New Year’s resolutions just don’t work.
At the end of December, most of us come up with a well-meaning list of goals and resolutions. And by the middle of January, most of us have again failed to keep them.
This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. Or any of us. We just need to explore new ways of finding focus — especially in 2021, when it’s harder than ever to make firm plans.
January is an awful month for a fresh start, in the northern hemisphere. The nights are long and dark. It’s cold outside. We’re normally tired from the whirl of holiday parties, present-buying and entertaining. Though not in 2020, the strangest of years. This year, we’re all just tired.
There’s another thing about goals.
They’re often set from the head, not the heart. They’re about what we think we ought to want, about outward trappings of success, not what we truly desire. Often, they can also be about fixing something that is ‘wrong’ with us.
We convince ourselves we can’t be happy until we’ve got that qualification or promotion. Or until we’ve lost weight, pushed our income over six figures, written a screenplay, launched our own business, or run a marathon.
All of these are perfectly good things to aim for, if that’s what you really want. But life is about enjoying the journey. Not endlessly striving for goals, allowing ourselves a brief moment of celebration when we get there — and then setting new goals to push and strive for.
Dream big, start small.
Big goals can be overwhelming, which makes them easy to defer. Sure, we want to learn to play the piano, save up the deposit for a flat, run a marathon, write a novel.
But it’s easy to think we’ll start next week, next month… or some future point when we have all the time, energy and space we need for such a huge undertaking. And then yet another year goes by and we’re no closer.
What we need to do instead is begin. Practice scales on the piano for 10 minutes a day. Save the first £10, £100, or £1000. Jog for just 15 minutes after work every evening. Write 100 words a day.
You can build on this. But the key is to start small. And start now.
Doing your verbs.
The process I’m describing here is about considering who you need to become, to make your dreams a reality. Then simply start doing the thing that will make you what you want to become. Make small changes, introduce new habits and routines that will get you there.
If our goal is simply to lose weight, for instance, we tend to give up our strict diet the minute we get to our goal, then gradually put it all back on again. Instead, set an intention to make small, permanent changes over time. And gradually become someone who eats healthily, exercises regularly and enjoys looking after their body.
It’s about becoming a writer, an entrepreneur, a runner, someone who generates more income. And surrounding yourself with peers who do the same, to make that journey easier — and more fun.
The steps are simple.
1. Celebrate all that you achieved in the previous year.
Take at least an hour with your journal or pen and paper, and assess your 2020. You can read about that in more detail here.
It might feel a little pointless this year, when few of us were able to do what we’d planned. But this has been a time of growth and learning, and it’s important to assess that. To celebrate the victories, however small. And to examine the challenges, see how you overcame them.
Taking some time to review your year really will help you see more clearly where you want to go, what you want to build on.
2. Give yourself space to dream.
Let go of reality for a while, of all the shoulds and musts and sensible decisions. Let go of all of the anxiety, the fears. Imagine you won’t fail, in anything you try.
If all went well, and you succeeded at everything, where would you be, far into the future? No need to put a specific time frame on it. Just let yourself travel forward 10, 20 years or more, and look at the life you’ve built. There are several ways of doing this.
- You can flick through magazines, ripping out any images that appeal and putting together a vision/mood board. (Or put together something from your own drawings, art, photographs.)
- You can do a guided Future Self meditation (there are plenty recorded online — just Google ‘Future self’).
- Or you can write about your ideal life, using the questions/guidelines outlined here.
The method isn’t that important. What’s important is that you get a really clear picture of your best future.
A few notes.
It’s probably worth saying that sometimes what you see can be symbolic. This year, for instance, I saw myself living in splendid isolation in a calm, uncluttered cottage on a remote and rather bleak island. I don’t think this means I want a divorce, or to abandon my brilliant friends, who I’ve missed so much in 2020.
More likely, it means that — like many of us — I haven’t had a great deal of time to myself this past year, that I need more space to write and think. It’s also true that our home has got horribly cluttered, that it’s time for a clearout so that we can comfortably down-size in the next few years.
If you see yourself with huge wealth, lots of possessions, global fame and a shelf full of awards, it’s also worth taking a moment to examine what lies under that. What you’re really longing for. More time? Space? Status? Living somewhere beautiful, and getting out in nature more often?
Money helps with all of those things, but it could be that at least part of what you want is available right now. If you shift your priorities slightly.
3. Now send yourself back in time, closer towards the present.
Stop about five years into the future. If that’s who you are, far into the future, where were you on that journey about five years from now? Perhaps you’ve gained some new skills. Saved a nest-egg. Become calmer. Perhaps you’ve written some bad novels — then your first good one.
4. And set intentions for 2021.
What can you do in this coming year, to move you towards the life you imagined? Who do you need to be, and what changes do you need to make?
You’re not looking for temporary fixes here. You’re looking for tiny, permanent course adjustments that will add up to big results when repeated, over time. Then cement them as new habits, month by month.
If you saw yourself owning a lovely home, or being financially independent, perhaps you need to become a saver, or an investor. This doesn’t happen overnight, so your steps might be reading some good books on personal finance and money issues; finding a good accountant, or a trusted financial advisor; clearing credit card debt; setting up a savings account; learning more about simple investing, with tracker funds; starting a new income stream, finding some other way of increasing your income or cutting back on your spending.
If you saw yourself as fit and healthy, then it’s about making manageable changes in your lifestyle, month by month. Drinking more water; walking more; putting an extra portion of veggies on your plate; replacing mid-morning biscuits with fruit; finding friends who might want to workout with you, or who prioritise their health; replacing that glass of wine every night after work with a trip to the pool or gym, or a de-stressing ritual like a walk, a bath, meditation or reading.
5. Think of new habits or activities you will introduce.
These will start you on the path to becoming that future self. Don’t set the bar too high, at first. Start with something laughably easy.
- If you want to write a novel, start by writing, every day, for 10–15 minutes.
- If you want to become a runner, pick a time of day when you’ll put your running shoes on and get outside. Even if all you’re then doing is walking to the end of your road and back.
- If you want to build wealth, start by saving £5 (or 50p!) a week and finding a secure, high-interest savings account to put it in.
Once you’re in the habit, you can build on it, week by week, month by month. The hardest bit is beginning.
6. From your list, pick 12 habits to introduce in 2021.
Choose a month, a time to introduce each new habit. I saw my older self as calm, rested and full of energy, and I know I don’t sleep enough.
So in January, I’ll start going to bed earlier. And turning off all of my screens — tablet, phone, computer — by 9pm. It’s a perfect time of year to do it. Then if I’m not so tired first thing, it will be easier to start my new habit for February: meditating every morning.
I’ll be posting a full list of my 2021 intentions next week, if you want to take inspiration from it. And if you want to know more about how to establish a new habit, James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is a great primer.
Choose a word, to guide you through the year.
This will be your compass, pointing you in the direction you want. I considered a few. Reconnect. Simplify. Create. In the end, I decided on Joy.
By necessity, 2020 has been a year of quiet pleasures. I’m hoping, in the year to come, to be dancing to music again, in a crowd. To hug my mum, and my friends. To have people sitting round our big kitchen table again, enjoying a meal together.
All of that will be a joy, when it comes. Until then, it will be about watching sunrise come a little earlier every day, walks in nature, reading and listening to music at home. About finding joy wherever I can, and letting that guide me as I make changes in 2021.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Want my free 10-day course, Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives? Click here.