I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, and here’s why: they don’t work.

If they did, the second Friday of every January would probably not be called “National Quitter’s Day.” 

Unfortunately, by National Quitter’s Day, approximately 23% of people have already quit their New Year’s resolutions. In fact, research consistently shows that by the end of every January, an estimated 43% of people will have given up on whatever goals they had set for themselves for the year. Even more sobering, only around 10% of people who set a resolution are able to stick with it long enough to actualize that goal. The other 90% of us wind up, year after year, feeling bad about what we imagine to be our lack of willpower or lack of “will not” power, as the case may be.  

In the classroom, we have our own kind of New Year’s Resolution tradition: setting academic goals. 

As you have probably surmised, I’m also not a fan of setting academic goals because, as is true with New Year’s resolutions, most of the time, students end up falling short of their set goals or abandoning them altogether. 

Can it really be that the wildly popular practices we employ to create positive change in our adult and academic lives are basically recipes for failure? 

Granted, establishing better habits and routines is challenging, but is it truly impossible? Is making a New Year’s resolution or setting an academic goal for the school year just an exercise in futility that inevitably results in disappointment?

Well, it doesn’t have to be. 

The major reason that New Year’s resolutions and academic goals fail is not because people don’t have a desire to change, and it’s also not because they can’t formulate a plan detailing how to make that change. The obstacle is that, in order to commit to doing the action steps of the “How,” people also need to understand the “Why” behind that desired change. It turns out that what we lack is not willpower, it’s “Why” power. 

So what’s a “Why?”

A “Why” is the underlying motivating factor that drives one to follow through with short-term steps to achieve a long-term goal. And anyone who actually wants to reach a set goal needs to get super clear on their answers to two vital “Why” questions: 

  1. Why is the goal important to me now?
  2. Why is the goal important to my future self?

Let’s explore how the “Why” works with an example. If an adult has set a goal to lose the five pounds they gained over the holidays or to organize their closet, it’s pretty clear why that goal feels important to that person now. Maybe they want to fit back into a favorite pair of jeans, or maybe they wish they could readily extract that same favorite pair of jeans from the Gordian Knot of dirty and clean clothing that has taken possession of their closet floor. 

Working toward these goals benefits the person now because there are real world consequences for not being able to fit into or find one’s favorite clothes. One could be impacted emotionally because gaining weight can feel stressful to people for numerous reasons, including societal pressure to conform to rigid beauty norms, and there will definitely be an impact on your budget if you need to purchase a new wardrobe. (Have you seen the price of clothing lately?) Consider the amount of time that can be wasted searching for missing items, nevermind the unnecessary stress that results when you either cannot locate what you want or when the item turns up wrinkled, dirty, and unwearable.           

Obviously, it would be highly beneficial for any person to get back into shape and reorganize one’s closet. Neither losing five pounds nor cleaning out a closet generally requires numerous months of work, and when you can locate and then victoriously zip those jeans, that will be two huge wins in the near present, right? Do people really need to care about what the potential impact of reaching, or not reaching, those goals will be on their future selves?   

Yes, they really, really do. 

And here’s why the “Why” works: being able to envision a calmer, wiser, healthier, more organized, improved self is what drives us to take the short-term steps necessary to become that future self we imagine. Without the ability to dream of an improved future self, it’s super hard for people to summon the requisite motivation to take the everyday steps to reach the goal and then maintain the new behaviors long enough for those to solidify into the better habits that will enable them to stick with actions like healthier eating or putting dirty laundry in a basket.    

Let’s apply that same framework to an academic goal around improving executive functioning. As many students with weak executive functioning skills struggle to keep track of their assignments, they frequently find themselves wondering: 

What is the assignment?

When is that assignment due? 

Did I do my work? 

Wait! Didn’t I already turn that work in? 

A specific goal for a student in this situation could be to master a system that enables them to track their completion and submission of assignments. 

You might wonder, Don’t students use planners for those tasks? The answer is: sort of. While many students own a paper planner and older students usually know how to use an online calendar, the reality is that many students don’t utilize either of them, at least not consistently and independently, because they don’t see the benefit. To put it another way, they don’t yet understand the “Why.”   

Just like fitting into or simply being able to find one’s jeans, there are both external and internal consequences when a student is not able to keep track of assignments. The inability to get assignments in on time causes students to lose credit and to become stressed, confused, overwhelmed, and perpetually behind. They may even begin to develop a negative narrative about who they are as a learner.

Encouraging students to identify that “Why” in a future version of themselves might seem like a daunting task, but with guidance and support, it’s not. Kids want to be successful in school, and they know that getting organized is crucial if they are going to stay on top of their work. The most effective way to accomplish that goal is to use their planner well. When they do, their present self benefits because their grades go up and their stress level decreases. Their future self will benefit because decreasing stress is great for their overall health, improved grades could help them get into whatever post-secondary program they want to pursue, and learning how to organize your work in order to meet deadlines is a vital skill that will serve them well in the adult world. The consistent, effective, and independent use of a planner is a key to securing the successful future they envision.

As we all know that you are going to set goals with your students or children at home this year, let’s set your kids up for success! Here’s a template you can use to support the process of envisioning a future self, determining a short-term goal to tackle now, and creating a plan to reach that goal. For middle and high school students (and even college students and adults), I would work through both the pre-planning and the shorter planning sheet. For students in 5th grade and under, I suggest sticking with just the planning template. (Of course, you know your students/children best, so do what feels right to you!) By the end of the process, your students will know both the “How” and the “Why” that will motivate them in the Now and enable them to move forward toward any awesome reality they can imagine for their future selves. 

Pre-Planning 

How do I imagine my future self in ten years?
How do I spend my time? What do I care about?How do I want to look and/or feel?What do I want people to be able to say about who I am?What do I already want to have achieved ten years from now? 
Why do I want to become the person I imagine?
How does that vision align with my personal values and life goals?
What steps are concrete steps that I can take over the next ten years to become the kind of person I want to be?
What ONE specific, measurable goal can I start on now to work toward realizing my vision for my future?
Why does reaching this first goal matter to you?How will reaching this goal help you move toward your ideal future self?
What support might I need to act on my goals and to overcome challenges along the way? Is there anyone who can help me or hold me accountable for moving toward my ideal future self?
What societal messages might I have to overcome to become my best self?
How can I fight those messages?
What other limiting beliefs (your own or those of others) might you have to overcome to become your best self?
How can I challenge and change those limiting beliefs? 
What do you think will be relatively easy about reaching your goals? Why do you think this?
What do you think will be challenging about reaching your goals? Why do you think this? 
What parts of this work are you looking forward to? Why?
What parts of this work are you NOT looking forward to? Why?
What strategies have worked for you in the past when you felt stuck, demotivated, or derailed by a challenge?

Planning

My ONE, small, specific goal is…
The steps I will take to reach this goal are…
The amount of time I will dedicate each day to reach this goal is…
The number of days/weeks it will take me to reach this goal is…(No less than two week and no longer than 3 months) 
I will be able to tell that I am making progress by/when…
I will be able to tell that I have successfully reached my goal when…
I can benefit from working on this goal now because…
My future self will benefit as a result of my achieving this goal because…