There’s something about this time of year that inspires everyone to reflect on their accomplishments and look towards the future. There’s nothing inherently special about January 1st, it marks nothing of note in the natural world; the only thing significant is that the last digit of the date changes.

Still, it’s a time for many to make their New Years Resolutions. Almost everyone makes them it seems, though many are too embarrassed to admit them out loud. Everyone is dissatisfied with something about their life, and the constant Buzzfeed-style articles about Resolutions ensure that they are top of mind for most.

The problem is most people suck at making real, lasting changes in their life.

Let’s take an example: Jane

Jane is 29, and she’s unhappy with how she looks. She’s been working a desk job for several years and her body is starting to show it. She’s overweight and dreams of one day having her bikini-ready body back. So she decides to make a resolution for New Years; she’s going to get in shape. Jane buys a year long gym membership and promises herself that she’ll go 3 days a week for the entire year.

For the first couple weeks, things go well. Jane dutifully drags herself into the gym 3 days a week, fighting the massive January gym crowds to spend the requisite 30 minutes working out on the elliptical machine. But one week, at the end of January, she has to work overtime and misses a few days.

Over the course of the next couple days, she doesn’t go either. She’s too tired from working, or deserves some time off exercising as a reward, she tells herself. A few days off turns into a week, then two weeks, and on and on. Jane never gets back on schedule.

She tries again when her 30th birthday rolls around in August, since she still has that gym membership, and lasts a full month before quitting again.

At the end of the year, Jane feels bad about her body and decides that the next year she’ll do better. So she buys a gym membership, resolves to go 3 days a week, and starts fighting the January gym crowds to work out on the elliptical and…

Well that probably won’t work, but you already knew that.

Unfortunately this is how people seem to think they should go about pursuing goals, and it’s why we’re so bad at completing them. It doesn’t mean that you lack willpower or fortitude or resolve or whatever else, it just means that you might be going about it the wrong way. I’m not saying that what Jane did won’t work for some people, but it surely does not work for the vast majority.

Jane made a number of mistakes in trying to lose weight:

  • She didn’t specify a goal weight. She used ‘get in shape’ as her goal, which isn’t measurable. There isn’t a way to track progress towards ‘getting in shape’ and she can’t really say when she’s done. Without a clear goal in mind it’s difficult to measure how you’re progressing.
  • She focused on the wrong things. If we assume her goal was to lose some excess weight, working out is not the most important thing for her to be doing. The most important factor for weight loss is diet, so her focus should have been to work on that at first. (As the eloquent folks over at Nerd Fitness have put it, “You can’t outrun your fork”)
  • She didn’t schedule (or reschedule) her workouts. If you have to decide day by day what you’re going to do, you’ll eventually have an ‘off’ day or three and miss the necessary work.
  • She lacked an accountability partner. Jane, we can assume, didn’t tell anyone else what her goals were. She didn’t have someone she was accountable to that could help push her back on track when she faltered.
  • She tries multiple times to change without adjusting any of her plans, hoping that this time she’ll have the willpower to do it. She doesn’t learn from her mistakes and will get more and more frustrated as time goes on.

Here’s the formula that I use to accomplish actionable goals. It’s not particularly detailed, but that’s the point. Everybody is different in what will push them to get what they want, and the idea is to adjust and modify your process for working towards your goals to get there as effective and efficiently as possible.

  1. Pick a measurable, specific goal. You want to be able to say definitively that you accomplished what you set out to do. For weight loss, this means having a goal weight or, even better, a goal body fat percentage. If the deadline is very far away it can be difficult to gauge what you will be able to accomplish, so be willing to adjust if necessary. (As an example, I once accomplished a New Years Resolution before the end of January, so clearly I was underestimating what was possible. Adjust the goal and move on.)
  2. Figure out how to accomplish it. Depending on the goal the path forward may be obvious, but often it isn’t. In the example above, Jane should have started by adjusting her diet first, but she started with working out because she didn’t know the most efficient way to accomplish her goal. Do a little research now and save yourself lots of unnecessary work later.
  3. Break it down into actionable steps or checkpoints, all the way down to what you need to do today or this week. This way you can gauge your progress, plan your work, and know when or if you need to adjust your end goals.
  4. Schedule it. Willpower is a limited resource, so don’t just hope you’ll be in the mood later to follow through, schedule it in advance. If applicable, set aside time in your calendar beforehand to work on it.
  5. Get an accountability partner. Tell at least one other person what you’re doing, and make sure they will hold you to it. If you want to really stay on track, get them to agree to punish you in some way if you don’t stick to it (Studies show that people respond better to negative rather than positive reinforcement). Perhaps give them $50 to hold and if you don’t stay on track, they’ll donate it to a cause you hate. Close friends or family are best, and strangers on the internet are a last resort. I will readily admit that this step is the hardest for me personally, and I struggled with doing this for a long time, but being accountable to another real person is a big motivator to keep going.
  6. Regularly review and update. Pick a day once a week or once a month, to review how you’re doing with the goal. Check in with your accountability partner, adjust the goal if necessary, plan the next week or month, etc. I have a set weekly review time each week for all of my goals and plans.

Let me know how this works out for you in the comments, or what else you’ve found that works for you personally, I’m always interested in hearing about it.