5 Questions To Help You Make Effective New Year’s Resolutions.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day — or List Day, or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: Five questions to help you make effective New Year’s resolutions.

Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I know I always do. I’m more inclined to make resolutions than ever, in fact, because if my happiness project has convinced me of anything, it has convinced me that resolutions – made right – can make a huge difference in boosting happiness.

So how do you resolve well? This is trickier than it sounds. Here are some tips for making your resolutions as effective as possible. Remember, right now, you’re in the planning stage. Don’t feel like you have to do anything yet! Just start thinking about what would make 2011 a happier year.

1. Ask: “What would make me happier?” It might having more of something good – more fun with friends, more time for a hobby. It might be less of something bad – less yelling at your kids, less nagging of your spouse. It might be fixing something that doesn’t feel right – more time spent volunteering, more time doing something to make someone else happier. Or maybe you need to get an atmosphere of growth in your life by learning something new. (These questions relate to the First Splendid Truth.)

2. Ask: “What is a concrete action that would bring about change?” One common problem is that people make abstract resolutions, which are hard to keep. “Be more optimistic,” “Find more joy in life,” “Enjoy now,” are resolutions that are hard to measure and therefore difficult to keep. Instead, look for a specific, measurable action. “Distract myself with fun music when I’m feeling gloomy,” “Watch at least one movie each week,” “Buy a lovely plant for my desk” are resolutions that will carry you toward those abstract goals.

3. Ask: “Am I a ‘yes’ resolver or a ‘no’ resolver?” Some people resent negative resolutions. They dislike hearing “don’t” or “stop” (even from themselves) or adding to their list of chores. If this describes you, try to find positive resolutions: “Take that dance class,” “Have lunch with a friend once a week.” Or maybe you respond well to “no.” I actually do better with “no” resolutions; this may be related to the abstainer/moderator split. A lot of my resolutions are aimed at getting me to stop doing something, or to do something I don’t really want to do — such as Don’t expect gold stars. There’s no right way to make a resolution, but it’s important to know what works for you. As always, the secret is to know your own nature.

4. Ask: “Am I starting small enough?” Many people make super-ambitious resolutions and then drop them, feeling defeated, before January is over. Start small! We tend to over-estimate what we can do over a short time and under-estimate what we can do over a long time, if we make consistent, small steps. If you’re going to resolve to start exercising (one of the most popular resolutions), don’t resolve to go to the gym for an hour every day before work. Start by going for a ten-minute walk at lunch or marching in place once a day during the commercial breaks in your favorite TV show. Little accomplishments provide energy for bigger challenges. Push yourself too hard and you may screech to a halt.

5. Ask: “How am I going to hold myself accountable?” Accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions. That’s why groups like AA and Weight Watchers are effective. There are many ways to hold yourself accountable; for example, I keep my Resolutions Chart (if you’d like to see my chart, for inspiration, email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail.com–don’t forget the “1”). Accountability is why #2 is so important. If your resolution is too vague, it’s hard to measure whether you’ve been keeping it. A resolution to “Eat healthier” is harder to track than “Eat salad for lunch three times a week.”

If you want to make 2011 a happier year, please consider joining the 2011 Happiness Challenge! I’m having trouble getting the link to work properly, but I’ll get it! By officially signing up, studies show, you help yourself better stick to your resolutions. More info to come — soon, I hope.

** Update: the sign-up link is up! Sign up here for the 2011 Happiness Challenge. Studies show that taking an action, like signing up for the challenge, will help you yourself accountable. And it’s fun.

Have you found any strategies that have helped you successfully keep resolutions in the past?

* Of everything I’ve done for my happiness project, nothing has made me happier than my kidlit reading groups, where we read children’s or young-adult literature. I’m now in three of these groups, and yesterday, one of our members, Marshall Heyman, wrote about the groups in the Wall Street Journal. Fabulous!

* Want to get my free monthly newsletter? It highlights the best of the month’s material from the blog and the Facebook Page. Email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com — don’t forget the “1”. More than 50,000 people get it.

