The Most Effective Way to Design New Year’s Resolutions, According to Experts


I get so ambitious at this time of year. A fresh new calendar! A clean slate! This is the year I’m going to organize my personal finances, take care of all those niggling tasks I’ve been putting off, and grow my business. And that’s not all! I’ll eat more vegetables! I’ll sleep better! I’ll practice gratitude!

That’s the wrong way to go about making changes, says Kara Loewentheil, master certified coach, and host of the mental health podcast, UnF*ck Your Brain. “When you focus on changing too many things about yourself, you’ll get overwhelmed deciding which one matters the most, is most important or should get your focus at any given time,” she says.

For every resolution, you need to have a plan. You’re going to be changing something about yourself, so you’ll need to take different actions than you used to. “If you try to do too many at once, you are setting yourself up for decision fatigue,” Loewentheil says. With decision fatigue, you have so many decisions to make that you struggle to make good ones.

“If you resolve to walk every day, change your eating habits, meditate, a journal for an hour, and go to bed at 10 p.m., you will have to make so many new decisions that you’ll likely experience decision fatigue before you even leave the house in the morning,” she says.

And decision fatigue can lead you to throw up your hands and make poor decisions later in the day that conflict with your goals. This includes tasks like ordering takeout, pouring yourself another glass of wine, or skipping your run.

Here’s a Better Way to Introduce Change

Loewentheil says to pick one goal. “Limiting ourselves to one goal actually helps us get sh*t did. Having too many options leads to choice overload and decision fatigue, which translate into (you guessed it!) broken resolutions,” she says.

When you focus on one goal instead of a bunch of them, you can plan out how you’re going to implement it and how you’re going to tackle setbacks. “Limiting yourself to one resolution can be a powerful act of self-love and self-regard,” she says.

How do you pick the one goal that will get your laser focus? Loewentheil offers these tips:

  1. Ask yourself why you want to reach this goal. Make sure your goal isn’t a perfectionist fantasy. “A perfectionist fantasy is a belief that if you were perfect in some area — if you lost 40 pounds or got your dream job or never yelled at your kids or made X dollars a year, then you could finally be proud of yourself and happy,” she says.
  2. Pick something where you can start small. “Choose slow and steady over big and dramatic,” she says. “That’s the kind you can actually do, and just like compound interest, it has exponential results. A good New Year’s resolution is so boring and unsexy you don’t want to tell anyone, but that’s what changes your life bit by bit.”
  3. Anticipate setbacks. “Write your goals in a way that allows for plenty of failures and takes into account how you will handle obstacles,” Loewentheil says.

Not sure what New Year’s resolution will pack the biggest punch for you in 2021? Here are some changes that can dramatically impact your life, according to three experts.

Build a Daily Meditation Practice

“Meditation and mindfulness are the darlings of peak performance, non-negotiables to add to your daily schedule if you aim to tease the most from your mind. It’s not as hard as it sounds, and the rewards are exponential,” says Anne Trager, a certified human potential coach who coaches clients from around the world.

She says that 15 minutes of meditation can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 19%. And it also:

  • Makes you aware of your automatic thoughts and behaviors.
  • Teaches you when your inner voice is right and when it is steering you wrong.
  • Creates a fraction of awareness that gives you time to choose how you respond to something.

“It actually rewires your brain to make you happier, calmer, and more focused,” Trager says.

All you need to do to meditate is observe your mind — it can help to focus on your breath. “Forget about trying to calm down or empty your head. It’s about sitting back and watching thoughts come and go. Every time you realize your mind has wandered, come back to center,” she says.

If meditation is hard for you, try a different type: guided or unguided, with or without music, or sitting or walking. Start with five minutes, and work your way up gradually to 20 minutes or more.

Anticipate these challenges

Trager says some stumbling blocks often trip people up when they start a meditation practice. Here are a few common trouble spots, and strategies for overcoming them:

  • You think you’re too “high strung.” Trager says to exhale for longer than you inhale to help calm down, meditate after exercise when your mind is quieter, or meditate before breakfast or before dinner so caffeine and other stimulants don’t throw you off.
  • You fall asleep when you meditate. Inhale for longer than you exhale to wake yourself up, try guided meditations, and sit up straight when you meditate.
  • You don’t have time. Start small. Commit to five minutes a day for 21 days to build the habit. Or, meditate right after something else you already do, like right when you wake up or after a workout. And have a plan B, so if you miss your morning meditation you have another time in the day you can meditate.

