How To Fix Your Life In 3 Simple Steps

Illustration by Mallory Heyer.
By now, most of us know that New Year’s resolutions rarely, if ever, work. And yet, year after year, we’re compelled to try for a fresh start in some way, and aim to achieve our most aspirational goals. It’s a good impulse, I think, and one that should be continued. But instead of the endless loop-the-loop style of traditional resolutions, I believe there is a better way forward of identifying and achieving goals that are easier to stick to, and will make you truly happy. It’s what I refer to as a personal review.

Much like the annual reviews you might do at work, this one requires some soul-searching about your strengths and weaknesses, some dot connecting about the things you need to do to improve, and concrete tasks that will help motivate you to make a real change. It may sound a little bit harder than tossing off an arbitrary resolution to lose weight — and it is, in some ways — but the effects it will have on your life and the changes you make will be lasting.

And the best part is, you can do it at any point of the year, and as many times as you want. I do mine in mid-December to prepare for the upcoming year, but it can be done quarterly, or at any point you feel you need a reboot, really.

Convinced? Ready to try it out? Let’s get started on your annual personal review.
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Illustration by Mallory Heyer.
This step requires some time investment — but it’s the most important part of the process. Block off an evening during the week or a weekend afternoon, grab your favorite writing tools, and ask yourself these two questions:

What didn’t go the way I wanted it to in the past year?

What went well in the past year?

Free write for at least 10 minutes about each — it doesn’t matter much if you write a list of words, free-flowing paragraphs, or just a few sentences. The point here is to do some exploration about the things that are making you happy and fulfilled, and the things you feel might be lacking in your life or blocking you. Can’t remember what happened in the last year? To jog your memory, review your calendars and social media accounts, and jot down memories that big events bring up.

For example, in my own exercise, I discovered the following things went well for me in the past year: my career (I was excelling at my job and I found it incredibly fulfilling); my living space (I bought a condo the year before and finally decorated it to my Pinterest-aspirational dreams); my fitness (I had lost some weight at the start of the year, kept it off, and run a marathon); and my travel (I had taken a fun solo trip, a great vacation to New Orleans, and some stunning camping trips). Those are pretty cool things. But what hadn’t gone well? For me, it felt like a lot. My grandfather passed away and it was difficult for my family to deal with; I had a string of short, unfulfilling romantic relationships; a few close friends moved away and I was lonely on the buddy front; and I felt like I was spending too much time on things that weren’t actually making me happy (social media, drinking, aimlessness).

The point of listing the negatives isn’t to be terribly hard on yourself, or remind yourself of failures or sadness. Instead, it's to help you figure out what in your life isn’t contributing to your happiness. You might be surprised at what you come up with.

All right. You have your list of pros and cons. So what? It’s time to connect the dots.
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Illustration by Mallory Heyer.
This is what I mean about connecting the dots: Look back at the things that made you feel happy and accomplished, and the things that kind of made you feel like dog poo, and try to draw common themes between all of them. This is a little abstract, but stay with me here. This is how I did it.

The more I reviewed my lists, I realized the things that mattered in external ways — my weight and appearance, my career, and my decorated condo — were going well. But the things that nourished me internally — friendships, purposeful hobbies that weren’t a time suck, and meaningful dates and relationships — were getting a short shrift from me in the past year.

And this is where the aha moment will ideally happen for you, too. Instead of tossing out a list of things that you feel like you should do — the classic way of deciding on New Year’s resolutions —rumination and exploration of things that make you feel good and bad, will help you work backwards to figure out what’s missing from your life and what you actually want. Then you can determine the steps you need to take to achieve those goals.

Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times had the best example of this in action that I’ve recently seen. She wanted to lose weight, but regular attempts never worked for her. However, when she focused her attention on the reasons she wanted to lose weight, she came to a different conclusion. What she really wanted was to feel more confident, energetic, and to participate in social activities she had been avoiding due to embarrassment about her weight gain. So she restrategized. Instead of dieting, she bought new clothes that flattered her, worked on her sleep habits, and went out more with friends.

The result? So far, she’s lost 25 pounds. And with nary a “go to the gym more” resolution in sight.

For me, I realized that I need to eliminate activities that weren’t making me feel anything (social media); make time for the hobbies that didn’t feel aimless and I knew made me happy (writing, cooking, reading); be more intentional about investing in friendships and making plans myself; and maybe cut back on the endless online dating. Voilà — I had a list of goals and activities I knew, from intentional reflection and thought, that would be satisfying. And that feels really good. But even with that, you’re still faced with the hard part: actually doing them.
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Illustration by Mallory Heyer.
This may be easier than you think. By now, you have a list of goals and activities that are based in your actual desires, rather than a random roundup of things you think you should accomplish based on no real reason. But it still requires some planning and intentionality.

For me, I went old school: I created a spreadsheet.

First, I made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish based on the findings from the last two steps: write more; cook more; make more plans with friends; spend less time on social media; drink less. I added a few things I’ve done in the past that were successful and made me happy: continue spending time outdoors; achieve more career success; and stay physically active.

From there, I came up with concrete plans for each aspiration. Write more? That meant blocking aside a few hours a week so I could achieve my goal of publishing four new blog posts a month. Spend less time on social media? I decided to go cold turkey and quit Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for two months. Drink less? February will be a booze-free month, and I’m using a tracking app to keep count of the drinks I am having. Spend time outdoors? I decided to go camping four times in the year, and plan the first trip by March. Hang out more with friends? Once a week, I’m intentionally emailing a few friends to set up two to three social outings per week, instead of just waiting for invites to come my way.

The spreadsheet part? I used a template created by a blog called that you can download here, but there are lots of others on the web, and you can certainly make your own. Don’t feel the need to overcomplicate it. The important part is to list the activity you want to do, and then write down concrete steps you need to take to make it happen.

The follow-up is even more important. I recommend setting aside time every two weeks to review the spreadsheet, see how you’re doing in making things happen, and re-evaluating if things aren’t going well.

So there you have it. A three-step process to finding goals that really speak to what you need and want from your life. You can forget about those unachievable resolutions to “lose weight,” “save money,” or whatever goal you felt obligated to commit yourself to a few hours before the ball drops. If there’s something you dream of doing in your life, take the time to sit down, write it out, and make an action plan. It’s never too late to start something new, whatever time of year.