  • Courtney

    The piece on your kidlit groups was great. I was wondering if you’d share the booklist that your various groups have read over the years, for those of us seeking to start our own groups.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! One of my regrets is that I haven’t done a better job of writing
      down what books we’ve read over the years. Here’s a very partial list. I’ve
      only included books that at least some people loved. Sometimes we read two
      books for one meeting.

      Oh my goodness, just reviewing this list fills me with happiness. Such
      wonderful books!

      You may say, “Is X really a book for children or young adults, or is really
      for adults?” This is a question we debate ALL THE TIME.

      Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
      Sachar, Holes
      Pullman, The Golden Compass
      Cameron, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You
      O’Brien, The Silver Crown/Z is for Zachariah/Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of
      Raskin, The Westing Game
      L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
      Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
      Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
      Barrie, Peter Pan
      Alcott, Little Women
      Eager, Half Magic
      Nesbit, Five Children and It
      Burnett, The Secret Garden
      Meyer, Twilight
      Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods/These Happy Golden Years
      Travers, Mary Poppins
      Konigsberg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
      Riordan, The Lightning Thief
      Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
      Goldman, The Princess Bride
      Green and Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson
      Kipling, The Jungle Book
      Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
      Collins, Hunger Games
      The Diary of Anne Frank
      Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied
      LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea/The Tombs of Atuan/The Farthest Shore
      Twain, Huckleberry Finn
      Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
      Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
      Taylor, All-of-a-Kind Family
      Fitzgerald, The Great Brain
      Cooper, The Dark is Rising
      White, The Once and Future King
      Dahl, Danny the Champion of the World
      Godden, The Greengage Summer
      Voigt, Homecoming
      Card, Ender’s Game
      Stead, When You Reach Me
      Forman, If I Stay
      White, Charlotte’s Web

      I have to give a special shout-out to the fantastic young-adult authors who
      are in the group: Jennifer Smith, Daniel Ehrenhaft, and Ann Brashares. Their
      books are great! but we don’t read them in the group. That would be too

      If you have any great recommendations, post them! Always looking for
      terrific new things to read (whether for children, young adults, or

      • Joy Morgan Newberry

        I was SO hoping to see Voigt on that list! That made my day I think!

        • Joy Morgan Newberry

          And my husband would be happy to see Ender’s Game!! I’ll have to tell him.

          Have you read Enchantment by Card?

          • gretchenrubin

            No, is that good? I read ENDER’S SHADOW, that’s the only other book by Card.

            just reminded me — list should also include Herbert’s Dune.

          • Joy Morgan Newberry

            It is one of my favorites by him; It’s a fantasy novel, his own more modern version of Sleeping Beauty

      • mjordan

        I’m living in New York City, and would love to join a kid lit group. I read the piece written about your groups in the WSJ, and they sound fantastic. Do you happen to know of any other kid lit groups in NYC that I could look into joining?

        • gretchenrubin

          I don’t — consider starting your own! When I started asking around and
          paying attention, I found a lot of fellow kidlit lovers.

  • Such a great post, Gretchen. New Year’s resolutions are fantastic motivators, but can also lead to feelings of guilt when we don’t follow through. I love these tips for making the *right* sort of resolution. Here’s to making – and keeping – our resolutions this year! – Stacey

  • LivewithFlair

    I love the “start small” concept. That works for me! If I can’t find time to write, I tell myself to just write 100 words. Small! Thank you so much! http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com

  • cmclaire

    Great tips. I’ve got loads, as always, but intedn to pick away at them in small stages.


  • breathejustbreathe

    Before writing down my New Year’s Resolutions, I like to look over my previous year’s goals and take time to write down an inventory of all that I’ve been able to accomplish in the past year. I’m very kind to myself with the inventory, applauding even a little progress, so it’s a positive way to end the old year and step towards the new. Plus the inventory gently points out what didn’t work so well, so if I decide that for the new year I want to carry over an old resolution that I didn’t make much progress on, I can try to figure out the resistance and maybe tweak the goal or make it more concrete (or ask myself if it’s truly something I want to do or if I just WISH I wanted to do it). This year-in-review has become something I really look forward to.

  • The Red Angel

    This is an excellent post! I’m a new follower by the way, and really love what I’m seeing in this blog so far! I recently posted a blog entry about this topic on resolutions….I find that sharing my resolution with someone who has a similar goal is very helpful. You get to receive as well as give moral support and constant motivation.

