Few things are as embedded into our collective psyche as New Year's resolutions. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians, who celebrated their New Year in March, would make promises to their gods--often to get out of debt--for the New Year (yes, some things haven't changed).

There's cultural pressure to make resolutions each year. But if you're putting off your resolutions for 2020, it may be because you're like 72 percent of folks over the age of 45, or 40 percent of those 45 or younger who just don't bother.

Worse yet, according to a poll in Forbes, of those who do make a New Year's resolution, less than 25 percent stick with them after just 30 days, and only 8 percent actually follow through on their resolutions. I'll wager that the numbers weren't much different for our Babylonian friends in 2500 BC.

Given how lousy our track record of keeping resolutions is, the better question might be, why do we even bother with resolutions that are so predictably unachievable?

The answer provides insight into some of the same reasons that so many new businesses fail. We've been culturally indoctrinated to focus on results--the end game, the transaction, the goal, and the finish line--rather than the process. I see this all too often when I advise and speak with young entrepreneurs who are obsessed with the exit plan and the "payoff" rather than with building a truly sustainable business that people will want to work for and customers will want to do business with.

The Problem With Most New Year's Resolutions

The problem with most resolutions is that they jump to the end of the story rather than trying to shape the narrative. It's not that you shouldn't have lofty goals. But goals are outcomes; resolutions are actions. Think of it as though you were looking back after having achieved your goal. What would you have needed to do to get that point? A good resolution is one that focuses on and embraces those things.

If your New Year's resolution is to lose 10 pounds, pay off your credit card debt, write a book, or build a business, then what you are telling yourself is that the only joy is in achieving the end goal. You are setting yourself up to despise the process and discipline that stands between you and that goal.

What if instead of focusing on the goal, you focused on embracing the activities that bring you closer to the goal? So, instead of saying  "I'm going to lose 10 pounds," how about, "I'm going to work out three times a week for 30 minutes, no matter what else I've got going on." Or instead of, "I'm going to write a book in 2020," you agree to "write 500 words each day--even if it's 500 words of gibberish." 

How To Resolve

Do you notice the difference in the way those two resolutions were re-written? Here are the three basic rules to writing solid and achievable New Year's resolutions.

  1. First, the focus of a resolution is on the process, not the goal. By committing to the process you are not only improving your chances of reaching your goal, but you are also creating a behavior that will pay off regardless of the specific goal achieved. Achievement, like happiness, is the by-product of a process, not just the attainment of a goal.
  2. Second, the success metric of a resolution is tied to the discipline of performance as opposed to that of achievement. Take, for example, the process of writing 500 words each day. By setting a daily word count you are creating a habit. Results come from the process and discipline of doing, rather than that of planning and waiting. 
  3. Third, far too many people fool themselves into believing that what's standing between them and their goal is just the decision to pursue it, when what's really standing in the way is the process that they don't want to deal with. It goes like this: "I can lose 20 pounds, I just haven't decided to do it yet--but I will, and then you'll see!"  or "Yeah, I'll write that book someday. It's a brilliant book and I just don't have the time to do it." That is the essentially flawed foundation of most New Year's resolutions. In our imaginations, we are all writing acceptance speeches for our induction into the innovators' hall of fame. The difference is that those who actually get the award haven't shirked the discipline needed to get them there.

Resolutions aren't destinations; they are the habits and the behaviors that give us license to reach our destinations. When we look back, it's the discipline of those habits that has paved the long and winding road to where we are today.

So, for 2020, resolve to do those things that you will be glad to have done when you look back from 2021.