How to Make (and Keep) New Years Resolutions

A few great ideas on how to make New Year's resolution you might actually keep, and have fun doing so. Whether you like structure or hate it, here are a few approaches and a number of resources to help.

New Year’s resolutions are cliched. Many people make them. Few people remember them months later.

However, clear resolutions can be a powerful way to make your life even more meaningful and fun. December and January are the perfect months to develop simple measurable goals you can remember and keep throughout the new year.

Here are some ideas to identify what you might want to accomplish in the new year, as well as some ways to reach your goals.

Goals can be positive, and achievable. The trick is to simplify them into attainable nuggets on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. While it might be useful to brainstorm, prioritize, plan, and execute a dozen goals, it is not required. Most people do fine with a simple list of bullets, maybe two to five items, and a way to remember them periodically.

For example, I love vacation homes out in the wilderness. There's even a name for it, apparently, "cabin porn" (Google it, or visit and no worries, it's only buildings, nothing naughty). My computer desktop has a rotating set of cabin images I've nicked that represent where I'd like to live some day. Every few days I'll notice the cabin, sigh, then ask myself what I've done today and lately to push me closer to my goal.

I also use an Evernote topic to list my goals over the past years, a set of bullets for each year, and pin it to the top left of their interface. When I'm in Evernote working, I'll click on the topic link to review this year's list.

In short, goals can work if you're easily distracted (me) or highly organized (not me). Being organized is not required. It's more important to have a few goals. And to be reminded of them on a regular basis.

Where to Begin?

Let's presume I've convinced you goals are worthwhile. Where do you begin?

Start by making time to develop an initial set of goals. Create a meeting on your calendar for one hour and add an alarm to remind you. Pick a time you know you'll be available.

On a piece of paper or phone, or your computer, call up a notepad app and start writing down what you would do if you had all the money in the world. Plus, did not have to work. Then ask yourself what you don't like about your life, what you would change if you could. Then ask yourself what you do like, what you'd like to do more if you could.

Next, think about people you respect and admire. What do you like about their lives? Their personalities? If you could be them, what would you do?

Another place to begin creating goals is to start with ideals. Stuff you might never accomplish. Stuff that provides useful directions and ideas to goals you could accomplish.

Finally, think in terms of having fun, learning new things, and helping others. This can yield additional ideas for meaningful goals.

Once you have a bunch of ideas from your first hour or so, put your ideas aside. Set up a second meeting in your calendar to come back to spend an hour a week later. Begin with your first results. Cross out what you don't like. Amplify what resonates a second time. Then repeat the questions above.

Take this second set of ideas and begin to make them real. "Make a lot of money," for example, might become "Make $40,000 by adding clients with big budgets." Or "Don't get so stressed" might become "Walk 30 minutes 4 times a week" or "Get a shelter dog."

At this point, you might have a bunch of tangible ideas, but no real focus. So begin to prioritize your ideas. Which are most important? You also should organize them by areas of your life. Some goals are personal, others have to do with work, still others have to with friends or family. And you also should group goals by having fun, helping others, and learning new things.

It's useful to group your ideas several ways. When you revisit your goals over a year, you'll find some times the straight up "most important" to "least important" sorting leaves you cold. Instead you might be in the mood to focus on time for yourself. And having a personal goal, or a learning new things goal, at that moment, could be the difference in achieving that goal.

How to Achieve Your Goals?

Probably the best way to achieve your goals is counterintuitive: reduce the stress in your life. Most people, for example, live by email. Train yourself to check your email every fifteen minutes, then every half hour, then every hour. If possible, space your email checking to no more than every two hours or three hours. You will be amazed how much making email a habit, not a nervous tic, will lower stress.

While being on deadline may mean adjusting your schedule and checking your email more often, most days you will reduce stress by ignoring email for long stretches of time. Your head will clear up. You'll get more done.

Other ideas to reduce stress and help focus depend on how you live. Walking instead of driving, for example, can help slow your life down. Or take the stairs instead of an elevator. Whatever relaxes you and puts your head in a different place, do it.

Oh, one other suggestion to reduce stress: Put. Down. The. Phone. Seriously, smartphones are addictive. Leave your phone behind and charging on a regular basis. Work through the withdrawal symptoms of your pocket feeling empty with no phone. Don't pick up your phone to check weather.

Here are more ideas to help achieve goals.

