How to Turn Your New Year’s Resolutions Into Goals

Hello 2019! What is your new year’s resolution? Being more fit? Healthier? Learn something new?Want to travel more? A new year, a new beginning. And yet, most New Year’s resolutions get broken faster than the NYE party hangover takes to cure.

What does make New Year’s resolutions such a frustrating experience? Is there a way we can improve on that? Can we maybe use productivity techniques to turn our resolutions into something that we can work and stick with? Well, we can.

In this post I want to introduce you to three concepts that can help you turn your resolutions into actionable goals and work with them: The Highlights Method, Getting Things Done and Objective Key-Results. Let’s dive in!

Getting things done

“A new cult for the info age” wrote the WIRED magazine about David Allen’s time management method “Getting Things Done”, short GTD. If you are unfamiliar with the method, reading the book of the same title would be a great start for 2019.

We will take a look at one very useful concept from the method: In GTD, a task that has more than one step will convert into a “project” with multiple subtasks or steps – each of them an actionable item.

Take a typical new years resolution: Do more sports. What would be the steps or subtasks for this project? What kind of sport do you want to pursue? What is your desired outcome? What keeps you from doing this project? Paraphrasing a resolution to be more concrete is a good start to go from abstract idea to well-defined goal. “Do more sport” could easily become something like “Build more muscle mass”, “Adapt a regular training habit” or “Try a new discipline”. For our example, let’s go with “Build more muscle mass”.

☑️ Build more muscle mass

What are the steps if you want to build muscle mass? A few next steps and things you will need that come to my mind would be:

That’s great – that gives us some very solid starting points. However, these are just words in a list – it’s hard to know what we should do in order to get started. For a successful subtask list, it is important to turn these in actionable items.

The easiest way to picture an actionable item is as an instruction for yourself: Something that you can/should do, in active, clear and concise language: Buy coffee, Water the plants, Find personal trainer. Our full project with subtasks could look something like this:

✅ Build more muscle mass
✅ Find personal trainer
✅ Assemble nutrition plan
✅ Assemble weekly training plan
✅ Sign up for gym membership
✅ Buy gym shorts
✅ Buy training shoes
✅ Buy gym bag
✅ Wash my old Nirvana shirt to use in gym

Your list with subtasks can get quite long – that is totally fine. It’s more important to have small actionable items, and something you can get started with right away. Your first step to reach your goal!

Objective key results

Objectives & Key Results, short OKR, has been introduced as a productivity tracking method to Intel in the 1980s. It is best-known for being the method that Google has been using ever since, and according to Larry Page, “… helped lead us to 10x growth, many times over”. Today, the method is being used by many tech companies like Twitter, Linkedin and Uber. It is also the method I use to define my business goals.

How does it work? OKRs consist of two elements: An Objective, which is a very clear defined goal which should be reached, and one or more Key Results – specific measures used to track the achievement of that goal.

Take our goal “Build Muscle Mass” – this is a very well defined goal, it is specific, measurable, ambitious, realistic and trackable. I have a result defined and can (literally) see if I reach it. It is an objective you can work with. Something vague like “Do more sports” is a little harder to pinpoint and easier to cheat on – and thus, easier to fail.

Yet the objective is missing some key points: How much muscles to I want to build up? Until when? Which body parts? Enter Key Results! A key result is one outcome of the objective, which should be fulfilled in order for the objective to be completed. I recommend to define around three key results per objective, but never more than five:

Build Muscle Mass

It helps to add numbers to the key results. Do not be scared of picking ambitious key results – these can be great motivators. It don’t matter if you hit all your key results – if you fail one, at least you have something to work on for next year.

Make Time: Highlight Method

In their 2018 book “Make Time”, New York Times bestseller authors Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky suggest a method plan to help you achieve progress with your big goals on a day-to-day basis. They call it the “Highlight Method”.

Imagine your calendar – cluttered days, filled with more or less important appointments. You seem to never find the time on something that really matters to you – a perfect excuse to abandon your new year’s resolutions. With the Highlight Method, you identify one big task or project that you are really looking forward that day. You put it in a special section of your todo list and gather all tasks that help you get your highlight a little closer. This can be anything – like finishing that important presentation, cooking a fancy dinner or working on your personal goal: Build muscle mass.

On your todo list, you mark a special section that you name like your project, where you note down all tasks for today related to it:

☑️ 5 mile run
☑️ Do one crossfit set
☑️ Wash gym shirt
☑️ Eat 3000 calories

Usually, these tasks seem easier than you expected at first, and sometimes, they integrate much better with things you wanted or needed to do anyway. Look at our list: How about turning your way home from the office into that 5 mile run and your dinner into a pit stop at your favourite kebap restaurant, where you can stock on these calories you need? Life’s good!

In “Make Time”, Knapp & Zeratsky recommend to allow 60-90 minutes per day to work on your highlight. Also, download their everyday summary template!


Projects, Subtasks and Actionable Items from “Gettings Things Done” are a great way to get started with your goals. OKRs can help you keep track of your goals and taking them to the next level. The Highlight Method is a great way to integrate your goals into your everyday routine.

I hope you haven’t broken your resolutions yet – and find some inspiration in these techniques to help you work on them. What are yours? Let me know on Twitter!

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →