Resolution Makes the World Go Round

Hey team!  Week two, and I’m still at it, ready to say more dumb things on the internet.  I’ll go ahead and apologize for this post — it’s going to be about a particularly boring topic: me.  I sort of started out this idea with the goal of not really writing a lot about myself, but then I realized that I’m pretty self-absorbed, and there really wasn’t anything I could do to stop myself.  Get prepared for a lot of “I” and “me” in this one.  EVERYONE LOOK AT ME I’M SO COOL.

Anyway, in last week’s post I mentioned that the whole reason I’m writing this blog (besides obviously to just talk about myself to no one in particular — hey, someone’s gotta spread the good word) was because I had made a New Year’s resolution to write something, anything, at least once a week.  But what I didn’t mention (or maybe I did? I don’t really know — I went back to my first post to check but man was that stuff boring) is that this isn’t my only resolution, nor is this the first year that I’ve had any.  In fact, over the past few years I’ve probably made upwards of 50 resolutions, with varying degrees of success.

One of the things that’s been driving me absolutely crazy over the last few weeks is the number of people or things that have come into my life telling me that, for one reason or another, New Year’s resolutions don’t work, or that they’re stupid, or that I’m stupid, and while other people can successfully resolve to change themselves in the new year, it is me, personally, who will fail.

I asked my officemate if she had any resolutions (we’ll get to why I asked in a minute), and she told me that resolutions are just “setting yourself up for failure.”  I asked her why and her response was basically “it’s ridiculous that you’d just set a date and then decide to start doing something on that date. You’re just going to slide back into old habits, and as soon as you fail, you’ve lost all motivation.”  I certainly see her point — it’s probably not that effective to sit down at work in late November after your 9th beer on a Tuesday afternoon and think “Man, I resolve to quit drinking.  In a month!” and then crack open your tenth beer.

But at the same time, nobody I’ve known has ever looked up one day and said “oh man I had no idea I needed to quit smoking but now that I do, no more cigs!”  Admittedly, the only habitual smoker I’ve known was my mom, but she had known she should quit since long before I was born, and she tried to quit frequently.  Her strategy was never “I’m just… quitting. Right now.”  When you quit, plans need to be laid; if you’re going to quit you probably need to know at least a few days in advance so you can nail down your strategy: cold turkey, patch, nicorette, decreasing volume, locked in a room for 3 weeks with only food and water and no sympathetic human contact.  You may need supplies (for instance, nicotine patches, or perhaps 3 weeks of food and water and a down payment on an apartment that locks from the outside).  There’s no difference between saying “I’m going to start tomorrow” and “I’m going to start January 1” (especially if it’s New Year’s Eve), it’s just a reasonable date to choose.

Quitting smoking or not, at the end of the day, isn’t there something to be said for looking at your life, deciding how you could make it better, and then picking a date to do it?  It’s not like it has to be January 1, it’s just that that’s a super convenient time to start — the whole point of the new year is that it’s new, and it hasn’t yet been tainted with your furry porn addiction.  In November 2013, it’s already obvious that 2013 can’t be the first year you didn’t look at furry porn (sidenote, how does that even work? Isn’t the whole point of furries that they’re in costumes? Maybe furry porn is just… regular furry pictures? And people are into that?), it can only be the year you stopped looking at furry porn, and that’s not nearly as exciting.  2014 is a clean slate — you can porn up them furries all the way through 2013-12-31 23:59:59 and still have a fresh start.

This post is now rated X

Also, apparently there are religious origins? (To New Years resolutions, not furry porn. That I know of.)

Now, as to the fact that people will slide back into old habits, I would posit that people can change.  I know for a fact they can, because my mother — the same one who attempted to quit smoking — hasn’t had a cigarette in 15 years.  Granted, she’s a pack-a-day cigar smoker now, but that’s just because cigars pair so well with her bottle-a-day scotch habit.  That said, there’s obviously some truth to the fact that people are going to backslide; various articles I’ve found have suggested a failure rate of anywhere from 54% through 6 months to 12% to 8%, which is obviously quite high.  And, to be honest, a 10% success rate probably seems about right — of the 50+ resolutions I’ve made, I’ve probably followed through on somewhere between 5 and 10 of them for a full year or more, and my mom probably tried to quit smoking 10 times before she finally kicked the habit.

OK, so admittedly a 90% failure rate is pretty high, and I guess it could be construed as setting yourself up for failure.  But at the same time, it’s a 10% success rate.  I would argue a 10% success rate is significantly higher than the 0% success rate of not resolving to make any change.  It’s a pretty touchy-feely argument, and so naturally I hate having to make it, but having a period of self-examination and identifying personal weakness is a valuable thing to do, even if your resolutions fail.  Wanting read a book every month is the first step toward reading more, and whether you actually read or not  you’re in a better place if you recognize you should.

Plus, there are ways to raise the success rate — many of which were mentioned in the articles I linked earlier.  Granted, I don’t agree with all of them, but there are certainly a number of commitment devices that can be employed to hold you to your resolutions.  (I specifically bring up the concept of commitment devices here just so I can bash the commitment device episode of the Freakonomics podcast, which failed to give any meaningful advice or draw any meaningful conclusion about what makes a good commitment device.)  Again, I have a lot of experience resolving — and a lot of experience failing — and I’ve gleaned a few tips from the resolutions I keep vs. the ones I don’t, some of which fly in the face of apparent conventional wisdom.

“Commitment devices, am I right?” – Stephen Dubner

Write Things Down

The first and most obvious one is to write the resolutions down.  Over the last two years, I’ve started writing mine down, as much to track my failure as to track my success (great tautology, me).  Really, though, it’s an insight into what I wanted to change about my life at any given time. Take, for example, my resolutions from 2012 — I was in my early-mid-twenties… or my late-early-twenties… or approaching my mid-mid-twenties… I’d turn 25 that year, which should provide some context (a mild quarter-life crisis, plus empirical confirmation of the extended adolescence epidemic) for the utter garbage I resolved to do that year:

  • “Work out 5x per week”
  • “Gain full range of motion in knee” — still haven’t gotten that back.
  • “F B’s, M M” — I don’t think I know what that means.  Let’s hope I succeeded
  • “Work harder, not smarter” — I … guess this seemed like a good idea at the time?
  • “Clone a dinosaur.  VELOCIRAPTOR!?” — This was more of a stretch goal; I would have settled for a brachiosaur or your run-of-the-mill parasaurolophus.

Not good enough. Take it back.

No, in all seriousness, I didn’t write anything down in 2012, and do you know what my success rate was that year? Neither do I! I didn’t write anything down. How are you not getting this?  The point of writing things down is not only to track progress, but to remember what it was you wanted to do in the first place.  I can say on January first that I’m going to eat scrambled eggs every day for breakfast because I need more cholesterol (or less cholesterol? What’s the official view on eggs these days?), but if I don’t remember why I started eating eggs for breakfast and I eat cereal one day in June, there goes my resolution.  The best solution here is to write them down in a place that’s highly visible — a post-it note on your desk, or the wallpaper of your computer.  Resolve to do it!

Publish Your Goals

This is another commonly-accepted commitment device. The idea is basically that if you tell people about your resolutions, you’re more likely to follow through on them, in part because you know that people will razz if you don’t.  Plus, this puts people into it with you — if you tell everyone you’re going to quit smoking, you’ve declared to the world that you don’t want to be a smoker, that smoking is essentially holding you hostage.  Next time your coworkers at  the Gulp-n-Blo see you outside the building next to the dumpsters on your smoke break, they’ll either shame you or provide encouragement — either one is more likely to get you to keep your commitment.

The other thing that tends to get overlooked here is a phenomenon I first encountered in Eric Greitens’s (Go Duke!) The Heart and the Fist: you’re much  more likely to let yourself down than to let others down. He talks about the fact that, in training to become a Navy SEAL, he felt like the enlisted men had it harder than he did — not because they had more responsibility, or their training was harder, or they weren’t getting the same meals as the officers were, but because they were worried about making it through training.  As an officer, Greitens, on the other hand, was worried about his men making it through training.  Rather than asking, “Why am I doing this?” or, “How can I make this end,” he was asking, “What can I do to get my men through this?” and, “Who needs the most encouragement right now?”  The hardest part of Hell Week for him was a single hour when he was alone and couldn’t fall asleep, specifically because it was the only time that he was worried about himself rather than others.  If you publish your goals and let everyone know what they are, you know you’ll be letting everyone who knows about them down rather than just yourself.  I think at its core it comes down to this: I already know I’m a useless schlub who’s good for nothing, but other people don’t.  I want to preserve that ignorance for as long as possible, and if I have to lie to them by being better than I actually am to do it, I will.

This begs the question of how, exactly, to broadcast your resolutions. Through years of experience, I’ve found that the best way to do this is not, in fact, to walk up to friends, acquaintances, or strangers on the street and declare, “This year I resolve to nail a hottie!”  For the most part, people don’t want to hear you talk about your resolutions — they didn’t ask, and they don’t care.  (Counterpoint: you’re still reading this.)  My back door into telling people about my resolutions is to ask them if they have any (hence asking my officemate).  Then, once they’ve told you that resolutions are for suckers and you’re setting yourself up for failure, at least you’re on the subject, so broadcast away!

However, since I can’t ask the readers, here are my 2013 (including some indication of success) and 2014 resolutions.  Mock me at will.

2013

  • Work out 5 Days / Week (Avg. 4.3)
  • 10% body fat by June (HAHAHAHAHAHA)
  • 1/2 marathon (SO CLOSE, but I was… “injured?”)
  • Play Work Sports (I played frisbee once)
  • Increase Flexibility (I went to a couple yoga classes)
  • Get a hobby (I started infusing my own beverages!)
  • Text 1 long distance friend per day (that lasted a week)
  • Take Dance lessons (Nope.)
  • Join / Form a Band
  • Survive (Hooray!)

2014

  • Work out 5 days / week
  • 10% body fat by EOY
  • Olympic Triathlon
  • Increase flexibility
  • 56 hours of sleep / week
  • Wake up earlier (target 630)
  • Go on 1 date / week
  • Text / Communicate w/ 1 long-distance friend per week
  • Take Dance lessons
  • Write / Blog (‘sup everyone) on a weekly basis
  • Join / Form a band
  • 2+ hours of music practice / week
  • 2 Coursera courses
  • Survive

If at First You Don’t Succeed

Notice anything about last year’s resolutions vs. this year’s?  They’re eerily similar.  Here’s another place where writing things down helps — at the end of 2013 I could look at my list and say “well, I didn’t do a lot of this stuff, but I still want to,” and I get to try again.  That may seem like failure, but remember that it took my mom 10 tries to quit smoking, but she finally did it.  Why? Because she kept trying.  She didn’t let the failure of one resolution affect her decision to make the same resolution twice.  The other thing is that I get to evaluate my goals from the previous year — do I really want to run a half marathon? Probably not — I don’t know that my knees can take it, and I don’t really get that much from it.  Instead, maybe I’ll try to swim and bike more to stay in shape; I bet doing a triathlon would give me a reason to do those things.  I guarantee you I won’t hit a 100% success rate this year, but if I keep rolling over my resolutions, on average I’ll hit all of them in the next 10 years.

Quantify Your Goals

I think this one is pretty mainstream too, but it’s essential to quantify your goals.  The resolution “eat less cake” isn’t particularly useful — how much cake did you used to eat? Can you consume cake at roughly twice that rate until June and eat no more cake thereafter and still pass?  Are you eating smaller slices, but at the same frequency? Diminishing frequency, but eating entire cakes?  How many loopholes are there where you could eat objectively more cake, but still succeed?  The goal should be none.  Rather than “eat less cake,” maybe “eat one or fewer slices of cake per month,” or better yet, “eat fewer than 100 grams of cake per month.”  The point is, you should know whether you’ve succeeded or not without having to make a judgment call.

