The secret to sticking to your New Year's Resolutions

(This is my improved process for achieving personal goals. I’ve worked through an example of using it to help learning French but this will work for any goals you set for yourself.)

Every year I make resolutions and set goals and whilst I always get a lot done, each year my ambitions seem to outstrip my achievements. When I look back at the end of the year at what I said I’d do, despite my successes, there’s always this nagging sense of failure.

Why set goals at all?

In fact, goal setting is one of the best (proven) ways to help with language learning. If you don’t set learning goals, you’re statistically much less likely to make progress.

One day, I decided to take a look and see what I could do improve my own processes and structures for achieving what I want. I realised there was huge room for improvement. It’s great having goals, but unless you do things to keep them present in your life, they soon fade from memory and focus – along with your chances of achieving them. I came up with this improved process for achieving New Year’s Resolutions.

My new process was definitely an improvement on previous years: I managed to stick with it for six months (instead of just the first month), arguably a 600% improvement. Then I revised my system again, learning from what did and didn’t work the previous year.

My inspiration came from software development (which we do a lot of). Years ago, most companies developed software using something called the Waterfall Methodology. Nowadays, most companies use something called Agile instead, and it’s a huge improvement. I realised the same lessons can be applied New Year’s Resolutions and life goals.

The Waterfall Design Process looks like this:

Image representing the stages of The Waterfall Methodology for software design

The Waterfall Methodology for software design, largely abandoned

The reason people have abandoned it is that when you try to design something competely up-front, by the time you finish building it (a year or more later), you realise it isn’t what you really need at all.

The Agile approach uses small iterations instead, where you constantly make “course corrections” based on feedback and you end up with much better products.

Image representing the stages of The Agile Methodology for software design

The Agile Methodology for software design results in better software

I realised my annual goal setting exercises are very much like the Waterfall method: deciding a whole year in advance what you want is simply too much to bite off. It’s fine to have vague goals a year ahead, but the problem with vague goals is they’re very hard to pin down into actual actions. My goals were great, but by half-way through the year, I gave up on them because I realised they weren’t working and the structure was too rigid to adapt.

An Agile approach to making New Year’s Resolutions

So, I decided to be Agile about my New Year’s Resolutions. The secret behind Agile’s success is higher time resolution in the development cycle. The same secret applies to personal goals: higher-resolution Resolutions!

I no longer make New Year’s Resolutions. Instead, I make New Month’s Resolutions!

This actually gives me the freedom to continue setting vague yearly goals (you do need to know the rough direction you’re heading), but my resolutions are at a “higher resolution” than a year.

I make resolutions monthly – only one month at a time.

I start with January resolutions (small, actionable things I can complete by the end of January) and then in February, I can see how that went and make appropriate course corrections. This is a much better approach than New Year’s Resolutions.

There are good and bad ways to set goals, the usual advice applies (so-called S.M.A.R.T. goals):

  • Specific: it’s impossible to achieve something vague.
  • Measurable: how will you know when you’ve done it?
  • Achieveable/Realistic: very important that you don’t set yourself up to fail.
  • Timebound: deadlines make goals easier to achieve.

Overarching goals are allowed to be vague: e.g. “Improve my French” is fine for the year because it’s really a context not a goal; but for your Agile Monthly Goal, you should set out a few small, achievable, specific things that will move you forward: e.g., “Watch a French film” or “Master the present tense“.

Now, I’m going to ask myself, Are these goals really SMART? Hmm. No, actually they’re not.

“A French film” is more specific than “a film” but which film? How about “Watch Les Intouchables" instead? That’s more specific, and more likely to happen because I now know exactly what I have to do.

And mastering a whole tense is, I know from experience, really far too vague. French verbs fit into three categories (-er, -ir, and -re) and then irregular and semi-regular verbs, and sometimes there are further complexities such as être and avoir auxiliary verbs. But even if I make this goal more specific, “master -er verbs in the present tense” it still isn’t really a measurable action I can take. How will I know when I’ve mastered them? I’ll need to test myself – and pass the tests, of course.

So better actions would be:

Notice these are both specific things that I can check a box next to to mark complete. They’re now specific and measurable.

There are two more things I do to help ensure I achieve things:

1. Promise someone else that I’ll do it. I’m too easy on myself so I find it helpful to ask someone to hold me accountable. Social pressure works for me.

2. Identify and remove obstacles to action. Life will always throw things in the way of what you want, sometimes in a predictable way. For example, if you have kids, just being a parent eats up most of your time. So knowing this, and (say) booking a weekly baby-sitter or asking a relative to free up one evening a week for some “me time” is an action you can take to help remove obstacles to action.

What is your goal?

Your goal can be pretty much anything, it just depends on what you want to accomplish. In terms of learning French, one really good long-term goal is "Pass the DELF/DALF level ___.” If you take our CEFR test, you’ll get an idea of where you are right now and which level to shoot for. Then you can read our DELF/DALF tips for that level and figure out your monthly goals. The great thing about setting a test as your goal is that success brings more than just personal satisfaction: passing the test provides a tangible result in the form of an official certificate.

Set New Month’s Resolutions

I’ve created a little printable template as a structure to help set New Month’s Resolutions. If you want to give it a try, you can download the PDF and print it out. Every month, look at what worked, think about how to improve the next month’s goals and repeat the process. It looks like this:

Download: Gruff’s Agile Approach to Resolutions

A template for goal setting and sticking to new year's resolutions

New Year’s Resolution-themed French kwizzes

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Author info

Gruff Davies

Despite the very Welsh name, Gruff is actually half French. Nowadays, he's a tech entrepreneur (and some-time novelist) but he used to be a physicist at Imperial College before getting hooked on inventing things. He has a special interest in language learning, speaks five languages to varying degrees of fluency and he often blogs about language learning, science, and technology. As well as co-founding Kwiziq, he is the author the Amazon best-selling SF thriller, The Looking Glass Club and the inventor of the Exertris gaming exercise-bike and Pidgin, a free online tool that makes drawing flow charts and relationship diagrams as quick and easy as describing them in pidgin English.

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