5 Alternatives To New Year’s Resolutions. That Actually Work

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It’s a New Year! Time to shake off your hangover. Throw out the Christmas tree. And of course come up with a few New Year’s resolutions.

For most of us this means jotting down some loosely defined goals about losing weight, finding love, and generally kicking ass during the coming calendar year.

For most of us this ALSO means swiftly discarding these goals in a few weeks once the luster of the New Year fades, and life kicks in again.

I don’t say this to be dismissive. In principle, I’m a fan of New Year’s resolutions. It is one of the few culturally sanctioned times to reflect on your life and plan for a better future. However, the customary format of year long resolutions sets many people up for failure.

I want to propose 5 alternatives. They’re tailored to people who are sick of New Year’s resolutions but want to make a positive change in their life.

Each item highlights a flaw in how we approach New Year’s resolutions, and offers a different solution. Check them out:

Alternative 1: The Monthly Challenge:

What It Is:

If you ever stumble into my room you’ll likely see one of these taped to the wall:

The sheet is my monthly challenge. Author and artist Austin Kleon created the one seen in the picture.

To do a monthly challenge, decide on an area of life you wish to improve (i.e weight loss, writing a book). Then break that goal into an action you perform each day of the month (i.e run a mile, write a page of your book).

Every day you perform your chosen action put an “X” on your monthly challenge sheet. If you complete the entire month you can reward yourself in any way you see fit.

Why It’s Better Than A Resolution:

A calendar year is too long to account for. This onerous length is why so many of us give up on our resolutions at the beginning of the year.

A month is manageable. It’s enough time to make a meaningful change.

A month is flexible too. If you wish to continue your challenge past the month, you can. If your priorities shift, you can create a different challenge next month.

The other thing I love about the monthly challenge is it has built in rewards. Charles Duhigg, the best selling author of The Power Of Habit, says rewards reinforce good behavior and allow us to build habits that last.

The monthly challenge has not one, but two rewards systems. The micro reward of crossing off a day on your challenge sheet, and the larger reward you enjoy at the end of the month.

Alternative 2: Conduct An Experiment

What It Is:

Put on your lab coat and geeky glasses; we’re about to conduct an experiment. This might sound brainy and scientific, but it’s not.

An experiment simply evaluates a hypothesis. For those of us who failed science class, a hypothesis is what we think the outcome of our experiment will be. It can take the form of a sentence like:

If I do (insert activity) for (insert amount of time), this (insert prediction) will occur.

If you wanted to try out a new diet to lose weight your hypothesis might be:

If I do the Keto Diet for 1 month, I will lose 10 pounds.

Once you run your experiment, compare the results with your hypothesis. Use this to draw conclusions. Did the experiment work? How close were your results to your hypothesis? What went well? What could you improve?

Why It’s Better Than A Resolution:

Resolutions are personal and loaded with emotion. Experiments are cold and detached. When we don’t complete a New Year’s resolution we get an icky shameful feeling. We may even see ourselves as failures.

The experimental process removes this baggage. It allows us to merely do the work and not get swept away in the ups and downs of the process. If you don’t “succeed”, it’s not a mark against you, you just had a faulty hypothesis.

The process also lends itself to improvement in a way resolutions don’t. Even “set backs” and “missteps” can provide valuable points of data. Data you can use to tweak and improve future experiments.

Alternative 3: Choose Principles Instead Of Resolutions

What It Is:

Principles are rules you choose to live by. They frame how you want to live, how you will act, and what you will tolerate from yourself and others. They are the code of conduct of your best self.

Principles dig deeper than standard goals and resolution. Some examples:

Goal: Go on a plant based diet

Principle: Treat the earth and my body with respect

Goal: Earn more money

Principle: Have more time and freedom to do what I want with who I want.

Goal: Write a Novel

Principle: Express and ignite creativity in myself and others

Why It’s Better Than A Resolution:

Principles illuminate the elusive WHY behind traditional resolutions. They strip resolutions to the bone. They reveal what you really want, and signal if it’s out of alignment with what you say you want.

These often conflict. Many times what we “want” is us parroting the things society and our parents tell us to value, rather than what we covet at our core.

Principles also give you a playbook for how to act. They have broad applications that can inform decisions in many areas; now and in the future.

For example the principle to “treat your body with respect” has implications for when you exercise, what you eat, and how much you sleep. The resolution to lose 20 pounds over the new year only applies to a specific area and period of time.

Alternative 4: Write A Thank You Letter From Your Future Self:

What It Is:

Pen a thank you letter from your future self. The version of you that has worked towards a meaningful goal and now reaps the rewards.

The letter details what this future self is thankful for. Be both broad and specific. If your future self is grateful you saved $2,000 for a vacation, let your past self know all the juicy details. Where you are. What you’re doing. How much fun you’re having.

When you’re finished, take the letter and stow it in a private place. Revisit it when you have doubts and struggles.

Why It’s Better Than A Resolution:

This alternative likely made a significant amount of readers cringe. Hear me out.

Most goals are trade offs between a current and future version of yourself. Your present self makes a commitment, often a cumbersome one, so a future version of yourself can enjoy a better life

You do a grueling workout, so your future self can enjoy a better body

You eat yucky leafy greens instead of ice cream so your future self can enjoy a longer, healthier life

You stock money in a savings account so your future self can enjoy an early retirement.

The Thank You Letter is a silly, but powerful reframe. It fleshes out the future version of yourself who will enjoy the rewards of your work.

Progress is incremental. It’s often imperceptible in the moment. This infuriates most people. It’s why we bail on our News Year’s resolutions a few weeks in. Our struggle is clear and present, while the payoff is vague and distant.

But there is a payoff! One a future self will receive if you remind your current self to continue to put in the work.

Alternative 5: Annual Bucket List For The Little Things In Life

What It Is:

List the activities you want to do in the coming year. The catch: you can’t list big sexy things like plan a Hawaiian vacation or buy a mansion.

The items on your list must be small, but noteworthy. Like: try a new sushi restaurant, take a bubble bath, watch a French film, or pet a labradoodle.

If you keep a calendar, schedule some of these activities on there. Give yourself modest meaningful events to look forward to in the new year.

Why It’s Better Than A Resolution:

News Year’s resolutions are self serious. They operate on the assumption that to have a “good year” you must tick off a standard set of boxes involving your health, finances, and career. While these are important, they neglect the smaller pleasures in life.

We live day by day. No matter how extraordinary you are, you spend most of life in the daily drudge of modern existence. Work meetings, Filing taxes, Cleaning out the refrigerator.

What makes this daily drudge manageable? Minor moments of gratification!

These items scarcely get consideration when we make New Year’s resolutions. They’re ignored in favor of lofty and often unattainable goals. Yet these little joys are what make the lofty goals worth while.

What good is a banging body if you can’t go to the beach. What use is more money if you don’t spend it on experiences you enjoy. What good is a stable career if it comes at the expense of doing the activities that give your life meaning. We aim for bigger goals so we can enjoy the little things. Schedule time for them in the New Year.

Educator and Copywriter Who Writes About Creativity, Marketing, Pop Culture, And Occasionally Mindfulness Meditation

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store