This Four-Letter Word is the Key to Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions
In 2016, I went vegan, started a mission-driven company, and ran my first marathon. All of these were New Year’s resolutions, so I’m not willing to accept any cynicism related to making resolutions!
Actually, the fact that people continue to make resolutions gives me great hope for the future of our world. Resolutions express a desire to become our best selves— healthier, more generous, more present, better educated, happier.
It’s true, though, that most people don’t keep their resolutions, so I understand why you may feel discouraged. Not to mention, years are an arbitrary division of time, so there’s nothing inherently magical about the beginning of a new year.
However, I still believe in making resolutions, and I’m confident that you can make and keep resolutions this year. I’m not going to talk you through making S.M.A.R.T. goals or the Martini method, though maybe those will help you, too. To achieve lasting change, we’ll need to go far deeper than that, though.
So what’s the secret four-letter word that will help you reach your goals?
The only resolutions worth keeping are based on love — love for yourself and love for others. Furthermore, tapping into that powerful force of love is the best way to reliably stick to these resolutions. Finally, love is essential to getting back on track when you falter.
However, most people don’t approach resolutions this way. They look at what they don’t like about themselves or how they fall short in comparison to others. The resulting resolutions are generally doomed to fail, and even when they do succeed, they’re often too shallow to bring the happiness we assume they will.
Instead I recommend a fully love-based approach. I’ve formalized this process as the Love-Driven Personal Retrospective. It’s something you can do for New Year’s or anytime you want to make a change. Set aside some time and ask yourself the following questions.
1. Can you love yourself as you are?
You can’t skip this part. It’s essential. No matter what you want to change about yourself, no matter what you’ve done wrong, you must learn to love yourself. You must silence the inner critic that says you’re not smart enough, not good enough, or just generally not enough.
You are enough right now. You’re a fallible, complex human being, and you’re doing your best given your circumstances and abilities. The goal of this retrospective process is to help you improve those circumstances and abilities so that you can get even better, but you’re lovable and perfect in your own way right now.
“We are always perfect, always beautiful, and ever changing. We are doing the best we can with the understanding, awareness, and knowledge we have. As we gain more understanding, awareness, and knowledge, then we will do things differently.”
The Prime Directive from the traditional agile retrospective echoes this sentiment:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
In a society obsessed with external validation and visible accomplishments, it’s easy to believe you’re not worthy until you accomplish some set of goals. However, perhaps paradoxically, loving yourself unconditionally is the best way to motivate yourself to reach these goals.
2. What do you love most?
To tap into the greatest motivation for keeping your resolutions, you must understand what you care most about, i.e. what you really love.
Do you love feeling strong and healthy? Do you love helping people? Do you love freedom? Do you love creating art? Do you love your family?
For this step, we want to uncover your deepest values. Here’s a value discovery exercise I’ve written that may help.
The reason this is so important is that deep values help us stick to our goals when we otherwise might falter.
As Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz explain,
“Connecting to a deep set of values…fuels a uniquely high-octane source of energy for change. It also serves as a compass for navigating the storms that inevitably arise in our lives.”
For example, I decided to give up animal products because I love animals, and I believe it’s ethically wrong to contribute to their suffering. So, when it comes to avoiding cheese, my willpower comes from such a deep, powerful, loving place that there’s no risk of failure.
3. What did you love about the past year?
Now, considering the values you discovered in step 2, what did you love about this past year?
For example, if you love helping people, maybe you love that you were able to volunteer frequently in your community. If you love creativity, maybe you love that this past year, you created a handful of paintings or you composed an album of music.
In this step, we’re working on expressing gratitude for what went well this year. This is not only to generate the positive feelings and energy boost that gratitude provides, but also to identify what we want to keep doing next year.
4. What would you love to change next year?
What could have gone better this year? We want to assess the year objectively according to our values.
As Ray Dalio writes in Principles,
“…what differentiates people who live up to their potential from those who don’t is a willingness to look at themselves and others objectively.”
Similarly, Angela Duckworth writes in Grit,
“When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them.”
If you value spending time with family, did you neglect them this year to focus on your work? If you value your health, did you spend the year eating unhealthy foods and avoiding exercise?
This step is not meant to generate guilt or shame, but rather to uncover what we would love to change for next year, based on what we really value.
5. What would you love to accomplish next year?
In this step, we combine the results of the previous two steps — what went well and what could have gone better — and shape them into a set of intentions for the new year.
For example, if you volunteered once every quarter last year, maybe this year you want to volunteer once a month, motivated by how much you love helping people. If you didn’t go to the gym at all last year, maybe you set a goal of going twice a week, motivated by how much you love feeling strong and healthy.
What about the common goal of losing X pounds next year? I would avoid goals like this. They don’t seem to come from love. They usually arise either from self-loathing or fear — fear of not being loved, fear of not being good enough. I would reframe such a goal in terms of love — I love feeling healthy, so I want to be able to climb the stairs without getting out of breath. Or, I love being in nature, so I want to go on a hike once a month. Or even, I love playing with my grandkids, so I want to have the energy to do that every day. The most effective motivation comes from goals created from love.
6. How will you lovingly keep yourself on track?
This is perhaps the most important element of this approach. Let’s say you set a goal of going to the gym three times a week, and you stick to it for all of January. In the first week of February, you don’t go to the gym at all.
Is that it? Did you become part of that statistic of failed New Year’s resolutions? Are you a failure?
It doesn’t have to be that way! What if instead of beating yourself up, you gently guided yourself back on track?
Kristin Neff writes in Self-Compassion,
“When faced with our human imperfection, we can either respond with kindness and care, or with judgment and criticism.”
Which one will you choose?
What if you looked in detail at what happened in that first week of February that kept you from going to the gym. Was it a challenging week at work? Did you not get enough sleep? Try to understand what happened, and how you can address it next week.
In other words, don’t give up! Practice self-compassion — speak kindly to yourself when you falter. Forgive yourself and focus on making adjustments to get better next week.
In fact, whether or not you’ve stuck to your goals in a given week, I suggest doing a condensed version of the whole retrospective practice every single week. I recently gave a talk on doing just that. You can find the talk and a helpful worksheet here:
In addition to checking in with your progress each week, next year you can do another one of these love-driven retrospectives to see how your year went and plan for the following year. If you do fall short in some areas, love yourself more, not less.
A Final Plea
There is a lot of suffering in the world. We don’t always think about it, but on some level we know it’s there. The only hope I have for the future is that individuals just like you are looking more closely at how to become more effective at caring for yourself and for your fellow beings.
Please don’t be one of the people who give up on resolutions. I know that you are capable of making changes in your life. Isn’t it time to create a new narrative for yourself based on love? Isn’t it time to unlock this potential to make lasting changes in your life and in the world? Why not start today, even if it is an arbitrary date?
About the Author
April Wensel is a veteran software engineer and technical leader who is a little bit obsessed with agile retrospectives. Over the course of a decade in tech, she’s had stints at startups, large companies, and research institutions in the fields of education, research, healthcare, and entertainment. She has also mentored and led workshops with diversity-focused organizations like Hackbright Academy and Black Girls Code.
She founded Compassionate Coding in order to bring more emotional intelligence to engineering through workshops and one-on-one coaching. Feel free to email her with your thoughts!