Develop a rough plan. With stress reduced, and focus improved, develop at least a rough plan for each important goal. The plan could be a single phrase or a couple of sentences to note timing, dependencies, steps, and resources available. Full blown project plans are not required, as noted earlier. But you should have a rough idea how to achieve each of your goals with notes to remind you later.

Keep goals top of mind. I also keep goals in mind by asking myself simple questions from time to time, usually in the early morning when I rehearse my schedule for the day. Depending on the challenges ahead that day, I ask myself one of these questions: “How can I have fun today?” or “What can I learn?” or “Who could I help?”

For example, a day spent in phone meetings is probably the perfect day to make time to have fun. That might mean half an hour to call a friend, or eat at a special place for lunch, or just take a long walk after work. Days without specific deadlines are good days to ask, “What can I learn today?” Especially if I’ll need to know something next week or next month on another project.

Limit your goals. Another idea to ensure you can achieve your goals is to limit them on a daily basis. Each day do only the one must do goal for the day. The one goal that absolutely must happen. No matter what happens, get that task done. Even if it takes several days. Keep all the other tasks at bay, any way you can, to achieve the must do goal. When you get it done, then pick the next goal that has to happen.

It sounds crazy. But one goal a day will reduce stress and make you more productive.

Should You Track Goals?

It depends. I've used spreadsheets, worksheets, and apps like 2Do and Things. Each worked for a few years. Currently, I use Things on my iPhone because it lets me easily flag one must do task for the day, as well as all the other tasks sorted by project. When I get my daily goal done, it is easy to pick through other possibilities for the day.

The answer, of course, is whatever helps achieve your goals over time. The last bit is critical. You might feel a burst of energy for a week or a month, be highly organized, plow through many of your goals, then burn out and do nothing the rest of the year. Whatever system you use, it should work no matter how much or little enthusiasm you have. And it should be simple to use and easy to find.

Task, Business, and Life Goals

The last point about goals has to do with how they fit into your life. I find goals are either tasks, stuff a client needs done, or they have to do with my business or personal life. There are a few distinctions worth calling out.

Task goals, for example, are amenable to scheduling and planning. A client needs work done by a given date. A project requires inputs and yields outputs. For me, task goals are important but organizing them really is a way to get rid of them quickly. If I don't organize my task goals, they overwhelm me. That prevents me from working on the goals that really matter: goals for my business and my life.

Business goals depend on an analysis of my clients, how I work, my income, my cash flow, and how peers work, among other considerations.

How do you find simple business goals? Look at your business.

Run through your head your impression of your business in the past year. What sort of problems happened over and over? Maybe you had one problem that made you stop and think, a problem that suggested a new future direction for your business.

Another way to find simple business goals is to ask yourself if you had fun with your business in the past year. If not, for what reasons? How do you define fun? Is it learning? Is it helping others? Is it complex challenges? This line of thought can lead you to what gets you excited about your business, what gets you up in the morning. It may be that you’ve lost enthusiasm and your goals, as a result, should focus on getting back your excitement for what you do.

Here’s another way to pull out simple business goals. Think of the different aspects of your business. Successful entrepreneurs engage their business on three levels: the entrepreneur with an eye out for future opportunities, the technician who meets and exceeds the customer’s needs, and the manager who looks back at past efforts with an eye to optimization and reductions in costs and time.

Now evaluate your work in the past year. How did you do with these three levels? Were you, like most entrepreneurs, too focused on your technician role? One clue is a strong hatred for doing the books, by the way. I have that phobia. I would much rather write the perfect copy for a client, or build the perfect website.

The difference between a business goal and a life goal is rather obvious to me. I don’t expect my work life to save my soul, or justify my existence, no matter how thrilling it is for me to work with clients, build a business, and make something out of nothing.

Life goals, however, tap into what is special about each of us and helps draw those qualities out in constructive ways. Life goals make our ambitions a little more real.

If you are a frustrated creative like me, someone who secretly wants to be something other than your current life, you probably have life goals that you’ve ignored for years. For everyone else, a life goal is often a deferred dream, perhaps to spend more time with your kids. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to teach. Or see the Northern Lights.

Whatever the source of your life goal, it reflects your perceptions about what makes you special. If you can complete the questions, “I’m alive because …” and “My life matters because …” and “If I had never been born, then … would not happen,” you have at least one view of yourself that is or can become a life goal.

Another way to tease out life goals is to ask yourself what you would want to do if you had enough money to live the way you want to live. Would your life be more calm, or more active? Would you take more risks and, if so, what risks?

These personal goals, I find, divide themselves neatly into experience goals and life goals.