    I think it is also important to be realistic…New Years resolutions are easily abandoned after a month or two because people lose their “steam” due to the fact that their goal was completely desirable and…well, unreachable. Aiming to lose twenty-five pounds in a year is MUCH easier than fifty pounds.



  • Amy

    I like these tips. I’m a weight loss coach and I’m using my own advice to lose 20 lbs of baby weight (just had a baby 3 mos ago). I find myself justifying a lot of extra eating because “I’ll start eating better during the new year.” It’s like the opposite of a new year’s resolution… Anway I’ll be sure to share your tips on my blog! Thanks!

  • I will take up marching during commercial breaks. Thats a wonderful idea. Thanks. 🙂

  • All great suggestions. There’s a great talk on TED about how sharing your goals with others can actually make you LESS likely to achieve them (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html). Food for thought.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve seen studies about that, and I’ve also seen the opposite. As with most
      things, probably depends on the person and the situation.

      Accountability is key! that way you know whether you’re sticking to your
      goals or not.

  • Thank you for the tips. Great thought provoking questions. Each year in preparation for the next, starting just after Thanksgiving, I review the current years accomplishments and start planning the next years goals.

    Thanks again.

  • I love the idea of asking yourself, “What would make me happier?” I think that sometimes people make resolutions based on what would make society happier, rather than what would actually give the joy. I find that incremental goals with specified rewards helps me, such as, if I don’t eat when I get home from work before dinner, then I will read a chapter of a book I love after dinner, or if I submit poems to nine literary magazines in a month, I will purchase new poetry book. The rewards help me stay on task.


    • gretchenrubin

      It may sound selfish to ask, “What would make me happier?” but in fact
      studies show — and experience bears this out, I think, that people who are
      happy themselves are MORE interested in the problems of the people around
      them, and in social problems. Being happy gives us the emotional wherewithal
      to worry about others.

  • VSW

    Thank you for the tips! I usually have a list of resolutions that I want to achieve. However, for 2011, I only have one i.e. to be fitter by hitting the gym at least every other day.

    In 2010, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching…and I am happier…. but for 2010, I just want to be healthier! 🙂

  • Tim

    Of course Chesterton’s quote is from the beginning of a critique of another writer. We was saying that he wanted to keep his writing light and fun, but that it is easier to be heavy handed and negative. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make by including it here.

  • Great ideas to stay focused!

  • kat

    one thing that helps me a lot to achieve my goals is to take a poster board and write them out and tape it up so i see them every day. I use to write out my goals, then put them away, lose them, forget them…this way it’s in my face as a reminder of what I want make happen in my life for that year.

  • Daniel Reeves

    I think the problem with new year’s resolutions is akrasia (an ancient greek term for “failure to do what you intend to do”). To see if you suffer from akrasia, use what I call the want-can-will test:
    1. How certain am I that I *want* to keep this resolution?
    2. How certain am I that I *can* keep this resolution?
    3. How certain am I that I *will* keep this resolution?

    If your answers are “absolutely”, “definitely”, and “given historical evidence, not entirely” then it’s akrasia. It also means that it’s probably not enough to make a resolution (even with Gretchen’s excellent tips). What you really need is a commitment device! More here: http://messymatters.com/akrasia

  • doylemarnie

    I find the most effective way of realizing any resolutions I may make is to first and foremost make those resolutions from the heart. I ask myself, how do I want to feel next year? And then I find myself inspired to take action on things that will help me achieve that feeling.

  • CB

    I’ve been thinking about working toward more happiness since your post on one-word resolutions. I came up with “do it now” (I know, three words but who’s counting?) and that has helped with some things, but a feeling of happiness wasn’t being achieved.

    After much pondering I finally realized that kindness was a missing element in my life. With the down economy, war and injustice in the world it’s amazing how a small incident can be the tipping point in a frustrating and hectic day. Just thinking about saying a kind word (and not biting my tongue), letting another car into traffic, holding open a door, offering a friendly smile, etc. actually makes me happier. Simple, doable, trackable and it might make the world a bit more civil.

  • Bob Samples

    Your ideas on resolutions are great and very helpful. As I review what have been the keys to enduring happieness in my life two key things come to mind.

