Last week I made up a laundry list of New Year’s resolutions. Although they’ve been going well, this week I decided I should abandon them.
- Not because they weren’t going well.
- Not because they weren’t important.
- Because New Year’s resolutions are too boring, intimidating, and infrequent.
But, I haven’t given up…
Let me explain
I can’t remember when I first started making new years resolutions, probably halfway through high school.
Since then, I haven’t made them every year, but most years. When I haven’t, my rationalization has been that I shouldn’t wait until a new year begins to fix something that isn’t working. Sometimes I set resolutions in September as the back to school season always feels like a great time for a fresh start (even when I’m not going back to school). Occasionally I’ll also set resolutions at random points of the year.
While I do still like that logic, there are at least 2 problems with it:
- I rarely constructively reflect on what’s not working, and therefore rarely resolve to do something different.
- Most goals are what Nir Eyal (Behavioural Psychologist) calls “BUT Goals” because they are Big, Un-fun, and Time-boxed. Working towards them sucks, and even if you accomplish them, you’ll probably quit afterward. Exhibit A: most diets.
So, what now?
As I was studying the research on New Year’s resolutions I stumbled upon an article that astounded me and gave me a totally new perspective:
I highly recommend you read it. It could change your life. Seriously.
- We are used to thinking about the grand scheme our lives in chapters, decades, or years – periods of time that seem ridiculously long and somehow disconnected to our day-to-day lives.
- Consequently, it’s hard to appreciate the value of a single day, week, or even month. They occur to us as nearly infinite.
- Until you stare at them all at once and see how few of them make up your entire life:
- Those mere 4,680 boxes represent the number of weeks it takes to turn a newborn baby into a 90-year-old relic.
Think about it…
Look at that graphic again and think about: how many of those weeks do you…
- Just try to get through?
- Celebrate that they’re over? or
- Dread before they even start.
Trial and error
Generally, one of two things happen when we work towards a goal: we succeed, or we fail.
Both can be dangerous.
The ramifications of failure are obvious: we usually give up. This is what happens with 80% of New Year’s resolutions: they fail before the second week of February. That’s about column 6 on our Life Calendar. If you also make resolutions in September, that’s column 36.
What if we succeed?
In my 4th year of university, I ran a personal best time in the 1500m final at the NAIA National Championships. My goal that season was to medal, and although I was in the mix with 100m to go, I wound up 5th. Obviously, I wanted to place higher, but I was still satisfied that I ended my University career with a big personal best time (PR for my friends south of the border) and my best placing at Nationals.
I kept racing for another 2 months leading up to the Canadian Championships. Even though I was in the best shape I’d ever been, my performances were mediocre because I was no longer hungry. I was satisfied with what I had already done that season and became complacent. It wasn’t until the offseason when I set new goals, that I became hungry again.
If I had set new goals, I probably would have come away with another personal best that season, and perhaps a spot in the 1500m final at the Canadian National Championships.
Regardless of whether we meet or fall short of our goals, progress is suspended until we set new ones.
Life is largely trial and error
If we keep waiting until we get to columns 1 and/or 36 to re-evaluate what’s important to us and try something new, we likely won’t ever “figure things out.” With that strategy, our lives (as far as working towards resolutions go) would look something like this:
If you’re 15 years old now and continue to make new resolutions every January and September, you would only have 147 (73 if you only make them in January) opportunities left to attempt to “make some changes” in your life (80% of which will likely fail). If you’re 45 now, you only have 89 (44 if you only make them in January) Though I’m not 45 yet, and contrary to what most 15-year-olds might believe, I can imagine that nearly every 45-year-old out there knows by this point that they’ll likely need more than 89 more chances to “figure things out.”
New week resolutions
One of the most popular mantras of Silicon Valley (the global epicenter of technological innovation) is to “fail faster.”
It’s an approach to running a company or developing a product that embraces lots of little experiments with the idea that some will work and grow, and others will fail and die. Conversely, if you were to fail slowly, carefully, or wearily, you’d end up wasting a ton of time on flawed ideas. But you don’t know until you try. Hence, fail faster!
We can apply this by setting new week’s resolutions that are:
Our new week’s resolutions should create a link between our small everyday actions and our long-term dreams.
Since we set them each week, you can use a portion of them (say, 2/5 or 1/3) to support critically important, immediate priorities. If you have a big competition on Saturday, most of your new week’s resolutions should prepare you to perform at your best, that is critical to your long-term aspirations. If it’s exam week, most of your new week’s resolutions will focus on academics.
The key is not to let our calendar dictate our new week’s resolutions, but rather to have our new week’s resolutions dictate our calendar whenever possible. The post-season and exams are the exceptions, not the rule. We know roughly which weeks they are at least months in advance. Most weeks our resolutions should be diversified.
If properly done, the weekly resolution setting also forces us to continuously reflect upon what’s important to us, not just “urgent.”
Anchor your process
I can guess what most of you are thinking: “This sounds great in theory, but I don’t have time to do this every week!”
Don’t worry, I’m not saying you need to go on some yoga retreat every Sunday night, contort yourself into some strange positions, meditate on this for half an hour, paint them on canvas, and then filter and post them on Instagram.
Incorporate this into something you’re already doing.
E.g. When you brush and floss your teeth on Sunday night, come up with 3-5 simple and easy things you can aim to do each day next week. Write them on the mirror in a dry-erase marker (IF you have your parents’/spouse’s permission), or on a notepad with a new page for each week.
This doesn’t’ need to take more than 2-4 minutes total.
If you don’t spend that long brushing your teeth, then you’re probably not brushing long enough (should be at least 2 minutes), and/or you’re not flossing (maybe this can help you FINALLY start).
The 70-30 rule
Linda Papadopoulos (Research Scientist and Practicing Psychologist) suggests “being 70% good and 30% bad; making good choices, for the most part, but also letting go, or indulging a little bit…I am not perfect, nor do I want to be. I believe in all kinds of treats, as I think they help to keep a balance. Especially with food, I believe in moderation.”
One of the reasons people give up on their resolutions, and goals in general, so quickly is because they think it needs to be all or nothing. Once they start to stumble, they lose hope and give up.
Now I’m not saying that if you’re already flossing 95% of the time that you should lower your standards, but if you’re struggling to adopt a habit or find balance, the 70-30 rule may help.
E.g. if your resolution is to drink 2 cups of water first thing in the morning, and you do that 5 out of 7 days (5/7 = 71%) in a week, that’s a win. If you don’t get to 5 days, then aim for something easier that will help you build momentum. E.g. leave an empty cup somewhere where you’ll have to move it to complete your morning routine (like in the center of your placemat on the kitchen table). Simply moving the cup could be a win. But chances are, once you pick it up, you’ll fill it with water and drink it.
If you drink the water 5 out of 7 days, then keep it as a resolution until it becomes completely automatic, and then create an additional resolution.
By focusing on weekly resolutions and the 70% threshold, we get to reframe our definition of success from being near 100% for an entire year to 70% of the time for 1 week.
Regardless of the outcome, set new week’s resolutions on Sunday evening while you brush your teeth so that you can build on the ones that worked and tweak the ones that didn’t.