The One with All the Resolutions
There’s nothing more exciting than a fresh start. First day of school, new job, new house, New Year. That singular combination of hope, relief, and opportunity is irresistible to us. No matter how arbitrary, we believe in the power of fresh starts. Why, then, has the New Year resolution become such a punchline? Why are gyms packed in January and empty in February? Why does the deep fryer dethrone the salad bowl in time for the Superbowl?
Maybe, we’re doing resolutions wrong. Maybe that inward focus, the idea that our tenacity and focus can gain superpowers overnight, is wrong. Maybe the contrarian attempts at incrementalism are wrong too — lacking in equal parts motivation and feasibility. So, staring down the barrel of 2019…
Current vs. Future State
Resolutions are the delta between the way we are and the way we want to be.
Seemingly, motivation is the only thing standing between us and our richer, fitter, more punctual future selves. Unfortunately, a cabal of human fallacies conspire against us, and the overwhelming majority of resolutions are abandoned inside of one month.
First, our optimism bias causes us to overestimate our ability to exert superhuman self-control. So, we declare vague, unachievable goals that don’t set us up for success. No wonder the same three resolutions (lose weight, exercise more, be a better person) are near-constant across populations.
Then, the small inevitable speed bumps in our way (travel, schedule inconsistency, illness) end up having outsized effects on our adherence to the resolution. These friction costs cause surprisingly high deterrence for such seemingly small and predictable barriers.
From here, a trio of phenomena are free to take hold and ravage our ailing resolutions. Ego depletion is the curious tendency of willpower to get fatigued through use rather than being strengthened. Present bias is the tendency to overestimate the value and underestimate the damage of immediate rewards that run counter to our long-term goals. Finally, the what-the-hell effect means that a tiny stumble off track can trigger an avalanche of counter-productivity. Because once you have one bite… well, what the hell…
Nine Resolution Upgrades
It doesn’t need to be this way. We can recognize ourselves as flawed beings. We can set up fault-tolerant systems that aren’t dashed to pieces by our inevitable imperfection. We can use language that prioritizes the actions we control, not the results we don’t.
So here are nine pairs of common resolutions, upgraded with helpful heuristics to give you a fighting chance of making a real change in 2019.
In 2019, I’m going to be the sort of person who only takes on what he can handle. In 2019, I’m going to say NO to everything unless I’m certain I will knock it out of the park. See: Derek Sivers’ “Hell Yeah or No” heuristic.
I’m going to lose 20 pounds by summer. I’m going to walk 20,000 steps every day until I fit into my wedding tux. Eating habits are 3x more important than exercise for fat loss, but motivation control for exercise is 10x easier. By focusing on a single anchor task where adherence is easy, like walking, diet and further exercise have a better chance at falling into place. Furthermore, a body size goal like fitting into clothing that represents an earlier healthy condition is both more motivating and more accurate than a weight goal.
This is the year I get my finances in order — pay off debt, make more money, and start finally saving. I’m going to stop spending money to cure boredom. A dollar saved is more than a dollar earned, thanks to taxes. It’s also easier to control savings than it is to manifest a raise or new revenues. Aimless online shopping, buying luxury snacks, and attaching dollar amounts to seeing friends (expensive dinners out) are responsible for a shocking slice of the budget pie. We each have our own way of manifesting this inefficiency.
Instead of being stressed constantly, I’m going to make time for myself this year. I’m going to start planning an exciting trip with loved ones now, at least 6 months in advance. Not only will the time carved out be sacrosanct, you won’t be robbing yourself of the joy of anticipation.
I’m going to bust out of this rut and try something new in 2019. I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish — this is the year I get it done. Everlasting shame will be unavoidable should I shirk my daily 20 minutes of DuoLingo. Hint: Public accountability is all well and good, but telling Facebook to hold you accountable won’t work. If you don’t have a brutal remorseless friend to donate to Boko Haram on your behalf when you shirk your daily goal (thanks, Evan), try StickK.
I’m going to start a daily meditation practice this year. I can hit the snooze button, but only if I meditate instead of sleeping until the next beep. My preferred mindfulness (Vipassana) meditation doesn’t require a script, but turning on Headspace or Waking Up can help keep you from returning to sleep, and keep you mind off the clock.
I’m not going to be chronically late in 2019. I’m going to comically overestimate timing, and give myself permission to “waste time” by being early. Those of us who are chronically late must understand that our basic conception of the amount of time mundane tasks and travel take is fundamentally flawed. Thus, we require re-adjustment of our norms at the lowest systems level, and over-indexing in the opposite direction is the easiest way to accomplish that.
I want to be a better person this year, and give back to my community. I’m particularly good at robotics; I’m going to teach an after-school robotics program to boost STEM participation. Resist the urge to take on the overhead associated with starting your own initiative. Instead, use guidestar, givedirectly, and local tools to find places where you can add low-friction value through labor or cash.