A goal with a plan beats a resolution every day of the year

Planning ahead.
Planning ahead.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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It’s that time of year again. You’re staring down the end of December and munching on the last bag of Halloween candy—you swear—as you contemplate a 2021 version of yourself: healthy, productive, creative, and extraordinarily focused. All it will take are a few resolutions. Or goals. Which is it again?

What is the difference between goals and resolutions?

A resolution is really just an intention; what you really need is goal with a plan. We tend to make much of resolutions as the New Year rolls around—humans have been doing so for 4,000 years—but distilling the prospect of next year into a few tidy affirmations won’t help you realize that vision.

Resolutions are statements of intention, while goals are statements of commitment. Resolutions are often vague like “I will get in shape” or “I will be more productive.” They’re often binary. I will do X or I will not do Y. Resolutions also tend to aim for extreme changes—I will stop overspending—that creates an intimidating gap between the status quo and the desired outcome. None of these approaches to achievement align with the way the human brain creates habits. This is why 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail.

Keep in mind: Any goal can share the counterproductive features of a resolution. If you want to actually achieve your desired outcome, create a goal that makes your modern brain happy and a plan that doesn’t make your caveman brain mad. Here’s how to go about it:

1️⃣ Clarify vague resolutions into specific goals

“I will get in shape” is vague. What does “in shape” mean? It could mean losing fat, gaining muscle, increasing strength, improving cardiovascular ability, or something else entirely. When you get specific about what success looks like, it gets much easier to stay connected to your desired outcome and create a plan to get there (more on that later).

2️⃣ Broaden binary resolutions into thematic goals

“I will run a mile every day” is binary. Either you run every day or you don’t. If a day passes and you didn’t run, your resolution is dead. That pressure to be perfect creates powerful mental blocks. “There’s no way I can do that, I shouldn’t even bother.” “I didn’t make it a week, I may as well give up.” But there are plenty of perfectly good reasons running might not be possible on a particular day.

Instead, set a goal tied to a set of related behaviors. This allows you to adjust your approach if your context changes and keep your goal alive if you experience a setback.

3️⃣ Pair your goal with a simple but comprehensive plan

Once you have your Goldilocks goal that’s not too vague or too specific, it’s time to make a plan. A good plan will break your goal into smaller milestones that add up to your desired outcome. Consider the Goldilocks goal of increasing your cardiovascular ability. Your milestones might look like:

  1. Build up to three 1-kilometer runs per week.
  2. Run one mile without stopping on three consecutive runs.
  3. Increase 3x/weekly-run distance to two kilometers.
  4. Reduce 2k time by one minute.
  5. Increase 3x/weekly-run distance to three kilometers.
  6. Reduce 3k time by one minute.
  7. Increase 3x/weekly-run distance to four kilometers.

It might take a month or two to achieve each of these milestones, but every achievement means progress on the main goal of increasing your cardio capacity.

4️⃣ Design a strategy around small, sustainable changes

Take a moment to brainstorm a menu of actions that help you make progress. Include both one-time actions (buy running shoes) and recurring actions (set out workout clothes before bed). Choose one action—exactly one—action from your menu and focus all your attention on it.

“Making just one small change in your daily repetitive routine is a crucial step to alleviate the resistance that comes with change,” Biztuition CEO Julie Christopher writes in Entrepreneur. Christopher points to research from University College London that showed it takes 66 days to completely break an old habit.

The action might feel difficult at first, but it will get easier with repetition. Once it feels natural, go back to your menu and adopt an additional change.

5️⃣ Create a contingency plan that helps you stay on track

Think of all the what-if scenarios that would make it harder for you to take action (what if it rains, what if I’m sick, what if I’m traveling). Pair each what-if with an action that you can still do in that context. This list is insurance for your goal. Things will go wrong. You will have setbacks. But your contingency plan will help you bounce back quickly. You won’t be able to predict and prepare for every possible outcome (no one saw the 2020 pandemic coming), but the exercise will put you in a better position to pivot.