A guide for making kick-ass new years resolutions.

Finn Shewell
7 min readMar 7, 2021


This one’s a biggie, so for a TL;DR, click here.

Failing new years resolutions in January is as much of a tradition as over-eating on Christmas day, or getting burnt to a crisp on the first day of summer even though it happens every single time.

That’s not because we’re bad at following through with commitments, or because the resolutions aren’t worth following. It’s because we don’t frame them properly.

Let’s take the cliche example. “I’ll start going to the gym”.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with this as a starting point — the trouble comes when it also happens to be the end point.

Most people form resolutions like this, by committing to a goal then totally winging it and flaming out about 12 days in.

There are plenty of reasons this happens — fortunately, there are also plenty of strategies we can employ to prevent it. Let’s jump into it.

We over-estimate our short-term potential
When we say we’ll start going to the gym, what we too often mean is “I’ll be ripped by Monday”.

This may be a bit of an exaggeration — but the point remains the same. We expect big results immediately, and when we don’t get them, we quit.

Sometimes we quit before we even start — this happens when our goals are so lofty that we believe they’re unachievable without even doing anything. We psych ourselves out before taking any action towards our goal — with no proof that we could fail.

We don’t build a strong foundation
When we say “I’ll go tomorrow” we don’t mean that. What we really mean is “The decisive, confident, ideal version of me will go tomorrow”. The problem is that version of us never arrives; we wake up as our normal selves, and realise it’s much easier to stay in bed than get up early to push ourselves to exhaustion.

We need to start setting goals based on who we are today — not our aspirational selves that we’ll never become.

There’s a lot we can do to build a strong foundation on top of which we can accomplish our resolutions and goals. There’s plenty we can do today to make sure we not only set the right goals tomorrow, but accomplish them effectively and make sure those accomplishments last.

We can plan
Let’s jump away from the gym-going analogy.
We’ll use another classic: “I’ll drink less”.

Without a plan, this is an easy one to let slip away from us.
How much do we drink currently? How much are we looking to cut back by?
Why are we looking to do this? When are we likely to fail?
How can we succeed?
These are all questions we don’t ask — but they’re all questions that we should.

You can create almost any structure by asking these questions, and it’s through this structure that you answer that final question. You could:

  • drink less per week
  • drink less in social situations
  • drink lower % beverages

It all depends on your specific context — commit to one or two of these tactics, and stick with them.

But how do we know what approaches to take?
By answering question 4: When are we likely to fail?

If you struggle at sticking to goals without seeing clear progress, drink less per week. It’s easy to measure, and it effectively creates ‘micro-goals’ that are a lot less mentally taxing than looking at 365 days until that massive dopamine hit.

If you find that you’re creating this goal for yourself because you’ve had one too many, one too many times in front of friends or colleagues, target that. Commit to only having one drink when out socialising, then sticking to water, or cranberry juice and soda (In the style of Sir Richard Branson).

To an extent, how you approach any new years resolution is about hedging bets against yourself. You need to consider how you’re most likely to self-sabotage, and create a framework that can accomodate.

We can build meta-goals into our resolutions
I cover meta-goals more in-depth in my recent post here.

Meta goals are essentially goals that help us accomplish all other goals — baking at least one meta-goal into our set of resolutions every year (and yes — you should have more than one) may feel counter-productive at first, but once you start to see the effects, it will become an annual staple.

So what are meta-goals specifically? What do they look like in action? Meta-goals can be anything, as long as it’s developing a skill that’s highly-transferrable, or something that increases your capacity to achieve other goals.

  • Meditation
    Meditation is a capacity-building skill. Meditating for even 10 minutes a day can make us more present, centred, and rational. For me, I feel less reactive, fluttery, and overwhelmed when I do some kind of grounding activity in the morning. It could be focussing on a song you really like, counting to a certain number in your head, or just trying to sit with an empty head for a given amount of time.
  • Exercise
    Exercise is also capacity-building. If meditation serves the ‘spiritual’ side, exercise serves the physical. The great thing about exercise is it has both short-term and long-term benefits — working out in the morning gets you an endorphin rush so effective that Casey Neistat uses it as a sleep supplement. We also see something interesting happen as we build on our commitment to regular repetitions. Not only do we get the daily endorphin high, but we also start to feel more alert, responsive (not reactive), and simply put, less groggy.
  • Time management
    Time management is both capacity-building and highly transferrable. It’s a skill that will naturally increase our capacity as we go, while also providing value across any context we use it in.
  • Communication
    Communication is the transferable skill. Becoming better at communicating will allow you to figure out how to manage your time better, what exercises are best for you, and almost everything else. Communication is the key that has more potential to help you achieve your resolutions than anything else.

By creating a goal to improve your communication skills in some form every year, you increase your chances are achieving your other resolutions too. The same applies for all meta-goals — making progress on one, allows for progress on all.

We can iterate
There are some things we just can’t accomplish in a single year — and there are some things that we should be practicing, always.

Reflecting back on the year that’s been is one of the best starting points when considering what you want to accomplish in the year to come.

How did you track compared to your goals? Did you overshoot or undershoot? Is there an area where you want to concentrate your growth next year as a result of low growth this year, or high potential growth?

These are all questions we should be asking and answering before committing to any goals for the year to come.

We can better weight the consequences of our actions
How we respond to the consequences of our actions has a psychological term: Operant conditioning.

It sounds fancy, but it’s a very simple, and very effective concept: There are two kinds of conditioning: Punishment and reinforcement. You can have a positive and negative version of both — positive being where you add something from the environment (eg. positive punishment would be adding something negative), and negative being where you detract something (eg. negative reinforcement might be turning off a loud, annoying beeping sound).

The typical rule is that reinforcement is used to increase positive behaviour, and punishment is used to reduce negative behaviour. This is where it gets interesting though, because in real life, your new year’s resolution will consist of both positive behaviour (taking regular steps to achieve your goal), and negative behaviour (failing to follow the plan you’ve set up for yourself).

As such, we can bake in both sides of operant conditioning.

For example, there’s a great website called stickk.com that offers a service wherein if you fail to stick to a regular progress metric (running a certain distance each month, losing a certain amount of weight…), then cash that you’ve escrowed into the site is automatically donates to your anti-charity. You’re a devout christian? You’ve just publicly donated to the church of satan. You’re enthusiastically pro-choice? not according to your recent contribution to prolife.org…

Using this form of loss aversion — or negative punishment — is incredibly effective. It becomes even more effective when you partner it with an incentive.

Say you want to run a marathon (which is n̶o̶t̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ exactly like starting a company, by the way). An example of positive reinforcement in this context would be enjoying a nice cold beer at the end of every day you run more than 8km (miles for you stubborn Americans). An example of negative reinforcement would be that every day you run less than 8km, your friend calls you out on your own social media profile.

The difference between negative reinforcement and punishment can get confusing — just remember that reinforcement increases behaviour, punishment decreases it. If you have any more questions about operant conditioning, there’s a great Khan Academy video here, or you can just reach out to me directly.

So that’s the key to creating a kick-ass new years resolution — three simple steps:

  1. create a plan.
  2. make goals that help you achieve your goals (meta goals).
  3. strengthen the consequences of your actions.

Simple, but not easy. Set ambitious goals, but know how you’re going to accomplish them. Challenge yourself, commit to improving who you are year on year, and make 2020 (or whatever year you’re reading this) the best one yet.



Finn Shewell

👨‍👩‍👦‍👦 I help people work together