It’s no secret that most new year’s resolutions fail. The reason is less well-known: most people resolve to do something differently in the coming year (e.g. lose weight, improve their relationships, get a raise), but make no concrete or detailed plans for how to do it. The most effective new year’s resolutions are not vague aspirations, but commitments to specific habits. The reason this works is threefold: first, specific goals are better than vague ones because they let you measure your progress. If you resolve merely to “eat better”, it can be difficult to tell if you’ve succeeded. (Better than what? What does “better” mean?) If you resolve, on the other hand, to lose 10 pounds (and keep them off–another common pitfall of new year’s resolutions), you have a specific measure of success.
The second reason specific habits are better is the habit part: changes are more effective if they’re consistent. In addition to specific measures of success, goals that can be broken down into smaller pieces and made into a routine are more effective, because once they’re routine you no longer have to spend conscious effort on them. Defaults have incredible power for this very reason, and making a commitment into a routine takes advantage of that power. A new behavior done once is an exception–a new habit becomes part of who you are.
This leads me to the last, and possibly most important reason why commitments to specific habits work better than vague promises of improvement: they act to alter not just your behavior, but your self-image. This is the same thing that makes hypnosis (and, to a lesser extent, self-affirmations) effective: it changes not just your behavior, but your fundamental conception of who you are. This is deep magic: a behavior or commitment affected for someone else’s sake will never be as strong as a change in belief. The most effective way to make a change in your life is to start thinking of yourself as the kind of person who makes that change. In that sense, then, the most effective resolution is not to ask yourself what you want to do differently, but who you want to be differently. To that end, here’s my new year’s resolution for 2014:
I resolve that I am an
I chose to be Attentive because I’ve noticed recently that I tend to operate on autopilot a lot, not paying full attention to whatever I’m working on. Sometimes that’s okay, if I’m paying attention to something else (presumably something more important) instead. But more often these days, I find myself running on autopilot just because I can, and that’s simply lazy. So, I am resolving to be someone who gives my full attention to whatever it is I’m working on at that moment.
I chose to be Hardworking for similar reasons. In college, one of the biggest lessons I learned was how to procrastinate on a deadline–to my misfortune, I discovered that I could often get away with simply not doing a lot of the work, as long as I did well enough on tests and other assignments to keep my grade up. Unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works: if I miss a deadline at work, the project doesn’t just go away at the end of the semester. So, I’m resolving to be someone who works hard to accomplish whatever I commit to, and to do my best to get it done on time.
I chose to be Ambitious because I want to make an impact on the world someday, and because I look up to and admire people with similar ambitions. It may be idealistic to want to singlehandedly change the world for the better…but then, only idealists ever have. So, I’m resolving to be a person who has high expectations for myself, and who’s never satisfied by the status quo.
Finally, I chose to be a Creator because I wanted to re-affirm my commitment to art and invention. When I was a small child I wanted to be an inventor–someone who brought their imaginings into the world of reality. As I got older I realized that literally being an inventor was not the only way to do that: it was possible with art and science as well. What’s important to me is not necessarily the method by which I influence the world around me, what’s important is merely that I do. So, I am resolving to be a person who uses their mind and hands to make their thoughts visible to the rest of the world, to actively change it for the better. In other words…to be an artist.
What are your new year’s resolutions?
Digging through some old emails I found an article I’d read years ago that said basically this same thing, only better.