4 Steps to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

This post is from the SMUG Department of Philosophy. It isn’t about social media as much as it’s about personal growth. But in keeping with the rest of the SMUG curriculum, it’s based on my practical experience, and what has worked for me. In writing it I’m mainly reminding myself to apply what I’ve learned, so that in the coming year I might repeat my occasional successes instead of my more plentiful failures. If it helps you, so much the better.

In other words, it’s SMUG philosophy, not smug philosophy.

More often than not, January 1 has essentially taken me by surprise, like I didn’t even see it coming. As I overdosed on college football and enjoyed what was typically the last day of a break from the office, I suddenly realized I was at the start of whole new year and that I should think of some things I want to change. And without exception, those New Year’s resolutions have been shoved to the back burner within the next couple of weeks, and usually much more quickly.

But I have had some instances in which I was able to make meaningful long-term changes. So as I reflect on them, I want to draw some insights and tips that will help me as I look to mend my ways in 2009. You might consider applying them, too.

Step One: Find some time over the next few days to think about your future and how you want it to be different from your current situation.

In our rushed, overly caffeinated world, most of us don’t take time to think. We’re mentally engaged in work (maybe even overextended) and in holiday preparations, but we haven’t thought about what’s really important to us. We speed through the weeks like Big Brown chasing the Triple Crown, when we come to the Belmont Stakes of our lives and find we’re in last place.


My times of successful change have always been preceded by some time of contemplation. Habits (particularly bad ones) are what we do when we don’t think. We continue just doing what comes easily. And as my former employer’s grandma used to say, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” If you (and I) wait until January 1 to think about some potential changes and how we want to be different in 2009, we’re failing to lay the mental foundation for success.

My introduction to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology came on journey home from Jacksonville in November, 2005. Having several hours at the airport and on the plane rides gave me a chance to read and think and reflect. And that encouraged me to take the concrete steps required to make a significant change in my personal work style. And so within a week I got my email inbox, which had been a catch-all that had grown to having more than 11,000 messages in it, all the way to empty. I’ve now passed my three-year GTD anniversary, and while I’m not implementing it perfectly, I do get the inbox all the way to empty at least a couple of times a week.

Here is a catalog of my posts relating to GTD, and here’s a video that shows the effect GTD had on my physical office space:


Step Two: Find a goal worth pursuing.

It’s important that you also find a goal worthy of your commitment. In Good to Great, Jim Collins calls them BHAGs, or “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” Without a compelling vision that makes our sacrifices worthwhile, we will slide back to mediocrity.

About six years ago, as I was six months from my 40th birthday, I had a vision of once again dunking a basketball. It’s something I hadn’t done since college. So I set the goal of dunking by my birthday. I knew that would require that I get in shape by strengthening my legs, but that I also needed to lose about 20 pounds in order to get what passes for elevation. It took a solid six months, but here was the result on that mid-May day in 2003:


Losing 20 pounds and getting in shape wouldn’t have been enough of a vision to get me to make the required sacrifices. But losing 20 pounds so that I could dunk again was a compelling vision.

One common thread that runs between my dunking and my GTD makeover is this:

Step Three: Get a head start on better habits instead of waiting for January 1.

As mentioned earlier, habits are what you do without thinking. In implementing my GTD workflow, I started by taking a couple of days as David Allen suggests to just clear the decks and set up my system. And I did it in the days around Thanksgiving. That enabled me to have my system going and fully operational by the time the new year came around. I had developed a pattern of behavior that was easier to follow through.

And likewise in my pre-dunking training, it made a huge difference on January 2, 2003 that I had nearly a full month of workouts “in the bank.” I had momentum, and that made it immensely easier to keep going. And by getting through the Christmas cooking season without gaining weight — and in fact losing some — I had reason to believe I could keep the momentum going.

Step Four: Commit publicly to your vision and enlist support.

Tell some close friends and colleagues what you’re doing, and the goals you’re setting. When you have identified yourself with your goals, not only in your own mind but also more or less in public, that provides reinforcement. And with the help of good friends cheering you along (whether they are engaged in the same personal change or not), you’ll get additional support.

If you haven’t really thought about your goals (Step One) and haven’t developed a goal that you find truly compelling (Step Two), shooting off your mouth and making a public commitment (Step Four) won’t do any good. In fact, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure and humiliation. Step Three is a safeguard; if you get through a week in your new direction, telling your friends about it will then increase your motivation and momentum.

And who knows? Maybe you’ll inspire them to take some time to think about some goals they want to accomplish, too.

So here again is the SMUG sequence for successful personal change:

  1. Take time to think about your future and how you want it to differ from your present
  2. Develop a goal and a vision worth your commitment
  3. Get a head start on better habits
  4. Commit publicly once you’ve built some momentum.

For steps to organizational change, you might want to check out this book review.

What are my goals for 2009? I’ll tell you in a week, after I’ve created some momentum.

And in the next few days my posts may take a bit more of a philosophical tone as I spend some time contemplating.


Find some time for contemplation between now and next Sunday night. Think about your life and how it could be better, and what changes you could make to move toward that goal.

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

2 thoughts on “4 Steps to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions”

  1. I did share and not it’s on my weekend list – but my biggest comment is one about how you are connecting posts – I came here from the req’d reading post. So my real lesson here is that often times the best gift we give is helping people see the connections – and doesn’t sm make that so much easier!

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