Last year around this time, I came back to the office from a restful vacation, in which I got twice the amount of sleep per night as usual, with a fairly humble goal for 2016: Limit myself to one cup of coffee per day (and commit to flossing and moisturizing—the throwaway resolutions that I insist on making every year, knowing that I will never be a flosser nor a moisturizer).
I didn’t want to go cold turkey on the coffee—I knew it’d be asking too much of myself to function without any caffeine stimulation—but the amount I’d be been drinking pre-vacation was not sustainable: It made my stomach ache and my muscles flinch; it made the dentist remark on the porousness of my teeth (“My, what porous teeth you have!”).
So I wrote down the resolution and I told my boyfriend, figuring he could hold me accountable.
But about two or three days into New York-paced life, I was offered a share of the afternoon Chemex and, already exhausted, accepted with a sad smile. I slurped down that second cup, resigned myself to that hard and fast fall off the wagon, and realigned my resolution: Never say no to a free cup of coffee. (For what it's worth, I'm great at this.)
Reflecting on my failure, it’s clear that I had taken no measures to ensure success. I had self-sabotaged, not even bothering to pose the essential questions of "Why do I drink excess amounts of coffee?" and "Where do I do it?" I thought I could return to my usual lifestyle of little sleep, lots of work, and coffee pots everywhere I looked and simply abstain. But had I allotted more time in my schedule for sleep, or replaced coffee with another warm beverage, maybe I would have stood a chance.
But I'm not alone in my flop. According to data published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 45% of Americans usually make New Year's Resolutions, but only 8% succeed.
So, for all fellow floppers out there (I know you're out there), we gleaned some of the best advice from the around the web and surveyed our team and our community to put together a step-by-step guide for having and holding—from this day forward, for better, for worse—your New Year’s resolutions.
Some resolutions are doomed for failure. "Be a better person"? Please. Do a little mirror-gazing, then figure out goals that are both purposeful and achievable.
1. Look deep inside yourself.
Self-reflection! It's not just for therapy or summer camp. As ktr put it, “it is important to really evaluate why you want to make the change so you have something to think about and strive for when you want to go back to your old ways.”
It's also crucial to recognize the obvious: that different people are incentivized to make and break habits for different reasons. The kind of feedback you find motivating, for example, might make someone else stop in their tracks. For more on the subject of changing everyday behaviors, Drbabs suggests Gretchen Rubins's book Better Than Before, in which Rubin lays out her theory of the Four Tendencies (upholder, obliger, questioner, rebel) to explain how different people respond to internal and external expecations. (You can even take a quiz online right now to find out where you fit in. I am an obliger, let it be known.)
For a more immediate thought exercise (look, you're exercising already!), courtesy of health economist Austin Frakt, you might ask yourself, “Why aren't I doing this already?" and “Why do I need to do this now?” The answers to those questions will reveal the barriers you’ll need to nudge down—"I don’t exercise because I don’t belong to a gym"; "I don’t keep in touch with faraway friends because our schedules are difficult to sync"—and create a sense of urgency that will help you choose between resolutions.
Which brings us to the next move...
2. Slash your list of goals in half (no matter how ambitious you are).
As Jonah Lehrer wrote in "The Science Behind Failed Resolutions," making a lot of resolutions at once "is the wrong way to go about changing our habits. When we ask the brain to suddenly stop eating its favorite foods and focus more at work and pay off the Visa… we're probably asking for too much." Instead, Lehrer argues, we should space resolutions out over the year in order to focus on task at a time.
Our very own Contributing Editor and Writer Lindsay-Jean Hard said that the "only year [she] ever stuck with [her] resolution(s) was 2014, when [she] limited a usually long list down to two: to get rid of one thing every week and to err on the side of kindness."
Some people, like economist Frakt, have success choosing one resolution per month. The finite time period serves as a motivational finish line (only one month left! how bad can just one month be?) and a natural evaluation point. If you're anticipating difficulty, give yourself one week, then reassess the pros and cons. (Resolve to go to the gym, for example, seems to die in the third week of January, so if you make it to that point, you might as well keep going!)
3. Pick something yes-or-no, check-or-no-check...
Consider splicing the kind of large, amorphous goals that are easy to set but hard to assess into smaller, measurable objectives: So "be a better person" becomes donate x-percentage of my salary each month to charity. "Be a better cook" becomes try one new recipe each week. And "stay organized and neat" becomes Lindsay-Jean's goal: Get rid of one thing you don't need each week. Then at the end of every week (or month), you've either done it or you haven't.
Last year, Food52's Digital Marketing Manager Megan Lang committed to bringing lunch at least four days a week; this year, she's resolving to read or reread one classic book per month—two measurable goals that help steer her, with clear direction, towards larger, vaguer objectives like "stick to a budget" and "be more well-read."
4. ...even if that something is a little more loosey-goosey.
If you know you won't be able to stick to a weekly or monthly goal—or if you, quite frankly, think New Year's resolutions are silly—you can still use the "new leaf" mentality to make a less structured change and add one or two bullets to the To-Do list in the coming months.
Last year, for example, Food52 Co-Founder Amanda Hesser and her husband “resolved to travel more with our kids. This didn't require doing something daily or weekly. We had a whole year to plan a trip or two or three, and we could take the trips whenever we wanted. Also I liked that it was a joint resolution so we had each other to help make it happen.”