Build a Powerful Network of Connections

The people you know — and the people they know — can propel you toward your goals in 2021. Deana Jean, CEO and principal coach at Intentional Excellence Consulting LLC, says to start by identifying the things you love and are good at. Next, identify your goals and what you need to achieve them. Review your contacts to find people you can help with your skills and people who could help you.

For example, suppose your skill is project management, and your goal is to buy a house but you’re not sure how you’ll save for the down payment. Who do you know who purchased a home in the past year or so? Are any of the business owners who could use help with project management?

Ask those people if you can schedule a call to find ways you can support each other’s goals. In the call, identify specific ways you can help one another reach your goals. And set up recurring monthly or quarterly check-ins to follow up. “This process creates intentional, authentic, and extremely effective networking opportunities,” Jean says.

Anticipate these challenges

Jean says it’s important to disarm the “speedbumps” you might run into when you try to build your network:

  • You think networking feels like sales. Connect with people based on common interests and be clear about the strengths you bring to the partnership.
  • You don’t know where to start. Identify your goals, what you’re good at, and what you need. You can use those things as a launching pad to identify people you know in your network.
  • You don’t stay consistent. Build-in 10 to 15 minutes a week, or an hour a month, for networking. That doesn’t always mean you’re looking for help. You can offer useful information or tips sometimes, so you’re not just asking for something every time you reach out to a connection.
  • You’re not getting responses. Don’t be afraid to send someone a quick text. If you don’t have their number, try a direct message on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram. Jean says she gets solid engagement when she reaches out to people on Sunday mornings or afternoons.
  • You don’t know enough people. Start with the people you do know. Contact your family and friends and be clear about your goals and what you need. They might be able to help or to connect you with someone who can.

Build a Habit of Gratitude

Marcia Larson is director and head of partnerships at Knopman Marks Financial Training, where she takes a performance coaching approach to training. She recommends practicing gratitude daily and is adopting the habit herself.

“My 2021 resolution is to find something exceptional in each day and express gratitude for it. There’s no limit to this —it could be a smile or kind word from a stranger, or something beautiful in nature or in the excellent performance of a colleague,” she says. “Whether large or small, my intention is to find a quiet moment in my day to identify it, ponder it, appreciate it, and then express my gratitude for it.”

Practicing gratitude regularly — even for just three weeks — can change us for the better. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, gratitude magnifies positive emotions, makes us appreciate the value of something, celebrates the good in life, blocks toxic emotions, and improves your self-worth.

Being grateful can be as simple as consciously thinking of what you appreciate as you go through your day. Or, you can keep a gratitude journal where you write down what you’re thankful for.

“It seems simple, but by mindfully adding gratitude to my ‘to-do list’ for each day, I expect to take less for granted and bring more joy to others, as I continue to evolve into the person I aspire to be,” Larson says.

Anticipate these challenges

A few things can make it hard to be grateful. Here’s what to watch for, and what to do:

  • You forget to pay attention and appreciate things. Make gratitude a habit, Larson says. You can set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to pause and identify something exceptional that happened that day. Or, practice gratitude as part of your bedtime routine.
  • You’re skeptical about being grateful. When stress, bad news, or setbacks bring you down you’re likely to deprioritize gratitude. Building a habit makes gratitude routine, so you’re more likely to practice it no matter how you feel, Larson says. You might welcome the lessons you’re learning from your setbacks.
  • Keeping a gratitude journal feels like work. Keep gratitude in your thoughts, instead. An easy mindset shift? When you think “I have to do something,” switch it to, “I get to do something.”

The Bottom Line

Don’t look at the New Year as a time to give your life a top-to-bottom overhaul. You’ll be setting yourself up for failure. Instead, pick one resolution that supports your goals, and take small but meaningful steps to make it happen.

If you haven’t settled on a resolution yet, experts say you’ll impact your life the most by:

  • Building a meditation practice, which will make you happier, calmer, and more focused.
  • Building a network of connections, where you can support each other as you work toward your personal and professional goals.
  • Building a gratitude practice, which helps magnify positive emotions and block toxic emotions.

As for me, I’m resolving to make my spotty meditation practice part of my regular routine. What about you?

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