Year-long resolutions don’t work. Here’s how to make 12 ‘micro-resolutions’ instead

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Features. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

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If you’ve ever tried to make a New Year’s resolution, chances are you didn’t stick with it past February, much less the whole year.

That used to be me, too. Every year, I’d enthusiastically and optimistically commit to one or more lofty goals, only to feel like a failure when I didn’t accomplish any of them by December 31.

Rather than give up on this perennial brand of self-improvement, I decided to change my approach: I stopped making year-long commitments and began making monthly “micro-resolutions” instead.

A mini- or micro-resolution is any behavior you commit to for four weeks. And even longer-term goals to, say, eat better or learn a new skill, can be broken down into more achievable goals on the way. Before you can land on Mars, focus on landing on the moon.

It’s much easier to stay focused on — and dedicated to — a shorter goal, and 30 days is long enough to lay the foundation for a new, healthy habit. I’ve used a micro-resolution strategy for the past two years, and I’m more satisfied with the results than any previous year-long attempts.

To create your micro-resolutions, you can start by thinking of 12 “bad” habits or indulgences you’d like to cut back on or give up entirely. This is what I did last year for what I called my “Year of Abstinence.” My plan was to learn something about myself through self-denial, and it worked: I gave up alcohol, sweets, television and nine other things, but just for a month each. The mini-resolutions were as positive as they were eye-opening.

Another approach is to think about 12 habits you want to add to your life. This is what I’ve done for the past year, in what I’ve dubbed my “Year of Sustenance.” Each month I added a healthy activity with the same goals of self-improvement and self-awareness, hoping “sustenance” would be less sacrificing and more enjoyable.

In general, sustenance was more pleasant than abstinence, although I’m less sure this past year was more impactful than the year before. In both cases, however, my two years of micro-resolutions have been more fun, creative and inclusive than year-long resolutions. I invited friends to join me and some did, or told me how they worked on their own monthly attempts to embrace a healthy behavior or end an unhealthy one.

Here is how my “Year of Sustenance” played out, with 12 monthly goals for you to consider if you want to give this alternative New Year’s resolution plan a go.

January: Notice something new

In order to simply increase my own, general awareness, every day in January my goal was to notice something new. I kept my eyes open, looked a bit longer, stopped to read the history markers, noticing buildings or took a different route than normal – small ways to avoid sleepwalking through life.

Over the month I definitely became more aware of my surroundings, finding things I’d passed hundreds of times and never noticed. Most of those were along my daily commute, and sometimes I’d see several new things before I even got to work. None were profound except in that way that ordinary life is profound once you stop to notice it. Maybe there is nothing new under the sun, but that doesn’t mean we’re aware of what’s already under our noses.

February: Poetry

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 11.7% of adults read any poetry in 2017, which sounds low until you compare that to 6.7% in 2012. My goal was to read, write or memorize 28 poems in the month.

I’m not aware of any health benefits for reading poetry but there is some evidence for the benefit of writing it. I just think we’re more well-rounded with poetry in our lives.

As for writing, my wife got one on Valentine’s Day, my daughter on her birthday, and I wrote a haiku about our sweet dog Abby when she died in February.

But given that I didn’t memorize any poems

And only wrote down four,

This was an easy and delightful challenge

That left me wanting more.

Most of the poems I read were curated

by friend-of-friend Kevin Young,

poetry editor at The New Yorker

who separates brilliance from dung.

That said, the impact of this micro-resolution was small compared to most of the others. Poetry is lovely, but the reading and writing of it didn’t change much about me or even teach me me more about myself.

March: Sleep

Sleep is tied to many positive health outcomes according to a constant stream of medical research, much of which recommends more than seven hours a night.

My goal was to sleep eight hours each night, and for the first two weeks of the month I tried and failed. I didn’t manage it once. It started stressing me out.

I did get more sleep than I would have otherwise because I prioritized getting to bed earlier. But between work, training for a marathon, kids’ bedtimes and evening plans, my life was not conducive to that schedule. But since I’m making up the rules (and you make up yours) I gave up on sleep.

Mid-month, I switched to “active listening,” which was much more fruitful. I often caught myself listening to my kids while also doing or thinking about something else. In those moments I stopped, made eye contact and really listened. I was less successful with this at work and while talking to my wife. But I noticed my daughters were more engaged with me, told me things they wouldn’t have otherwise, and I could see how happy it made them to get my full attention.

These second two weeks of March were personally profound.

April: Nature

Research ties nature exposure to both longevity and happiness, so I made it a goal to commune with nature every day. This could include a run through a park, stopping to hug a tree (which I did at least once), or watching a convoy of ants cross a sidewalk.

While I didn’t particularly go out of my way, I did a fairly good job of being way more mindful of plants, sky, weather, the moon and so on. The month also coincided with Earth Day and two big personal nature adventures: an overnight at a communal cabin in the mountains with my family, and the non-urban Big Sur marathon up the stunning Central California coast.

May: Meditation

Another super-habit for mental and physical health, I made an effort to incorporate meditation in some form – whether it was 10 breaths, 30 minutes, guided, formal, mantra-led, what have you – every day.