Go Big or Go Home

Here’s where I differ from the conventional wisdom about resolutions.  A lot of authorities suggest taking baby steps or picking only one resolution (the 12% article linked above suggests both).  Hogwash, I say!  It’s harder to make sweeping changes in your life than to make small ones, but you’re more likely to slide back on small ones.  If you usually drink 45 drinks a week, sure it’s easier to drink only 40 than it is to give up drinking altogether.  But at the same time, you’re more likely to be 40 drinks in and forget that you made the resolution (this might be a bad example, because by nature of being 40 drinks into anything you have almost certainly forgotten all of your resolutions).  But the point, if you’ll stop interrupting me, is that smaller steps lead to fuzzier lines.  Plus, if you shoot for the moon and miss, at least you end up in the stars — would you rather come close to working out 5x per week and miss pretty big, and end up at 2.5, or try to work out once per week, just barely miss, and end up at .9 per week?

This also applies to the number — the article referenced above suggests picking exactly one resolution, which will keep it at the front of your mind and be easier to track.  Bollocks! If you have a 10% success rate and you want to make sure you succeed with something, you’re going to maximize your chances of success by having many resolutions.  In my experience, resolutions aren’t failed in bulk, they’re failed individually (Fore example, yesterday I forgot to text a friend, but I did get a workout in — we’ll get to this in a minute).  If you have 10 resolutions and a 90% failure rate, congratulations, one of your resolutions was successful! That’s better than the people who had one resolution and a 90% success rate.

Keep it Realistic

Obviously, you’ll never succeed if you pick something that’s wildly impossible — while I said “go big or go home” before, that has its limitations.  You’re never going to clone a dinosaur, don’t be ridiculous.  Unless your job actually is to clone a dinosaur, in which case WHY ARE YOU READING THIS EVERY SECOND YOU WASTE READING THIS IS A SECOND I DON’T GET TO RIDE A DINOSAUR.

Coming to a store near you in 2015

Failure is Nothing

It’s more than just not choosing absurd goals — it’s about realizing limitations toward reaching them, and keeping those in mind when defining metrics for success.  For instance, I have a two-week vacation planned for May.  Odds are, I’m not going to be able to go on a date during those two weeks, and I have to acknowledge that up front or I’m setting myself up for failure.  To that end, maybe my future girlfriend will go out of town at some point, or maybe she’ll live somewhere else.  If that’s the case, I can create a looser definition for “date” and stay true to the goal; maybe a 30 minute phone call counts.  Plus, I’m mentally prepared to miss a few weeks; if I hit about 40 dates, I’ll feel pretty good — that’s 40 dates I wouldn’t have gone on otherwise.  One way to deal with this is to think about it as a grading system; for recurring goals, how often do you meet them?  Maybe if you have a weekly goal that you hit 37 times, that’s 37 out of 52, which is 71% — you passed!  Granted, you got a C, but you still passed! Some goals may be graded on a curve — maybe 50% is a success, but there should be some non-binary passing threshold — even if 50% doesn’t pass, it’s better than 49%, and way better than 0%.

Another important aspect that I alluded to previously is treating each resolution separately.  If I resolve to limit my cake intake to one cake per day and also to say hi to one stranger per week, just because I eat two cakes on my birthday doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say hi to a stranger ever again — they’re completely unrelated, and failure of one should be treated as exactly that: one failure out of many successes.  Treating all of the resolutions as a group is basically exactly what happened to the housing market in 2008, only in reverse — those were highly correlated risks being modeled as uncorrelated, while this is uncorrelated outcomes being modeled as highly correlated.  Treating each resolution separately also reinforces the strategy of choosing multiple resolutions; of course it’d be a mistake to do so if I thought failure of one meant I should give up on all of them, but if I’m smart about it I won’t let the fact that I only got 55 hours of sleep allow me to write off a bunch of workouts.

