An Unconventional Approach to Setting (Successful!) New Year's Resolutions


It’s that time of year again, when many of us will set New Year’s resolutions—we identify areas for improvement and resolve to do better this year. Some of us will resolve to lose weight, others to spend less money, or to stop smoking, stop drinking, stop biting our nails, stop slouching, stop coming home grumpy, stop avoiding the gym and so on….

I’m not saying these are bad things. Most resolutions are quite noble endeavors. The thing is that most resolutions are destined to fail. In fact, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February 1.

This year, I’m proposing a different way of doing things—it’s a simple shift that can help you reframe your goals and increase your chances of success!


“Areas For Improvement”

What comes to your mind when I use the expression “areas for improvement”?

Most of us were raised to assume that improvement is about fixing what is wrong with us.

ICYMI: How to Use the 'Strength Switch' to Overcome Your Natural Tendency to Be Negative

Rarely do we stop to consider that we can also improve the things we are good at by building on our strengths. In fact, our strengths are the areas that could well have the biggest room for growth because we are building on skills and talents that we are predisposed too through our brain wiring into us at birth.

A strength is something that you’re good at (performance), that you feel good doing (energy), and that you choose to do often (high use). For true strengths, these three elements form a beautiful feedback loop: Great performance provides you with a shot of high energy, so you naturally chooses to do more. In turn, high use—also known as effort or practice—improves performance levels. And so on:


ICYMI: How to Spot Your Child's Strengths (These 3 Indicators Can Help!)

When we expand our of understanding of improvement to also include that we can improve our strengths we have a greater chance of creating successful change. I’m not saying we should ignore our weak spots, but when we place the bulk of attention on overcoming our shortcomings, we’re starting at our lowest baseline and the best we can hope to achieve is to bring us ourselves up to average. But, the absence of a shortcoming is not the same as the presence of a strength.

When we place the bulk of our attention on improving a strength we are starting at a higher baseline, and this is where we really have the potential to thrive.


When we place the bulk of our attention on improving a strength we are starting at a higher baseline, and this is where we really have the potential to thrive.

Where Do You Focus?

Suppose a bright tenth grader comes home with this report card: A+, A, A, A, D. In other words, 80 percent of the grades are excellent and 20 percent are not. Which grade would you zero in on?

In theory, that D should command about 20 percent of the attention. Things are different in practice.


You might be thinking: Well, of course we need to pay more attention to the D, because that’s the grade that needs improvement and the one that’s potentially stopping this student from getting into a top college. You’re right. The question, though, is what happens when we place disproportionate attention on the D? Does so much attention on the lower grade help the teen to improve? What if we addressed the D, but placed four times as much attention on the successes they’re having? What if we helped them to see how they might apply some of the abilities they’re using to succeed in their other classes to assist in the one where they are struggling?

A strength-based approach does just that.

Focusing on the areas where we are strong opens opportunities to analyze our high-performance, to see what patterns work and how we can transfer these to our weaknesses. In the case of the student above, to transfer the successful study habits to the class where the student got the D.

Too often the positive gets short shrift and doesn’t get utilized for its power to enhance achievement and improvement. Instead of asking what’s wrong with you, ask what’s right with you. We can do the this with our New Year’s resolutions.


I Resolve to Focus on My Strengths...

Instead of focusing on ways you can lose weight, reduce your spending or stop biting your nails, why not set a goal that builds upon your strengths?

For example, rather than focusing on reduced spending you might resolve to build upon your strength of self-regulation (which you have probably shown to be adept in in other areas of your life) in order to help you not buy the extra items you spot while waiting in line at the grocery store.

Another example: instead of resolving to lose weight, you might instead resolve to use your strength of curiosity or love of learning to help you gather recipes and the information needed to make better food decisions this year.


If you’re always focusing on what you need to fix you might succeed, but at what price? It’s a slow, demoralizing, one-step forward two-steps backward journey. Why not give yourself some respite and include at least one strength-based goal this New Year?

The added bonus is when we build upon our strengths, it can seep into other areas of our life to help us with things beyond just the initial area of weakness we’ve identified. For example, research shows that people who build their self-regulation for physical exercise also end up having more willpower when it comes to saving money and developing good study habits.

The ceiling is so much higher when we build on our strengths, rather than only fix our weaknesses.


Tips for Setting (and Keeping!) Successful New Year’s Resolutions

Here are three things you should keep in mind when setting your resolutions this year if you want to be successful…

1. Identify your strengths

Make a list of your strengths. Strengths are things we do well, often and with energy. More on that here.

Not sure what your strengths are yet? My website has a free Strengths Library which describes over 100 different strengths that psychologist have studied and verified.

The VIA Institute’s Character Strengths Survey is also a great place to start. It’s free, and it only take a few minutes to complete. You can also look at the list below, to help you get a sense of the 24 character strengths.


2. Identify an area for improvement.

Remember that areas of improvements don’t just have to be points of weakness. Consider that you can also improve by building on your strengths.

Identify which strength you want to improve upon. Or what strength you will need to use to address an area that’s currently a weakness.

Ask yourself, what strength do I have that could help me handle this situation differently? Is there a strength I can use in working through this situation? Is there a strength that can help me achieve my goal?

3. When you feel your negative defaults start to cascade, STOP. In those few seconds practice the Strength Switch:

The Strength Switch acts like a circuit breaker when we start spiralling into negativity. I literally picture a switch and watch it flick inside my head to turn off the spotlight on the negative and turn it on the positive. Its power is in reminding you that in order to be successful, you can look at what you have done right before you look at what you’ve done wrong. You can focus on your strengths to overcome your shortcomings.


Visualize the switch and tell yourself: “Flick the switch.” These visual and verbal cues help shift your attention from negative to positive. From ‘I’m a failure’, to ‘I can do this if I use my strengths.’

A Few More Goal Setting Tips to Keep in Mind

Expert in goal setting and grit, Caroline Adams Miller, in her article “Throw out what you know about 'SMART' Goals... The Most Effective Goals Have These 8 Things in Common,” says the best goals are also:

  • Challenging and Specific. Mediocre, vague goals are shown time and time again to produce subpar results.

  • Tied to Your Own Values and Vision. As you set goals, remember to ask yourself: “What is my vision and how does it connect with my goals?” Goals that are attached to our values (rather than someone else’s expectations of you) are the ones that we’re more likely to adopt and pursue as our own.

  • Written down. Written goals produce better results than goals that aren’t written down. “Writing goals in a place where you can easily see them has the effect of reminding you of your commitment to yourself, and it also allows other people to add their support and ideas to the accomplishment of your goals.”

  • Shared with someone else. People who made their New Year’s resolutions public were 10 times more likely to succeed than people who did not make a public proclamation.

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Ready, Set, Goal!

Remember that when you reframe your goals to build on your strengths, rather than leveling your weaknesses, you not only have a greater chance at success… but you also have the opportunity to really thrive, since you’re starting at a higher baseline.

Whatever you’re resolving to do this year, I wish you success!


To learn more about shifting to strength visit: To learn more about working with Lea visit:

Thank you, Caroline Adams Miller, for letting me link to your brilliant article on Goal Setting. Follow Caroline for content on goal setting and grit.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Brooke Lark,, Fab Lentz, Josefa Ndiaz, Leonard Von Bibra, Dan Gold, Estee Janssens, VIA (VIA Classification of 24 VIA Character Strengths - VIA Institute on Character / Copyright in graphic displays of Character Trait Icons - Children, Inc.), Luca Upper on Unsplash.

Copyright © 2018 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.