And it kicked off perfectly with a formal sitting at my old meditation spot: the San Francisco Zen Center. It was a welcome and needed reunion with my practice.

I hadn’t been disciplined about meditation since I lived in The City (as San Francisco is called by those who love it), and before the micro-resolution I only fit in the occasional work meditation with a couple of co-workers (for whom I am grateful).

My goal was fairly successful. I unintentionally skipped a handful of days but it was cumulatively way more meditating than I’d done in years. And toward the end of the month, I found the meditation very helpful in steadying me as I went through a difficult work transition.

June: Active listening

To complement March’s switch-up, my plan for June was the same split: 8 hours of sleep at night and active listening with the kids. I didn’t think I could pull a straight fortnight of great sleep, so my aim was for 15 nights of sleep and 15 days of not doing something else while listening.

By June’s end I clocked in 12 nights of eight or more hours of sleep. One night I got 10 hours! And I’m convinced that for me, more sleep equals more happiness and well-being. I used to think (and stupidly brag) that I only needed five or six hours a night, but this month taught me it’s worth making sleep a priority, schedule-willing.

Active listening wasn’t the amazing experience it was a few months earlier, largely because I wasn’t as dedicated. It’s simply something I should do more often, and more consistently, to be a good father, husband, friend and human being. Another good lesson.

July: Fresh fruit and water

At CNN, I sit near a constant pile of sweets. And that combined with my weakness for them equals a snacking problem. So in July, my goal was to make fresh fruit my standard snack of choice and eat at least one piece or serving a day. And more water – at least a pint before coffee in the morning.

This goal was very successful. I ate a lot more fruit than normal and even used it as a substitute for junkier food I would have eaten. Except when I was traveling, I was good about the extra morning water, too.

August: Movement

In August I attempted to not stay seated for more than 30 minutes during waking hours. Recent research has associated a number of poor health conditions with a sedentary lifestyle. And while no one can definitively say how much sitting is bad for us, moving every 30 minutes has emerged as a good guideline.

I gave myself a B+ for the month. At work I usually remembered to set a timer on my phone and at least stand up and stretch. But there were many times I was in a meeting that lasted more than 30 minutes, and it would have been odd for me to stand in the middle of it. So, I didn’t. Sitting for long periods of time at home was not much of an issue, but flights, car rides and movies were very hard to avoid longer stretches of not stretching.

By month’s end my tolerance for sitting for more than an hour had decreased. I now feel a tension or discomfort when I sit too long and think of breaks from sitting as nice, not nuisance. That’s progress.

September: Writing

My commitment in September was 15 minutes of some form of creative writing each day, almost entirely in a writer’s notebook that I’ve had since college. It’s full of random dialogue, lists and story plots, and I used to write in it often but not so much in recent years.

There were two days I missed, but I was able to catch back up. Not every day was great writing, but this was less about crafting beautiful, profound prose than it was about getting back in the habit of daily writing outside of work. Sometimes it was labor, sometimes joy. But that’s writing for you.

October: Read a novel

Read a novel. That was it. Given that I mainly read non-fiction, this idea seemed rather novel (sorry).

I considered a few autumnal and scary, Halloween-y titles to fit the season, but I settled on a book I’ve been meaning to read for years, Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”

It wasn’t that hard to finish, but maybe because it was relatively short. I didn’t love the book, but it was a treat to read a novel (and catch up with Scout). The deadline pushed me to make the time.

November: Gratitude

My intention was to make a daily gesture of gratitude – an emotional state with its own positive health outcomes – and I quickly fell behind. I decided instead (because, again, I make up the rules) to make the goal a total of 30 thank yous, one for each day of the month, and I managed to cram them all in.

My final tally was eclectic: friends, co-workers, former co-workers, school crossing guards, teachers. Some thank yous were long overdue, some may have felt out of the blue to their receivers. A handful got wee gifts accompanying the note. Most notes were handwritten.

As the month went on I kept thinking of others I should add, expanding my gratitude awareness. Also, everyone loved getting these notes and I got many “thank yous” thanking me for my thank yous, which I thanked them for.

December: Eat whole foods

In another attempt to combat unhealthy snacking, my final goal for 2019 was to convert my diet into one filled with non-processed, whole foods. Carrots and peanut butter instead of donuts; almonds instead of old Halloween candy – you get the idea. I also declared my intention to track my progress and give myself a daily score.

This was my least successful micro-resolution. While I did eat apples and carrots at work and reduced my holiday treat intake, I also ate many processed foods, some chocolate-flavored, some eggnog-flavored. And I never really tracked my progress outside of my head.

Given my poor performance in December and a desire to discover what food schedules, parameters and habits work best for me, in the coming year I’m going to do 12 monthly goals about diet, with inspiration from CNN’s nutritionist contributor Lisa Drayer and her suggestions.

The halo effect

After two years of micro-resolutions, some of these improved behaviors have had a lasting effect even though I stopped at the end of each month.

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    My wife and I meditate together most weekday mornings before work. I stand more in my office. My snacking is better, if still prone to weakness. I’ve improved my listening. In general, I’m going to bed earlier. I say “like” less, and so do my kids. And my tolerance for the kind of discomfort that leads to personal growth has grown.

    Good luck with your goals for the new year. All 12 of them!