New Year's resolutions

Goals Vs. Real Change

For the past two years I’ve spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the epicenter of NYE celebrations. You won’t find me standing on a street corner with the rest of the revelers. Instead, I’ve been tucked inside a theater adjacent to Times Square watching my partner’s favorite band perform. Though in the past I’d prefer to be at home alone, I started going to the shows with my partner out of love and then because of an intention I set one year to have more fun. 

Each year, as I walked through the crowds, on the faces of nearly every reveler, was the desire to be better or to escape something. I used to be that way. These days I don’t want to escape from anything but I still want to be my best self. NYE resolutions grow from this desire to be better — and from the natural transition of a new year. A clean slate, a chance to start anew, is so very enticing.

This is why we have outgrowths of NYE goals like sober January. Structures like this aren't a bad thing. They just aren't the most powerful way to change your life.

Much of the advice on self-change programs is based on tangibles like goals and habits which generally produce surface change at best. "Experts" tell us that we just need 21 days to make something a habit, with the promise of real change implied.

Goals might help you get a laundry list of goals complete, but rarely produce the real change you seek. And the advice that it only takes 21 days to form a habit? Research shows it can take 12 times longer to make a habit stick.

Sustainable change happens over time and is largely guided by your mindset. I've always been goal-oriented so this was a hard lesson for me to learn. My goal orientation was so strong that when I kid, I consistently won sales contests. It didn't matter what I was selling, I had to hit a goal. My early jobs all had timelines, milestones and goals embedded in the job description. I learned the really hard way that goals don't always mean change. It led me on a years-long journey to understand the research behind motivation, growth and change.

Finally, 10 years ago I let go of self-change programs like resolutions. But I didn't let go of the notion that I could be a better version of myself so I starting doing a theme for the year. The theme serves as guide, helping me focus. It allows me to make meaningful progress in an area of my life.

I'm still a recovering Type A so the need to meet imaginary standards creeps up once in a while. But now on the rare chance I set a goal, they look more like intentions and are always an outgrowth of the theme.


If you want to read more of the research and learn how to set your own theme, check out the Anti-Goals Guide.