    Be a better friend, to my wife, my family and my network of friends. Do something that makes them smile and the payback is enormous.

    Live with integrity. In other words do the right thing, as often as possible and increase it when you can. Not just at home or thru charity, but at work to fellow employees your boss, your company. And in the community, if you can “pay it forward” do something generous to another person, and to someone you don’t know just because.

    Thanks for all the great ideas.

  • Annmarie

    Great post – I especially like the “starting small enough” because we so often get overwhelmed by the bigger project. Sometimes maybe all you need to do is make a phone call. That was my first step when my goal was going back to school to (finally) get my undergraduate degree. But it was the one thing I did to get the ball rolling…and I graduated a few years later.

    More importantly, I met a teacher in my first class who gave me the confidence to write…and that resulted in getting my first book published.

    Just from that one phone call. Small steps…

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great example of the importance of taking that first small step —
      and what enormous consequences even a seemingly minor action can have.

  • The accountable part is key. If there’s no consequence or incentive for finishing what you plan to do, it won’t get done.

  • The number one tool I’ve developed to help make behavioral changes (at any time, not just New Year’s) is what you might categorize as ‘identifying the problem’ – spotting the specific link in the behavioral chain where you tend to lapse, and target change at that spot. For example, resolving to work out 3x/week did nothing for me except create guilt that I wasn’t doing it. After careful self-observation, I noticed that most of my dread was centered around changing clothes for the gym (it’s cold, it’s work, and I had old, unflattering gym clothes). But once I was in the right clothes, going to the gym and working out happened almost automatically. So I got new, cute gym clothes and resolved to stay in my work clothes until changing into gym clothes, on designated workout days. Problem solved! So now when I feel I’m failing at something I want to do, I try to identify exactly when my motivation is flagging, and figure out a way to implement some change there, relying on momentum to get the rest of the task done.

  • tburns

    Great article – thanks! I think that it’s good to make new year’s resolutions that you will work hard to accomplish. One great goal for 2011 is to go back to school and continue your education. http://www.learn.colostate.edu/blog/entry.dot?id=266663

  • Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I did my own blog post based on this one, answering your 5 questions, with links back to your Happy Place! You can find it here: http://www.missionmusings.com/2011/01/happiness-is.html

  • Margaret

    Gretchen – thanks so much for this, especially #3! This is the first time I’ve seen in print that “STOP” resolutions are OK. We get so much of “the brain can’t process a negative”, and experts telling us that we have to to frame our resolutions as a positive. I have one that works perfectly as a “STOP” resolution but I had been feeling I was “supposed” to make it into a “positive” resolution and failing miserably!

    Several years ago, I developed a very bad habit during a one-year period of time where I was working WAY, way too many hours. Because it was just supposed to be ‘temporary’ I never re-adjusted the rest of my life to really accomodate all the hours I was working and the things I didn’t have time for at home. As a result, I would stack papers on any flat surfaces in my office, thinking “I’ll get to these this weekend”. EXCEPT — I never got to them that weekend, or the next, or ever. Eventually they somehow ended up ‘temporarily’ stuffed into my bookshelves (to clear my desk for work I was doing at home). [Prior to this time, I was really good with getting things filed where they belonged.]

    Long story short, after this intense time of way-too-much-work was over, when I started thinking more clearly, I discovered I needed to amend the prior year’s tax returns (for a refund!), I couldn’t FIND the prior year’s tax returns. Turned out that they, too, had ended up ‘temporarily’ in the bookshelves.

    So my commitment became to never, ever, have to go through my bookshelves(or anyplace else) looking for important papers. Now, when I am occasionally tempted to just “temporarily” put a piece of paper someplace it doesn’t belong, my response (I even sometimes say it out loud) is “STOP. NO. DO NOT put that someplace where you think you’ll get back to it ‘soon’. If you’re not putting it away, put it back into the in-box — not in a random place you’ll never look again”.

    Thank you for the validation that sometimes a “no” or a “stop” resolution is an OK way to phrase things. Trying to tell myself “I only put things where they belong” just wasn’t mustering the same kind of resonance as “STOP. Don’t do that” does.

  • marwa

    can you tals me about projet