We are not optimized for change, and resolutions based on a five minute brainstorm when the calendar flips won’t fix that. Writing down resolutions is a great start, but it’s just that, a start. It’s comparable to saying you’re going to run a marathon. You have to register for a race, make a training plan, and follow it for the duration, if you want to make it to an actual race, let alone stand a chance of running 26.2 miles. It requires concerted effort to create systems and design new habits into your life.

Regular people sit down around this time of year and write out a few things they hope get better in their lives. Most are lucky if they spend more than 15 minutes going through the ‘Resolution’ process.

  • “I want to lose 15 pounds”
  • “I’m going to keep my apartment clean”
  • “I will go out on 25 dates with my wife”

And that’s that. The goals, if written down, end up in a drawer or in the garbage. And that is why most resolutions don’t work.

Taking the Time

Chris Guillebeau writes a great series every December about his Annual Review process. He takes weeks to map out the year ahead, setting specific objectives, considering unexpected obstacles, planning for dependencies, and creating systems (we’ll get to systems in a minute) to make his vision a real possibility.

Chris’ annual review series is beyond the scope of this post, but if you want a great place to start with setting up for a great year, go read it.

The lesson learned from Chris is that he takes weeks, not minutes, to craft his vision for the year to come. Not everyone can do a multi-week planning session, but at the very least you can take a weekend.

Using Systems to Improve Your Odds

High achievers use systems to improve their odds of success. Systems make up for our lack of willpower, and they are usually automated. The difference between a goal and a system is as follows:

Goal: I want to save 10% of my income

System: 10% of my paycheck is automatically deposited into a separate online savings account each month

See? I don’t have to want to save 10% of my income in August. I don’t have to log in to my bank’s website and move 10% over to my savings account. When I wake up on the 5th, 90% of my income is sitting in my checking account, and 10% is in a separate online savings account.

Total willpower required: none.

Research in behavioral change shows that information alone isn’t enough to motivate us. Researching weight loss doesn’t create a calorie deficit that burns fat. Learning about marathon training doesn’t tie your shoes and get your feet on the pavement. Having a list of resolutions isn’t enough to achieve them.

When you are designing your upcoming year, leave time to create systems that will eliminate the need for willpower. Automate as much as you can. Use tools like Omnifocus, IFTTT, or Keyboard Maestro to manage projects, send reminders, or automate your computer contexts to help.

Let’s look at a few more examples of systems towards a specific goal:


Goal: Lost 15 pounds by August.

This is a super common resolution, and one that most people fail year after year. What are some systems we can put in place that will eliminate the need for willpower to get this done?

System: Automate food and activity tracking.

Use a device like the Fitbit or Fuelband to automate activity tracking. You can set the devices to vibrate or alert you to milestones during the day. Sitting down for 20 minutes? Fuelband will tell you to get up and move. Play basketball with some friends? Fitbit keeps track and credits you for it.

You can use apps like My Fitness Pal to enter what you ate for each meal. Eliminate some of the required willpower for this by setting automatic reminders every 2 hours to enter anything you’ve eaten.

System: Hire a bi-weekly personal trainer at your local gym.

This eliminates required willpower by creating a commitment. You’ve now paid for the obligation to be at the gym at a specific time. You’ve also paid for the opportunity to feel super embarrassed if you don’t do anything to improve your health in between those bi-weekly visits.

System: Commit with a friend to go on a weekly bike ride on Saturday mornings.

You are making a personal commitment to be somewhere with someone important to you at a specific time. Odds are, you won’t unplug the alarm when it goes off at 7AM on Saturday.

System: Ask your server to box half of your meal before bringing it to the table when you go out to eat.

How often do we eat because the food is sitting there in front of us? Eliminate the need for willpower by getting half of your meal boxed to go before you even sniff it. You’d feel foolish digging into your styrofoam box at the table, so you won’t do it.


With 15 minutes extra minutes, you have a solid foundation to build on. The vague ‘Lose 15 pounds’ has now presented specific action items, many of which you can set up once and get repeated benefits down the line. Have you lost any weight because you thought through this? Not yet. But you now have a map instead of a destination.

Identify New Habits, and Learn How to Build Them

It is useful to look at goals as building a new set of habits, but habits are hard to make (or break) for most people. When you are setting resolutions or goals, you must also look at the new habits that you need to make to achieve them. Then you can use a system to train yourself to do those habits.

BJ Fogg, a Stanford professor of behavioral psychology, has spent the last few years developing his Tiny Habits system. He gives a free online class each week teaching people how to create habits, and it works. I know what you’re thinking… “I don’t have time to take an entire class!” But the Tiny Habits ‘class’ takes 15 minutes to get started, and less than 3 minutes a day. In a nutshell, BJ teaches you to identify triggers and celebrate when you do the new habit you are trying to create.

I’m not kidding. It’s 15 minutes and 3 minutes a day. Go sign up at the Tiny Habits website. You’ll spend a whole lifetime building habits, so spend a week learning how to control which ones, so you can build the habits you want.

In Resolution

This isn’t meant to be a deep dive into setting goals. There are entire libraries dedicated to that. But I invite you to dig a little deeper.

Go beyond your New Years Resolutions. Spend the time to truly design the year that you want to have. Develop systems that take willpower out of the equation. Identify the habits required to reach your goal. Spend some time learning how habits work and how to develop the ones that you want. That will lead to success.

Have a Happy New Year, and much success.