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Is Your New Year’s Resolution Doomed by Uncertainty?


uncertaintyA resolution, whether it’s made at the New Year or any other time, is a fragile thing. It can get swamped by other priorities, be badly chosen and never bloom, die stunted from being planted with too many other resolutions, wither from inattention, or fail to thrive in any number of other ways. But even if we’ve chosen our goals wisely and pursue them relentlessly, there’s one necessity that can make or break us: certainty about exactly what we’re doing.

I’m running into this problem at the moment with eating habits. I’m training for a half marathon in the Spring, my first, and at the same time I want to eat lower on the food chain so as to fight climate change. I also want to manage my cholesterol better, since I have a genetic predisposition to cholesterol problems, but there are at least two major schools of thought on how to do that, and they’re completely opposed to each other. So do I want to eat better in the New Year? Absolutely: that’s a very important priority for me. Do I know exactly how I want to eat better? Well, uh …

It probably seems obvious that I need to understand exactly how I want to be eating before I can follow through, but the truth is that the traditional way of setting goals or resolutions skips this essential step entirely: we resolve to lose weight or to be more organized, to have more time with family or to increase our productivity–but the truth is, none of these are really resolutions or goals. They’re wishes, aspirations, the ways we’d like to see things turn out. They’re important to think about, of course, but in order to be successful we have to know what exactly we plan to do. Track calories every day for six months at and go to the gym at least three times a week come Hell or high water? Plan a family activity every weekend? Spend ten minutes every workday morning to organize tasks? Those are goals. Those are resolutions.

I’ll point a couple of things out about those examples: first, each one of them is quantifiable. You don’t have to guess whether or not you’re on track with goals like those. Second, they’re focused on what we do, not on what we want to have happen. We can largely control what we do; what happens then is a lot less under our direction.

If you’re working on a resolution for the coming year, good luck! You can find more articles on the subject at

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New Year’s Resolutions for Change from the Inside Out

Strategies and goals

Jason Shen has an interesting blog I discovered only very recently. Entitled “The Art of A**-Kicking,” Shen’s blog focuses on “starting things, conquering fear and kicking a** in work and life.” In late 2010, Shen posted an article on New Year’s Resolutions that I highly recommend: “How to Set Great New Year’s Resolutions (Backed by Scientific Research!)

I’ve written about New Year’s Resolutions before (for instance, see “Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?“, “Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution” and “Taking Stock for a New Year’s Resolution“), and you’ll find a lot of common ground between my posts and Shen’s. What struck me most about Shen’s article, though, is his emphasis on making resolutions about the way you feel. This fits with much of what I know about how people successfully change their behavior, and it struck me as an unusually useful way to come up with a resolution.

Most resolutions seem to be about achieving some external result: losing weight, quitting smoking … that kind of thing. The examples Shen gives, on the other hand, are about changing how we feel about some significant part of our lives. They raise the question “What can I do to feel happier?” or “What would make my lifestyle feel more healthy?” By focusing on how the resolution makes us feel, we get two special advantages: first, we’re focusing on the process instead of the outcome, which tends to be a more motivating approach for a variety of reasons. Second, we’re making a special point of ensuring that the actions we’re taking make us feel the way we want to feel, and that good feeling motivates us to keep pushing ahead.

Examples of result goals and feeling goals
An example: let’s say my resolution is to lose weight; it’s 3 weeks in; and I’ve lost 1.5 pounds after upping my exercise and eating a little better. That’s not bad, but it’s not very inspiring: it doesn’t really feel like I’m succeeding, just maybe sort of a little on the road to succeeding. I’m putting all my enthusiasm into the idea that some time in the future, I will have achieved something big. In the mean time, which could be a very long time, I don’t have much good news to announce.

If instead, though, my resolution is to feel more fit, then every time I complete an exercise session or choose the better food option, I’ve succeeded. It’s not a big success, but successes don’t have to be big to feel good, and anything that makes us feel good is much more motivating than something that makes us feel like a disappointment, or at best a potential someday-success.

Not affirming affirmations
As much as I like Shen’s post, I had some comments to add for my readers here on a couple of thing he mentions. One is his recommendation of affirmations, which from what I’ve seen of the research are often counter-productive. One problem is that they risk creating broken ideas, and even though an affirmation may create an upbeat falsehood (“I look great and am easy to get along with!”) it’s still a falsehood and has all of the drawbacks a falsehood usually has when we treat it in our own minds as truth.

