The real problem with New Year’s Resolutions is their singularity: We make them on New Year’s Eve, we break them on New Year’s Day, we forget about them for another 12 months. The resolutions we know we should make haunt our Decembers. The ones we’ve broken haunt our Januaries.
Here’s how you fix it: Give your resolutions serious time and consideration. Start thinking about your resolution well before December 31st, set a realistic date to implement it, and make a plan.
Decide to decide, then make a plan
A few Decembers back, I decided to make a plan to quit smoking by the end of the year. Not a resolution to quit smoking on January 1st, but a dedication to thinking seriously about how to tackle my tobacco addiction. This meant finding a sustainable, practical solution. That meant making a plan.
This is not a quit smoking guide, so I won’t bore you with details. By January 1st, I had drawn up an action plan that included going back to school (right here at Portland State, in fact) and working on other aspects of my lifestyle. I set a date and started working toward it.
Set a far out date
Your resolution date should be long enough after New Year’s Day that you can really prepare yourself to follow through. January is a terrible time to try anything new and difficult, and February is worse. The weather is at its roughest, even if you don’t live too far north. Everybody is exhausted from the holidays, we’re all going back to work and school, the daily grind is extra grindy.
The earliest you can hope to accomplish anything is March, maybe April. This happens to be an ideal time for quitting bad habits and starting good ones. The birds start singing, the flowers start blooming, Lent gives way to Easter, the Sun returns to take away the S.A.D. of the world.
I’ve generally taken a Carnival (bye, meat) approach to my resolutions. In the case of smoking, I set my quit date to the first day of spring term. Knowing I was going to be quitting in three months gave me license to smoke my way through the rest of winter. By the time the snow melted, I was so over-nicotined I could hardly stand it. One last spring break smoke binge and I was ready to say goodbye to tobacco. I’m happy to say I’ve not only not relapsed, I’ve been able to go back to enjoying a nice cigar or a heady spliff for their own sakes, just like I had before I started smoking a pack of Lucky Strikes every day.
Stay balanced, and take it easy on yourself
I could never have quit smoking cigarettes if I hadn’t consciously, intentionally, obsessively indulged every other vice. My weed and whiskey intake went way up for the first post-nicotine year, and I spent a lot of lazy afternoons watching movies and taking long baths. When I quit drinking alcohol this past April (following a well-planned month-long bender), I went completely coffee crazy. Eventually, I’ll quit coffee (probably weed too), so if you meet me in 10 years and I’m unnaturally obsessed with herbal tea and hazelnuts, you’ll know why.
Tell everyone what you’re doing
If my friends and colleagues didn’t know about my ongoing experiment with sobriety, they all would have killed me by now. Support comes in a lot of forms, not least of which is the patience people who care about you will show when they know you’re battling your demons and dragons. Find allies—hiking buddies, bandmates, therapists, counselors, professors, people who will invest in your progress. And it’s important to be visible: Your successes, however modest, will inspire others.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
Whatever happens, keep going. Forgive yourself when you fail. It takes awhile for new behaviors to stick, and if it were easy you wouldn’t be making resolutions about it. Take Dory’s advice: Just keep swimming.