For an even wider-reaching goal, Lindsay-Jean is picking a word rather than a resolution for 2017. While "trust" or "exploration" or "honesty" may not come with a readily apparent set of action items, the word can act as a decision-making lense throughout the coming year.
Okay, you've got your goal. But now what?
1. Write it down.
Putting your goal on paper grabs it from your brain and plants it right into the tangible world. “Keep a journal, a list, whatever helps you be accountable for your resolutions,” advised secondbasil. Last year, our Software Engineer Micki Balder made a list of resolutions broad and narrow, along with a list of new things she wanted to try, inspired by the site Yes and Yes.
2. Shout it from the rooftops!
Make your resolution known. Get it emblazoned on a T-shirt. Get a face tattoo. Use peer pressure and external validation as your motivation: Do what you need to do so that your friends and family will poke you into achieving your dreams.
A few years back, for example, our Controller Victoria Maynard entered a money-saving challenge with her coworkers for the month of February (see, a month-long resolution): "Anytime we bought a coffee, breakfast, lunch or takeout dinner or took a taxi we had to put a check under our name. We didn't include a dinner out with friends as that was more a social activity than reckless spending. We had one freebie purchase a week. I actually lost the challenge with 4 marks to my name, BUT it was so nice to break the habit of spending money."
There's other research (scroll to number 5 on this list), however, to suggest that it’s better to keep goals to yourself; if, for example, you tell all of your colleagues you're going to get seriously buff, you might convince yourself you are going to get buff without taking appreciable action towards that goal. Plus, if you're someone Gretchen Rubin categorizes as a "rebel" or a "questioner," you might be naturally inclined to thwart the expectations' of those around you for that very reason. (So perhaps more self-reflection is needed before you decide to get the resolution printed onto a T-shirt.)
3. Make your environment a resolution-friendly place.
A number of members of the Food52 team found it hard to achieve their 2016 resolution of eating less sugar. Yes, it might have been a more approachable goal had they set a measurable goal for a finite period of time (like, "no added sugar for the month of January"), but regardless, our work environment is plotting against them: At one point, all of these cookies were centrally located in our office and free for the taking. Pure willpower doesn't stand a chance.
It's important to take these sorts of environmental hazards into accounts. One way to tackle the issue is to think, as Melody Wilding of Forbes recommends, of the resolution as a question. Our Managing Editor Kenzi Wilbur's 2017 goal is to make one new dish per week, which she can then turn into the question: How will I make one new dish per week?
Maybe Kenzi hasn't been making a new recipe once a week (now we're circling back to our first essential question of "Why aren't I doing this already?") because she doesn't devote time to choosing a recipe or stocking her kitchen with the required ingredients. If she were to choose the recipe on Saturday and get the groceries when she does her normal shopping, she'd stock her pantry and fridge with what she needed and hopefully be ensuring that she'd make the recipe later in the week.
AntoniaJames has environmental cues that help her drink more water each day: "Fill a quart Mason jar first thing in the morning at home, and another one first thing when you arrive at work, and put each in a place you'll see frequently—in my house, that's my placemat on the dining room table; in my office, it's on a corner of my desk. I know that I need to drink two of those jars per day. Having them in sight makes accomplishing this habit a cinch."
You could do the same with ingredients you want to use, books or articles you'd like to read, running shoes you'd like to lace on...
4. Schedule time to make your resolutions happen.
"I don't have time to x, y, z" is an excuse I use every hour of every day. It works great. I recommend it. Of course I needed more than one cup of coffee per day—I don't have time to get any more sleep.
But to make your resolution a part of your routine, you'll have to carve out time to, you know, actually do it. If you'd like to cook more, that might mean getting into work earlier in the morning so that you can leave in time to make dinner; or it might involve setting the alarm early on Saturday morning to give yourself the chance to choose recipes and organize the grocery list.
And, if you're ultra-prepared, make a back-up plan for when the schedule goes awry: Food52's Assistant Buyer Jackon Fust was having great success with his 2016 goal of going to the gym four days a week until summer vacation threw him off.
Which brings us to our next point...
5. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.
Despite what O-Town once crooned, New Year's resolutions are not all or nothing at all. (But please resolve to watch this music video in the next 30 minutes.)
If one week of vacation throws you off, that doesn't mean you've failed (even though it's tempting to use that "failure" as an excuse to drop the objective altogether). A little something—cooking a new dish once every two weeks if you can't manage once a week; going to four museum exhibits a year if you can't make it once a month—is better than zilch.
6. Set up a reward system.
In the end, we're no more sophisticated than horses with their carrots. (Well, maybe a little, but not to this point.) If you want to write a poem every day (Kenzi’s 2016 resolution), buy yourself that notebook you've fawned over and some pens that make it a pleasure to write. Or make that a canvas sack to take to work (for those lunches you'll be making), an apron (for that cooking you'll be doing), or a brotform basket (for the bread you'll be making).
Best to buy these after you've passed some milestones—you've been bringing lunch for a month, you've made five loaves of bread—so that the shiny new playthings don't end up collecting cobwebs along with those resolutions you made (but never wrote down) several months back.
Now let's hear from you! What resolutions have you stuck to in the past and what tactics helped you do it? Tell us in the comments.