What’s a “goal,” exactly?
I also find Shen’s distinction between “goals” and “resolutions” potentially confusing, depending on how you think about the words. He defines goals as “external targets that rely substantially on things outside of your immediate control” and talks about “resolutions” as being largely within your control. For what he calls “goals” I tend to use words like “aspirations,” and what he calls “resolutions” I and many other people interested in motivation often refer to as “goals,” for instance in the posts “One Good Way to Judge Goals: S.M.A.R.T.” and “What Kinds of Goals Really Work?” With that said, a lot of people use the word “goals” to mean exactly what he describes, too, and I think the way he talks about using the words makes plenty of sense; it’s different from how the word is used in here and some other places.

Both of us, however, are trying to point out an important distinction that the English-speaking world doesn’t usually make, that of  whether we’re talking about something that we can affect ourselves (like finishing a project) instead of something that to a large extent is outside of our control (like getting a promotion).

One thing at a time
Finally, Shen recommends keeping your goals to no more than 2 or 3 at a time. I haven’t yet come across research to shed more light on the question, but my experience and my inference from some of the literature is that adding only one new goal at a time is generally the way to go. Once you’re well on your way with that one, adding another works much more comfortably. The danger of adding too many at once is that of not having enough attention to spare to focus regularly on any of the goals, so they all fail.

The exception to this would be very simple goals, like drinking more water or making the bed in the morning. It appears that we can tackle several small changes more or less at the same time and still see success.

Photo by pennstatelive

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Willpower Through the Holidays: Some Helpful Articles


The holiday season, at least here in the U.S., is a troubling time for habits. Diets get blown, budgets get overspent, time with family can make for difficult emotional situations, and good habits get disrupted by travel and celebrations. For all the cheer and New Year’s Resolutions, the Thanksgiving to New Year’s period is a dangerous one. With that in mind, here are some articles from the site that may help with some of the tricky parts.

If you’ve been working on building a new, good habit (or on shedding an old, bad habit), you may be interested in reading (or re-reading) “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?” The key thing to take away from that article is not the time period, which depends on a lot of things anyway, but how habits are successfully formed: with consistency. If you are wondering whether giving yourself a break from your great new eating plan over the holidays or smoking a couple of cigarettes with your cousins is really such a big deal, the answer seems to be that it’s not the end of the world, but it’s going to be very disruptive and set you back a ways. Exceptions seriously weaken new habit formation.

That’s not to say there’s never a reason to ease up over the holidays, just that if we’re considering it, we should probably try to be extra sure we like the bargain we’re getting. If not, there are options, even if they involve annoying family members and breaking traditions. After all, stodgy family members and unhealthy traditions are not on your side if you’re trying to do something new.

On that topic, if eating is a concern, you may be interested in “How Not to Blow a Diet Over the Holidays” and (if things don’t go well, or if you’re reading this too late to prevent some missteps) “Recovering After a Failure of Willpower.”

If you expect there may be some family friction over the holidays, while those kinds of patterns can be hard to break, there’s some usable advice in the article “How Not to Get Into an Argument.”

Considering a New Year’s Resolution, or a list of them? They’re not always a good idea, and when they are, there are more and less successful ways to go about them: see “Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?” and “Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution.”

Regardless, here’s hoping you have a great time winding up the old year and that you start the new one with strong relationships, deeper self-understanding, and joy.
Photo by R. Motti

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Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution

Strategies and goals

In an article last week (“Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?“) I talked about New Year’s Resolutions and how to tell whether or not it’s worth it for you to make one. In this post I’d like to touch on a related subject, which is the value of New Year’s as a time to commit to a goal–that is, to make a resolution.

I’ll say first that the New Year certainly isn’t the only good time to commit to a goal. Almost any time, even when things are at their worst, can be a good time to change things for the better (see “Why the Worst Time to Change Things Can Be the Best Time to Change Things“).

Even so, the New Year offers some special advantages:

  • With the winter holidays over, for many of us the New Year is a great chance to incorporate something different into our normal routine without having to worry about the interruptions of vacations, holidays, or most other unusual circumstances. While it’s essential to find ways to continue to pursue our goals even when we’re pulled out of our routine, it’s easiest to get a habit rolling when things are at their most normal
  • There’s an emotional advantage to getting a new start, and even though on some level a new year is just a change in numbers, it does a real feeling of something new beginning that we can harness to our advantage.
  • Maintaining a winning streak can give extra durability to habits we’re trying to build (see “Harnessing a Winning Streak“), and January 1st is a convenient and effective date on which to start a new winning streak.
  • In a very real sense, it’s never a bad time to improve our lives. Even without its special advantages, January 1 is still a good date to start something positive.

