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Upgrade Your New Year’s Resolutions – 6 Helpful Tools

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by Joe Casey

Are New Year’s Resolutions passe’?

The eye test says Yes. You see the crowd of new people at the gym on January 2nd, only to see them fade away by Valentine’s Day. Data also backs this up. One survey showed that “only 16.3% of people over the age of 50 achieve their resolutions.” (1)

Why? Most resolutions are based on only one strategy. Willpower. And what we know about willpower is it tends to fade over time. It gets depleted. Dicey.

But resolutions are based on very good intentions and a positive vision of your future. Keep those front and center. What you want to ditch is the singular strategy of willpower. The good news is that there are approaches that can help you turn your vision into reality, including some backed by science.

Are You Willing to Try a New Tool?

So maybe your goals are right, but you just need a new approach. Whether you’re still working, semi-retired, transitioning to retirement or learning how to retire well, there are approaches that I have used and found to be very effective – and a there’s a new one I’m testing this year:

1. Play a Game of Cards

As an Executive Coach, I learn a great deal for my clients. A few years ago, I was working with a CEO of a publicly-traded company who shared with me his approach to planning his upcoming year. Having worked with a number of leaders at his company, and being familiar with what they were working on, I expected Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and maybe a few robots. When I saw his primary tool I was surprised. Index cards. He laid out four index cards labeled More, Less, Start and Stop. On each one he listed four behaviors for the year ahead and then narrowed it down to one each. Simple. That process created clear priorities and set the stage for the new year. While you have to be flexible as things evolve over the course of a year, having a shortlist of behaviors you want to change can be a constant focus throughout.

2. Put Your Big Rocks In First

Achieving your goals ultimately comes down to prioritizing your time. But have you ever felt that you just don’t have time to work on your goals? Life does get in the way. Before we had the distraction of smartphones and Netflix, the late Stephen Covey, who authored the classic best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  recommended a great time management approach – schedule your priorities first. Before the other things intrude – and they will. It’s simple and powerful. Here’s a short video demonstrating the principle. My CEO client did this as part of his planning process. He began by writing down on separate cards key dates, personally and professionally, for him in the year ahead. He locked down key meetings, vacations, long weekends, birthdays and special occasions – before other things could get in the way. So get out your index cards and your Google Calendar and lock down your priorities.

3. Try Tiny Habits

When you’re taking on personal change, starting small is smart. It turns out that starting tiny is even smarter. B.J. Fogg, Director, Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. In his day job, he studies behavior applied to the online world. His research led him to explore how his findings could be applied to personal change and development, creating a three-step Tiny Habits process. The keys are identifying what you want to change or build and then breaking it down into its smallest steps. Next, you anchor the new behavior to something you already habitually do (I started this with doing situps after I brushed my teeth. Starting with one, I progressed to 200 each morning in six-months.) The third part is to recognize your progress right after you perform the desired behavior. A cool process that’s free through his website.

4. WOOP It Up

There’s a ton of science behind this one, it’s fun – and there’s an app.

Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of Psychology at NYU and Hamburg University who has conducted extensive research on motivation, goal attainment, and self-regulation. She developed the technique of mental contrasting, which applies a dose of pragmatic realism to positive thinking. (2) In recent years, she’s developed an accessible version of her research – a four-step process called WOOP. The process entails describing your Wish for the future; the specific Outcome you’re after (and how’ll you’ll feel when you achieve it); the Obstacles you’ll likely encounter, and your Plan to overcome them. It’s versatile and I find it useful for longer-term goals as well as short-term goals. A primary benefit of this process is that it reality-tests your dreams for the future and enhances the level of commitment on the ones you choose to pursue.

5. Implement Your Intentions – In Advance

Dr. Oettingen’s husband, Peter Gollwitzer, is also a Psychology professor at NYU and he developed an evidence-based technique that’s embedded in WOOP. It’s called Implementation Intentions, which is academic-speak for If, Then planning. (3) Here’s how it works. Let’s say your goal is to slim down in 2019. One obstacle you anticipate is avoiding dessert in restaurants. You could take your chances with willpower, but with this method, you would instead set your intentions ahead of time. If people order dessert, Then, I will order fruit. Simple and effective.

6. Set Micro-Resolutions

Maybe setting change goals for an entire year is the problem. The Wisdom Project (no relation…) at CNN recently published a piece recommending an alternative. Flip the script and use the calendar to your advantage. Set a separate area of focus for each month – adding up to progress across the year. I’m trying this in 2019 and will report back.

I hope you’ll test drive one of these turbo-charged approaches and we can compare notes as the year unfolds.


Joe Casey is an executive coach and retirement coach with Retirement Wisdom®.  A former senior HR executive, he’s been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, CNBC.com and Business Insider on career and retirement issues. He writes for The RW blog, a blog about retirement on retirementwisdom.com.


(1) Walker, N. (2018). Embrace Action: Make Personal and Professional Resolutions. AORN Journal107(1), 1-4.

(2) Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2017). Health behavior change by self-regulation of goal pursuit: Mental contrasting with implementation intentions. In Routledge International Handbook of Self-Control in Health and Well-Being (pp. 418-430). Routledge.

(3) Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology38, 69-119.

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