Rescuing New Year's resolutions

We are well into February, and many of us have already defaulted on at least one of our New Year's resolutions. Who could blame us? It’s cold outside, the holiday mood has worn off, school is back in full swing, all making it a little easier to excuse ourselves from the gym, or to excuse that slice of chocolate cake.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I started thinking of New Year’s resolutions as anything more than fictions we told themselves about the coming year. At some point after undergrad, I began a new year by resolving to write 500 words every day until either a year had passed or a novel was finished. “In the bottom drawer of every desk in this place is the first ten pages of a novel,” says Roger Sterling. Funny - I held to the resolution for about five days, then gave up.

Those ten pages and the resolution that inspired them are long forgotten, and this is generally how new year's resolutions have gone for me. Hitting the gym regularly? Sure, but I’m not trying to overdo it. Once a week is fine; then, once a month, and, eventually, once in a while… Volunteering at a shelter? Sounds great. But schoolwork takes priority, of course, and as the semester moves forward, it demands more and more of my time… I was proving my initial doubts, and felt like resolutions wouldn’t amount to much unless I found some way to rethink them.

This year, I resolved to learn a new skill. No gym, no novel, no volunteer work. I’ve recently become first-time homeowner, and was stunned by the high cost of plumbing. A family member suggested, “why not learn basic plumbing?” Perfect; a challenging skill, and one with real value. And I love working with my hands. So I purchased the tools and resolved to myself: I will become a DIY plumber.

In the past, my resolutions failed because I didn’t know how to set goals, often aiming too high, and always giving up rather than rethinking the goal. UIC Business professor Vernon Grubisich and lecturer Kelly Page have some great recommendations for setting goals.  Professor Grubisich says that first of all a goal should be well considered. Spend half an hour writing out your reasons for setting the goal, and then revisit what you've written. Ask yourself, is the goal itself strategic? That is, is there a strategy that can help you make regular progress toward the goal, and is the goal itself a strategy for achieving a larger end? Second, plot a detailed timeline for achieving the goal. To follow through, keep a written record of your progress and compare it to your timeline, and update both with what you learn from the process. 

Dr. Page suggests visualizing goals in some way, such as drawing them or listing them in a creative design. She gives herself boundaries, including a timeline and the context of the goal (is it business related? a personal goal?). She also records her reflections on why the goal is important, and incorporates these into the reminders she leaves herself, such as notes in her planner or phone. Dr. Page recommends breaking down big goals into manageable tasks scheduled throughout the year, and ticking off each task as you progress toward the goal.

With all of this in mind, I braced myself for my upcoming year of DIY plumbing. Incidentally, after celebrating Christmas and New Year’s with family, I returned to my recently purchased home to discover three pretty serious plumbing problems that had developed while I was away. No time like the present, I told myself. So I got to work, and began making good on my resolution. And then my pipes froze.

In 2015, I would have called a plumber, regardless of the cost. But now I was up against myself, too. Rather than despair, I adapted Dr. Grubisich’s and Dr. Page’s advice to my situation, which in this case meant plotting a short-term strategy for the repairs. I started by visualizing the lengths of plumbing in the house and estimating the time required to find the frozen section. By plotting it all out, I gave myself simple instructions to follow, and by following my own instructions step-by-step, I found and thawed the frozen section of pipe, thus solving a minor crisis and taking a huge step toward my goal of DIY plumbing repair.

It's times like these, when you want to throw in the towel, that a little structure for achieving your goals comes in handy; when a new year’s resolution must be adhered to at all costs, no matter how much toilet water gets in your hair.