I would offer a few cautions about starting a new goal, though:

  • Don’t start something new that will disrupt a good habit you’re already working on or that will sap too much time or attention from other priorities.
  • As tempting as it may sometimes be to try to remake our entire lives, choose only one goal to work on energetically at a time: choosing two or more almost always results in overstretching our time and attention, leading to failure. And be sure to choose the one thing that’s really most important to you.
  • Choose a set of behaviors (something you can control) and not an outcome (something you can’t control). For example, you might resolve to eat healthily and exercise (two ways to pursue a single fitness goal), not to get skinny; resolve to adopt good task management practices, not to “be more organized”; or resolve to work on your business idea, not to “get rich.”
  • Prepare first. It’s often hard to give proper support to a spur-of-the-moment resolution. By planning in advance you can make schedules, enlist help, read books, join groups, or do whatever else you need to give yourself the best chance of success.
  • Don’t give yourself a “bad habit bachelor party”: that is, don’t behave badly as a last gasp, as this will make it harder and more jarring to behave well. Making good choices is a reward to yourself, not a punishment, something that it will make you happy to embrace, not avoid.

This series will continue next time with a suggestion of a good way to review an entire life and take stock of what one goal is most worth pursuing for a particular person.

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Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?

Strategies and goals

New Year’s resolutions have a long history, reportedly stretching back to the ancient Romans in their worship of the double-faced god Janus and even a couple of millenia earlier to the ancient Babylonians. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good idea for you or me, though. If you’re already working hard on one goal, for instance, adding another goal can drain enough of your time and attention that both goals fail, the old and the new.

In an experiment tracking 3,000 people in 2007, only 12% actually succeeded with their goals. If you want to be part of that 12%–and you’re already way ahead of the game by reading articles like this–don’t proceed unless you know that the resolution and the timing are right.

New Year’s can be an ideal time to start work on a new goal. As we’re getting into the time of year when planning for a New Year’s resolution makes the most sense, I’d like to talk about why New Year’s resolutions can work, what gets in the way, and how to tell whether or not to make one in the first place.

To resolve or not?
Resolutions can be harmful if we go about them in a bad way or drain effort from a goal already being pursued. When considering making one:

  • Only focus on one large goal at a time. I know it’s hard to put aside some things we really want to accomplish while focusing on one particular goal, but changing habits (which is what we need to do to achieve goals) requires not only a good approach but also plenty of time and attention–too much for it to be possible for most of us to transform in two or more ways at once.
  • Only proceed if you know what you want and what to do to get it. Having unclear goals or lacking a plan will usually result in failure, which is disheartening and not very constructive. If you know what you want but not how to get it, do some research. You can start on this site, The Willpower Engine, where you can find hundreds of free articles on changing habits and pursuing goals, or by talking to or reading about someone who has done what you want to achieve, or by finding a good group to join.

I’ll continue with this series on New Year’s resolutions in upcoming articles by looking at  the special advantages of making a resolution at the New Year, some cautions, and a way to inventory your goals and dreams so as to go forward in the best possible way.

You might also be interested in some related posts:

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But It Started Off So Well! What Happened?

Strategies and goals


It can be truly humiliating. Maybe it’s never happened to you, but it certainly happens to a lot of us: you’ve been grappling with something for years–your weight, organization, starting a novel, getting the house in order, changing how you act with other people–and a day comes when you’re inspired to do something about it. So you do it! You change your eating habits or start running or create a strict rule for dealing with all incoming e-mails. Then a week or two pass, and you find you’re gone off the rails: your eating habits are worse than ever, or a busy day put you behind on your organization and you never caught up, or the trick you were going to use to remember people’s names has been forgotten itself. What happened?

There’s a simple answer to this and a more detailed answer. The simple answer is that we start things in different circumstances than we continue them in. A New Year’s resolution made at a party with friends on a full stomach (for example) turns into a thankless, lonely grind week after week, and it loses a lot of its sparkle that way.

Don’t worry: the detailed answer is much less depressing than the simple answer. But the simple answer reminds us of something essential: inspiration may drive us to start new things, but it’s our own efforts to rise above obstacles that get us through in the end.

