, so focus on the things you can: your day-to-day tasks, your eye for opportunity, and your strategic plans.

It’s freeing, actually. You won’t lose motivation if you don’t see progress after the first week, because results are not the goal.

Set and adhere to a ‘standard of performance’

Without looking at your results as an indicator of performance, you’ll need something else to measure your progress.

As the former NFL coach Bill Walsh writes in his book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, “Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.” This insight helped him to lead the struggling San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl victory within three years of starting as head coach.

In his book, Walsh recalls how he transformed the team through what he calls his “standard of performance,” a way of doing things that’s guided by core values, principles, and ideals. Some of Walsh’s more specific requirements included “never sit down while on the practice field,” “no tank tops in the dining area,” “control of profanity,” “positive attitude,” and “promptness.”

To create your own standard of performance, think deeply about what you believe and why. Then commit to it, and follow through. By doing this, you move beyond your temporary motivations, persist in difficult times, and develop the necessary resolve and habits to create lasting change.

Build a system

The final piece of the puzzle is see your activities not as a means to a goal, but as part of a system. In his book, How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams distinguished between those two mindsets.

“Let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

This ties everything together. Let’s say, for example, that you want to make $12,000 in side income this year. You’ve got a master’s degree in math, and you decide to tutor high school students. Now, rather than fixating on your destination — $12,000 — you turn to the activities that will enable you to do that.

For example, in the first month, you might commit to emailing three people each day who might be able to refer you to new customers. Or, you could write one blog post every week to engage with your audience. In your standard of performance, you might declare that your mission isn’t to sell a service or product, but to make these emails and blog posts as useful as possible to the reader. You believe people will want to do business with you if you focus on understanding them.

Eventually, maybe after a few weeks, you can take a look at your numbers to see if the system is getting you closer to your goal. If you’re not seeing progress, you can try something new.

Goals only give you energy on the day you achieve them. Systems offer constant fuel. You will start to see setbacks not as failures or as any reflection of yourself, but as a chance to learn. You will start to see your own shortcomings as temporary gaps instead of as permanent weaknesses. If you can get the goal out of your head, you’re left to focus on the real work.

I write about personal and collective growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’

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