This goes even beyond letting failure of reaching one goal stop you from reaching others; just because you missed a day, or a week, or a year doesn’t mean you should give up on the goal for the rest of the year.  Think about the idea of trying again year after year — this is basically that, writ really, really small.  The idea is that you want to make a habit out of your new goal.  If you want to work out 5 times a week, you have to engage the goal at its core: why do I want to work out 5 times a week? What does that get me? Typically, the resolutions are there because they reflect a path to a more abstract goal.  In this case, I want to work out 5 times per week because I want to be held accountable for my well-being — what I really want to do is get in the habit of taking care of myself and of working hard.  If I only work out 4 times one week, the worst thing I can do is say “well, that’s it — I guess I’m not doing this anymore!” and then each Cheetos for the rest of the year.  Instead, I should be working toward a place where failing to work out five times is an anomaly; I should be getting into the habit of succeeding at my resolution, and just like I don’t have a habit of drinking 12 glasses of scotch in a night, but occasionally I do, I should get in the habit of working out 5 times per week, but occasionally I won’t.  The point is that as long as your failures are anomalous, you’ve still basically succeeded in changing something about your life.

Track Your Progress

Once you’ve defined metrics for success, it’s important to track success.  It’s easy to give up on a goal that you think you’ve never hit — “I never work out 5 times per week, why even bother?”  It’s a lot harder to give up if you consistently come close to meeting it, or meet it frequently and don’t record it; you’re much less likely to give up on working out 5 times per week if you know you’ve worked out 4 times per week the last 3 weeks.  Plus, if you record successes for the entire month of January, then screw up in February, in March you can look back at January and know that you’re able to do it.

One other thing that I typically find helpful is to avoid resolutions to do a particular thing at some point that year, e.g., “This year I will go to Spain.”  (unless, of course, you already have a trip to Spain planned. Then you’re probably good).  The reason is that they’re hard to quantify where you are on that goal at any point — they’re binary.  I either have gone to Spain, or I have not; there’s no way to be like “well, I guess I have a B in going to Spain b/c I’ve hit that goal about 8/10 weeks so far in the year.”  Furthermore, you can put these off indefinitely; it’s hard to put a weekly goal off past Saturday before risking failure, but a year-long goal can be put off well into November before you start running into obvious, trackable trouble.  Recurring goals force you to engage with them; 1-off goals allow you to become complacent to their not-doneness.  The astute reader has noticed that “Join a band,” “Run an olympic triathlon,” and “Take dance lessons” all fit that bill, and they’re all on my list.  I’m aware of this, and this is a problem.  A better solution is to come up with intermediary goals (daily, weekly, monthly, for example) that can be evaluated on an ongoing basis — these are much easier to track, much harder to put off, and much easier to deal with missing.

Know When to Give Up

Finally, remember the point of the resolution — it’s to make yourself a better person.  If you look at a goal you’re not making, or even a goal you consistently achieve, and think it makes your life worse, there’s no reason not to give up on it.  So you thought giving up drinking at work was a great idea!  Then you realized you hate your job and it’s the only thing that allows you to function; or maybe you work in a creative department and everyone’s getting sloshed but you now.  Maybe you were that drunk dancing bear from King Joffrey’s wedding and now that you’re not drunk you can’t dance.  Knowing when to call it quits on certain goals can allow you to focus on the ones that still matter — you should be constantly evaluating your resolutions and whether they’re making you the person you want to be or holding you back in some way; if they’re holding you back, get rid of them.

Conclusion

That’s right, there’s a conclusion header.  Sucks to your cliché!

New Years is a great time to start fresh and try to make yourself a better person, but it’s not the only time.  If you identify some change you want to make in your life, it helps if you can come up with a solid plan of attack, quantifying the goal, and not letting temporary setbacks get in the way of ultimate success.   Get other people involved; they’re rooting for you, so don’t let them down.  Record your progress toward it.  Mentally contextualize the goal — remember why you created it in the first place, and stay true to that context; if that context changes, don’t be afraid to bail.

OK, at this point, I count 247 instances of “I,” “me,” or “my,” so I think I’ve done the job I set out to do.  Thanks for reading, and remember — statistically, you were probably switched with some other baby at the hospital and you’re not related by blood to the people you’ve called your parents your entire life.

– C

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10 thoughts on “Resolution Makes the World Go Round

    • Tracking the goals is a great idea. When you’ve lapsed on your 5 workouts per week for a few weeks, it seems unimaginable… Until you look back and realize you were hitting that goal regularly earlier in the month.

      I thought it was “F B’s, G M”

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