For example, I would love to fly a float plane. That’s an experience I’d love to have many times. But would I be eager to live in the Alaskan wilderness for forty years as a guide flying a float plane on and off lakes? Probably not. So being a bush pilot, for me, is an experience goal. I might spend a week on a lake doing grunt work for someone flying a float plane instead of chucking my work to become a pilot.

Once you identify one or more of your personal goals, the next step is to become very specific about steps you can take to achieve them.

With a life goal written down on paper, jot down all the things you’ll need to make that goal real. For example, if you want to teach third grade, you’ll need a teacher certification, you’ll need to find a school where you want to teach, you’ll need to make financial adjustments (possibly) to your current life, and so on.

With that raw material, answer these questions:

  • In a perfect world, I would love to be a …
  • When you achieve this goal, what is one concrete manifestation of your achievement (e.g. being published, completing a year of teaching)?
  • In five years, where would you like to be with respect to your goal and the concrete manifestation of that goal?
  • What action can you take this year to achieve your goal?
  • What action can you take this month to achieve your goal? This week? Today?
  • Who is a role model that embodies the life you want to lead?

However you do it, be sure to spend time thinking about what you want to accomplish with your life, not just your business.

Good Luck!

Hopefully doing some or most of what is suggested in this article will generate useful ideas for goals and tasks. Once you have simple goals in hand, the key to success, of course, is to organize this material in a way that does not overwhelm you. And to put the data in places you'll encounter it easily over the upcoming year.

Goals can be annoying, exhilarating, boring, and all three at once. But they should improve your life. Goals should add more fun and more meaning to what you do every day.

Learn More

Here are articles you also might want to read:

Adventure Journal: Make Plans Not Resolutions

New Yorker: New Skills for a New Year

Improvised Life: How to Do More in Less Time

Improvised Life: We Test Drive the Pomodoro Time Management Technique

Business Week: How to Keep New Years Resolutions

Wall Street Journal: Resolutions: So Irresistible, So Hard to Keep

Matador Network: How to Map 2013 to be the Biggest Year of Your Life


  • Tim Slavin

    Tim is an award-winning writer and technologist who enjoys teaching tech to non-technical people. He has many years experience with web sites and applications in business, technical, and creative roles. He and his wife have two kids, now teenagers, who are mad about video games.

Also In The December 2013 Issue

Siblings Pete and Alexa Ingram-Cauchi Talk iD Tech and Tech Summer Camps

They talk about how they started and run iDTech summer camps together and how parents can evaluate tech summer camps.

Where to Recycle Electronics

Here are a few places where you can recycle your old electronics safely.

What is a High Level Language?

What are the differences between high level languages and machine languages? And how do these differences impact coding?

An Interview with Boone Gorges

Learn how a humanities PhD became a software programmer who builds online communities for universities, as well as Lead Developer for BuddyPress and helping to create WordPress plugins like Anthologize and Participad.

How to Make (and Keep) New Years Resolutions

A few great ideas on how to make New Year's resolution you might actually keep, and have fun doing so. Whether you like structure or hate it, here are a few approaches and a number of resources to help.

News Wire Stories for December/January

Interesting stories about computer science, software programming, and technology for the month of November 2013.

No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it’s doing; but most of the time, we aren’t either.

The Hungry Camel

How many measures of grain can one camel eat while delivering grain, before the camel runs out of grain to deliver? A fun math problem at least 1,000 years old.

How to Do Online Research

Online research skills are critical for software programmers. It's how you learn any language, by searching for error messages and looking up reference material.


Almost all programming languages include the ability to add comments and other notes in your code. Here's how several languages work with comments.

Take Out the Garbage

In the same way your bedroom may be impossible to enter if you let dirty clothes pile up, computers can crash and refuse to operate if their memory is stuffed with unused data.

bin, boot, opt, and Linux File System Hierarchy Mysteries

The Linux directory structure looks confusing compared to Windows. Here are the names and purpose of each directory.

What is Localhost?

Localhost is available on most computers, usually to display web pages. It's also useful to use to learn coding on your computer.

The Paywall and Adding Voices to Help Kids Code

With this issue, you will find some articles require subscription. Here's an explanation and how you can help add writers and voices to future issues of this magazine.

Learn More Links for December 2013/January 2014

Links from the bottom of all the December 2013/January 2014 articles, collected in one place for you to print, share, or bookmark.

Interested but not ready to subscribe? Sign-up for our free monthly email newsletter with curated site content and a new issue email announcement that we send every two months.

No, thanks!