Certainly there is such a thing as a badly-chosen goal, or a good idea for a goal that’s not practical at the moment. But for goals that are worthwhile, there are at least seven ways something that started well could run into trouble. Here’s what those seven kinds of problems are, and how to get past them.

1) The novelty wears off
Annoyingly, somewhere in our evolution we acquired a built-in trait that only allows us to enjoy something for a little while unless it changes. A dish that tastes “amazing” on the first bite and “really good” when we have it again in a few days continues to wane in amazingness as long as we keep eating it regularly. This is known as “hedonic adaptation,” and it means that anything that was delightful and new and exciting eventually becomes old hat unless there’s something renewing that excitement. When we first take on new goals, it helps a lot to understand that we need to not only take the steps to reach our goal, but to keep actively renewing our enthusiasm.

2) Our mood changes
Everyone has better and worse days, days when we feel we can do more and days when we’re mainly just trying to keep things from going wrong. What may seem easy to do on a good day can be the last thing we care about on a bad day. Fortunately, we can stop having bad days if we try, but it also helps to use tactics like rule-making and decision logging to keep ourselves happy with our goals.

3) Things get harder; complications arise
Sometimes we’ll start pursuing a goal when things are going well, but then things get harder: there are new demands on our time or finances or attention, for instance. It may become harder to find time to follow our goals. When the going gets tough, the tough organize and prioritize so they won’t lose track of what’s most important. Goals that aren’t nurtured through busy times tend to get lost in the shuffle.

4) We begin to forget
Goals and new habits need to be nourished and maintained by a process of regular feedback. If we don’t regularly remind ourselves of what we were doing and review our progress, our goals become vague, distant, and easy to forget. Once we’re no longer actively thinking about what we want to achieve, we’re sunk: those habits aren’t going to change themselves. Focusing on our priorities consistently can save them from being forgotten.

5) Just when we start flying, someone shoots us down
There will always be naysayers, whether they’re people who feel threatened by another person’s success or people who genuinely want what they think is best for you but aren’t ready to support your choices. If any of them get to you, figure out what it is they’ve told you that has sunk in and use idea repair to pull it up by the roots. Recruit them to your cause or harden yourself to their criticism: we’re each responsible for our own lives, so while it makes sense to consider good advice, if we’ve considered it and decided to go a different way, we don’t need to consider that same advice again: we’ll need our energy for other things.

6) A new interest takes over
Since things we’re getting used to become less exciting through hedonic adaptation, we human beings are seekers after novelty. This can be fine in a lot of circumstances, but not when it repeatedly derails us on old projects by tantalizing us into taking on new ones. We generally have the resources to undertake only one new thing at a time. After we’ve been in the groove on one goal for a long time, we might consider adding something else, but add something else too early and like it or not, the old goal will very likely go by the wayside. When you’re tempted by a new direction, think carefully about what you’ve invested in the goal you’re already working on and about why it’s important to you in the first place. Of course we have to keep some flexibility, but guard your progress jealously against all but the most important replacement goals.

7) Just announcing it was enough
One interesting psychological study with law students found that students who announced a study goal tended to do worse at achieving that goal than students who kept their goals private. One of the reasons this may be happening is that sometimes, a person can get enough positive feedback for just committing to something that they don’t feel the need to actually follow through–and very often the people who are there to encourage us when we start something aren’t going to be looking over our shoulders to make sure it gets done. Not following through under these circumstances isn’t so much a character flaw as it is a logistical error. Who knew that we would feel so much more satsified and resolved with our current situation just by announcing the intention to change? The enthusiasm for the actual change leaks away, and we may not even realize it’s happening.

If you might be in danger of falling prey to the announcement trap, the safest course is to only announce your goals to people who will be holding you accountable to them. Note that this is hard to do over the Internet; it’s too easy to avoid the subject, or the place where you announced it, or to say vaguely that you’re working on it. Someone who’s going to greet you in person every morning and say “Hey, how’s the novel coming?” is going to be much more help than an online friend who asks the same question, and someone who doesn’t listen to the answer isn’t going to be helpful to you regardless of where they are.

Starting new things and failing at them is so common in human experience that we tend to mark it down as a character flaw, to think that we “just don’t have the willpower.” Fortunately, willpower isn’t so much something you have as something you do. By anticipating the efforts we’ll need to make to move forward with our goals and by proactively handling the kinds of problems we’ve just talked about, we can keep ourselves on track and find ourselves just as committed on day 100 or day 1,000 as we were on day 1.

Photo by greekadman


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