Goal setting and experiments vs. Resolutions

Goal setting

This is what most people thing of when it comes to goals, we need to adjust our understanding.
Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

“Dad, what are resolutions?” my daughter Alice asked in the car the other day.

I was off last week with my daughter since she was out of school. We were running an errand when a friend called and I answered on speakerphone.

He has some resolutions for his personal life and his business so we talked about those. I offered some ways to reframe his resolutions to give him some control on the front side so that way he has a better chance of success. We talked about accountability and traps to make sure he stays on the path.

I am in the car a lot so Alice hears these kinds of conversations regularly and doesn’t ever really ask questions about them. What I wanted to tell her was that resolutions are usually terrible goals that people set and don’t follow through on, but I checked myself and thought for a moment.

I wanted to make sure that we kept the conversation going and that I didn’t kill it by my negative opinion. As parents we can have huge impacts on the way our kids view things by how we explain it to them, and this is something I am working on in my conversations with Alice.

To be honest though, I hate the term “resolution,” because simply by using it , we are already talking about something nearly synonymous with quitting. Behavioral change is hard and when we talk about making changes, most people want to talk about huge changes that last forever. But forever is a long, long time.

I don’t make resolutions; instead, I set goals for myself and then I create experiments that I think will move me towards my goal. An experiment means that the change won’t be for forever, just for a while to see if it works.  Then, at the end of the experiment, I can make a decision to maintain the change I made or not.  (Recently in another post, I talked about how short-term thinking hurts you, don’t confuse that post for this one.)

Let’s look some popular resolution examples to see how they are vulnerable to that eventual quitting moment, and how to set goals to achieve those changes instead.

Resolution: lose weight. How much weight? How are you going to do that? Let’s be honest, telling me that you’re just going to do it means that you won’t. This is a terrible resolution and too broad of a goal because you are not managing anything, you are just focusing on  the back end, the number on a scale.

How about this instead? Goal: I want to lose 10 pounds by May. I am going to experiment by not drinking soda or lattes for 10 days. I think this will cause me to lose weight.

You can do anything for a short period of time. That is one of the reasons that people who set goals for limited stretches are so successful. At the end of the 10 days, you can see if you have lost any weight (spoiler alert: you will), and that positive reinforcement will help you continue on your path, so you can create a larger experiment to expand on the first.

Maybe for the next experiment, instead of just cutting sodas and lattes, you keep doing that and also decide that for lunch for the next 10 days you will eat a salad with a vinaigrette for dressing instead of ranch.

Most people who work for themselves or are high performers will skip lunch or work until they are so hungry that they eat the first thing they see. Making a healthy choice consistently for even one meal of the day will have you seeing results.

At end of the second 10 days, you’ll have dropped a few more pounds, that momentum will still be there, and you’ll have an easier time staying on the path. Are you really going to stop now that you have completed two successful experiments and you are seeing results? Most people won’t, and for others that would stop after seeing success, you can use accountability to keep you going.

Okay, how about this one? Resolution: work out. Once again, this is very vague and broad, a bad way of setting a goal you’re really going to follow through on. Are you planning to join a gym? What workout or training plan will you follow? What class will you join? If you hadn’t already figured out that detail, you’ll quickly discover that it adds a not inconsiderable something to your already busy day, and by the time you factor in membership cost, most people are already giving up.

Goal: every morning for the next 10 days, I am going to do 5 pushups at some point during the day. This is a small, manageable goal that will be easy for you to do. I would say that you should put this on your calendar or anchor it to something you know that you will do every day, but let’s start small.

At the end of the ten days, 5 pushups will feel like nothing. You might even see a little change in the mirror, but more importantly, you can set a new experiment that is a little bigger in scope.

When it comes to making changes, if you manage the inputs, you only have to measure the outputs. This gives you a lot of control and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Some of you are thinking that you want to do more, good for you but if you take on too much you could end up quitting. The 20% program that you follow is better than the 100% program that you are going to ditch on the 3rd day. You don’t have to change your life forever, but you can do anything for a short period of time.

The only way we got through bootcamp in the army was by knowing exactly how many days we had left. From about the 5th day on, everyone knew the count and it was the answer to every complaint:

“Man, I’m tired of doing push ups!”

“I hear you man, 58 more days and a wake-up,” would be the answer that you got from your battle buddy.

It was bearable because the end was in sight — the screaming drill sergeants helped a lot as well.

If you put an end date on something, you have something to look forward to, a defined end point when you can take stock of how the experiment went and adjust your approach, or even just take some time off. Even professional athletes have off seasons, and bodybuilders have bulking seasons and cutting seasons, and their diets and workouts change accordingly. Most high performers will work really hard and then enjoy their time off. If you do that with the goals you set, you’ll be happier with your progress and achieve more in the long run.   

I ended up telling Alice that the new year is a time for a lot of people to reflect and set goals to be better. She said her resolution is to eat more candy. We compromised that if she works on her reading every day for 30 minutes, she can have a piece of candy.

Second day going strong, let’s see how she feels in 8 more days.


I wrote the bulk of this article back in January (resolutions, duh).  Alice has been reading every day after school, I let her pick the books she wants and she doesn’t even need the candy as a treat anymore because she enjoys the reading so much.  The other day she sat down and read 11 books start to finish, she didn’t even ask for the candy afterwards, she just wanted to prove to herself that she could do it.  I am excited to see what she goals she sets for herself next.