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New Year's Resolutions for Winners: Our 3x5 Guide

It’s about time for New Year’s resolutions, but let’s start that conversation sober. There’s no way around it: the vast, vast majority of New Year's resolutions will fail. Forbes, for example, reported that only 8% of people who set a New Year’s resolution will actually achieve it during that year. Put another way, the average person is 11 times more likely to fail than succeed—and before you say you’re not an “average person,” ask yourself how many people have said the exact same thing.

But we’re not cynical about New Year’s resolutions. The fact that so many people take the change in years for an excuse to make real personal change is pretty cool. So, if anything, the dismal statistics make us curious; we assume that there have to be reasons so many people fail, and conversely, there have to be reasons that those eight percent succeed.

This week, we’re outlining our 3x5 guide to resolutions: three shots at why resolutions (and their owners) usually "lose," and then five guidelines for how the same goals and people can "win" instead.



We’ve used a few loaded words already. For instance, what is a “resolution”? Obviously there’s a definition about resolve, or human determination; at its most basic, a “resolution” would be a statement of personal determination. But in other contexts, such as politics and debate, a “resolution” is a detailed statement of opinion or intention, usually tied to specific policies.

And since we use the word here, what is a “winner”? Well, it’s someone who, according to the rules and boundaries of a game, has met the standards for victory. We invite your confidence, your competitive spirit, even your braggadocio and well-channeled aggression, but those things do not a winner make. Winners only win according to specific rules.

Accordingly, the first problem we see with New Year’s resolutions...



Many people, when choosing their resolution, only identify what they want. You might want to deepen your relationships or lose weight or finish that big project. But here you are at square one. You might really want beef bourguignon, but starting out, you’ll only have a big slab of meat without a knife to carve it, a flame to cook it, or spices to season it. No amount of drooling over Barefoot Contessa will make that meat into dinner; you need a specific recipe, the right ingredients and equipment, and time in the kitchen. 

Once you get granular about goals, it’s easier to understand them and execute them. If you want to lose weight, for example, you have to start by deciding how much you want to lose and why. Then you have to lay out all kinds of details—the old habits you're breaking, the new and different food you’re eating, the ways you can change your cooking, the full details of your exercise regimen, and on and on. 

To continue this example, losing weight might be a great goal for a lot of people. Those who lose weight on purpose usually feel good about it. But every person is different, and the details of weight loss can vary endlessly, even if the goal seems straightforward. If you don’t sort out the details as they apply to you, you don’t have a resolution—you have a wish.

Fortunately, once you go to the trouble of figuring out these details, you will also have identified the “rules” of the game you’re playing. After that, it’s pretty easy to figure out a plan for winning, and a concrete plan is much more useful than a wish.


We pointed out the political meaning of “resolution” because it’s strangely informative for the New Year’s crowd. After all, in a political arena, it’s not mere willpower that makes a resolution succeed; it’s the specific wording of the resolution, the context in which it is introduced, and the way it’s argued. Similarly, it’s not mere willpower that makes a New Year’s resolution succeed—if this weren’t true, more than 8% of people would accomplish their resolutions, right?

Let’s take some of our own 2015 resolutions as examples. One of our goals was “financial health.” That’s a good thing to want, right? Well, we completely screwed the pooch on that goal. Why did we fail (aside from not being specific)?

There are several more reasons and they’re all failures of context. For one thing, it’s difficult to have a financially stable year when you wind up moving twice in that year. For another, we often made small decisions that directly contradicted that goal; sometimes you gotta go out and get drinks with people because you need your sanity more than you need the $40 in your wallet. And so it goes—even though those were the right decisions at the time, collectively they made us fail the year’s resolution.

We couldn’t have predicted or controlled everything that made us fail, but we didn’t properly account for much of it, either. “Financial health” is something we rightfully wanted, but if we’re being honest, it wasn’t our highest priority in context. We were destined to fail because, in our behavior, that resolution was repeatedly “voted down” by more important matters—our friends and family, our personal opportunities, and our health. (Maybe we should have adapted one of those for a resolution instead.)



Speaking of health, let’s examine another common New Year’s resolution: getting back in shape. It shouldn’t be surprising that gyms see a spike in membership in January (though, surprisingly, the peak month for new memberships is actually March).

What happens when newbies hit the iron? It hurts. It always hurts. It's not just the soreness; most people know to expect that. The problem, once you get into the gym, is that it continues to hurt, and not just your muscles. If you’re one of the flubbier (or stringier) people there, you’re bound to get cold feet looking around at the chiseled gym regulars. And never mind any insecurity; you realize that they look that way because they don’t ever stop. They sacrifice multiple hours per week, every week, to come to the gym and push it out. They’re not “better” than you; they’ve just chosen to make a sacrifice that you haven’t.

You really can look like them. You really can have their health and physique. But, just like them, you have to put in the time and pain to pay for it.

No matter your resolution, assume that it’s part of a zero-sum game. If you want to spend more time doing something, you have to sacrifice time you’d spend doing something else. If you want to have something you’ve never had before, you will have to expend effort you’ve never expended before. Moreover, expect that these will be ongoing sacrifices, not just something you “fix” once. If you’re not going to remain committed through all of those costs, it’s not a good resolution for you.



As we said, the variables are endless—only you will know what is suitable for you. But there are some good ways to set resolutions that wind up becoming winners:

  1. Figure out what you actually want. Test your hypothesis by pitting your goal against its competing forces in your life. If you were guaranteed that only one thing would go right this year, what would you want it to be?
  2. Get granular. Make an actual resolution, as opposed to a “public wish.” The resolution should include (A) the goal, (B) why you want it, (C) what needs to happen for this goal to be realized, and (D) exactly what you’re going to do about it. 
  3. Talk to others about the goal, especially people who know more about it. Partly, setting up “accountability partners” is a good idea, but partly also, you may learn a lot you didn’t know about your goal, and you may find some surprising sources of encouragement along the way. 
  4. Give yourself time and space. Even people who are doing everything right feel discouraged sometimes. And, hey, life happens; when things beyond your control get in the way, you don’t deserve to feel like a failure. One specific tip is to allow yourself all year to accomplish the resolution; that way, you’ve got some built-in padding. 
  5. Write everything down. Write your resolutions down, write the plans down, write your progress down. If you don’t put it in writing, it’s at the mercy of your memory. Not only is memory fickle, but it can never show us, objectively, what we said and how we’re doing. 


As we said, it is oddly inspiring that so many people take the New Year as an excuse to make some changes. Of course, the reality is that we can make these resolutions at any time, whether it's January or August—and at any time of year, those resolutions involve responsibility. Like anything else, it's at the mercy of detail—and overwhelming though they sometimes seem, it's always the details that make greatness possible.  

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blogwe'll dive headfirst into productivity with some smarter ways to keep your to-do lists. (Last week, we suggested three ways to wrap up your year on a good note, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page. 


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