New Year's resolution: Create ONE

In December and January, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

Photo illustration / Henry Arden / Cultura / Newscom / File
Want to lose weight? Make that your single goal for 2011, and make it quantifiable, by poundage, BMI, inches, or any other metric that feels meaningful to you. And don't let one week's setback derail the plan: use a moving average to make sure you're still aiming in the right direction.

Create a single resolution for the coming year.

When I was younger (imagine Trent the college student), I used to make several vague New Year’s resolutions each year.

I’m going to lose weight this year.

I’m going to get better grades this year.

I’m going to show Sarah how much I love her this year.

I’m going to get in touch with some old friends this year.

Guess how many of them actually happened? Here’s a hint: it rhymes with hero.

Yet I persisted. To me, there has always been some innate power in the idea of the new year. Whether real or imagined, you have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to undo the mistakes of the year past and start over anew. The calendar turns – 2010 is no more and 2011 is unblemished with your mistakes.

Over time, I began to figure out some key elements of what made a resolution work.

First and foremost, it’s just a long term goal. A New Year’s resolution is simply a long term goal – one you hope to achieve within the coming year. They’re not really any different than any other challenging goal that we set for ourselves aside from the convenience of the calendar year as a tool for keeping track of our progress. Speaking of which…

A resolution paired with a year has a very convenient structure for keeping track of progress. If you want to watch the march of progress, the calendar is set up perfectly for you. 52 weeks. 12 months. Four quarters. At the start of the year, you have a great structure for milestones and progress checks that fall right in place. This is so convenient, in fact, that it makes the new year a particularly convenient time to make a resolution.

Clear measurements of success make it easier to track progress. For example, if you’re seeking to get yourself into better physical shape, seeking out specific measurements of some kind for your health is very convenient. You might want to use BMI, your weight, your resting blood pressure, your resting heart rate, your cholesterol, your 5K time, and so on and so forth. Just take a measurement on a regular basis and seek to have continuous progress over the course of the year.

The one disadvantage of this approach is to get disheartened when one measurement is worse than the one before it. For example, if you gain a pound between weight measurements, it’s easy to get disheartened. What I usually do is keep a moving average. I just add up the last ten measurements I’ve taken and divide by ten (if I have less than ten measurements, I just use the average).

Quite often, if you’re making good progress, a single week of slight regression will actually still cause a reduction in your moving average. Not only that, a moving average does a great job of removing the uncertainty in

A great resolution is worded in such a way that success and failure are very black and white. Rather than simply saying, “I’m going to lose weight this year,” you simply say, “I’m going to weigh 25 pounds less on New Year’s Eve 2011.” Rather than saying, “I’m going to reduce my debt this year,” you should say, “I’m going to reduce my total debt by 10% by New Year’s Eve 2011.” A great resolution makes it absolutely clear what exactly you need to be doing and what you need to be shooting for.

Writing down your resolution makes it easier to achieve. Why? Writing that resolution down gives it a permanence that goes far beyond an idle thought or two. I suggest writing it down in your own handwriting, then placing that handwritten resolution in a place where you’ll see it time and time again.

Make the resolution realistic. You’re not going to go from a complete cash potato to Usain Bolt in one year – it’s not going to happen. Focus on a small success for the year. Don’t shoot to lose 100 pounds – shoot to lose 25. Don’t shoot to pay off a mountain of debt – shoot to just reduce it.

Spend some time figuring out a realistic resolution for 2011. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about a plan for it.

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