Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fly Through the Resolution...

I wanted to wait until mid-month to bring this up, after the first blush of the New Year wore away a bit and we all woke up and realized that, different calendar or not, we are still the same people we were a couple of weeks ago.

On New Years Day, I caught a really amusing news segment on resolutions already broken. People on the street who confessed that their resolution was to stop smoking while holding a cigarette or to eat better though they had doughnuts for breakfast. Of course this should come as no surprise as the media has also been filled with the encouraging statistic that only 8% of Americans who make resolutions achieve them. Since only 45% of Americans make them in the first place, that implies that only 3.6% of all Americans can keep a resolution that they make (though there may be people who don't make New Year's resolutions who can very easily keep what resolutions they do make, the anecdotal evidence is that the vast majority of people can't).

As people who use magic (by whatever title), we should be in that 3.6%. After all, the application of Will is supposed to be what we're all about. But I'm guessing that a lot of you, like me, have resolved plenty that we have then not accomplished (sometimes we're them).

I'm going to make the argument that the problem are resolutions themselves.

The word resolve has two distinct meanings:
: to find an answer or solution to (something) : to settle or solve (something)
: to make a definite and serious decision to do something : to make a formal decision about something usually by a vote
-- Merriam-Webster online

The term resolution also contains this definition, which is what people are thinking when they make New Year's resolutions:
: a formal expression of will, opinion, or intent...

So, resolutions can be both decisions (and the expression of those decisions) AND solutions.

Well, no wonder we can't keep our resolutions! First of all, just deciding to do something (or stop doing something) isn't actionable. Decisions alone don't get you anyplace. You need a concrete goal, a feasible plan, and doable tasks that you can accomplish. This is a planning problem and you know how I feel about that sort of thing. But I'm not immune to it. There was a time, in this century, but before the kid was born, where I seriously had a resolution that I made like three years running, but never reached, to go to the dentist. And I'd like to nominate that as the most pathetic resolution, let alone resolution that you don't accomplish. After all, I had dental insurance at the time. And it takes all of 15 minute to find a dentist, call them, and make an appointment. But while "look up dentist on insurance list" and "make dental appointment" are both highly actionable, "go to the dentist" isn't. So I didn't do anything about it, for several years. Pathetic.

But even for more important or meaty resolutions, a solution to a problem isn't something you just decide to have. It's not starting point, it's a destination. You have to work your way to the solution. You have to find it and then implement it. If the problem is that you feel like crap, you can't just resolve to be healthier. Because "be healthier" isn't a solution to anything and even if it was, deciding to be healthier doesn't implement the solution. This is a temporal problem (jumping ahead to the result). Smoking is a great example of this. People resolve to quit smoking all the time. The problem is that quit is not an instant state, it's a process by which you work through the challenges and cravings and fail and restart, hopefully to end up at non-smoker sometimes in the future. Instead of "quit smoking" -- an effort that will fail at the first weakening of will -- a better resolution is "become a non-smoker." This is a decision you can make to implement a solution to a problem. Of course, you still have to come up with a plan. Will you go to the doctor, get on the patch, quit cold turkey with a carrot stick in hand and then forgive your inevitable failures? Until you know, you won't be able to do much.

Before any smokers complain, I should point out that in my early 20s, I was a pack a day smoker myself. But at this point I am a non-smoker and haven't had a cigarette for probably close to 20 years*. If you're curious, my process to become a non-smoker was a spatial one. First, I stopped smoking in the car (in winter, which made it easier because I didn't want the window open). Then I quit during my workday, which involved finding people to chat with who didn't take smoke breaks and getting snacks instead. Then I stopped smoking in our house, in summer when it was really hot outside (which meant that my boyfriend also had to stop). Then I stopped smoking in anyone else's house (which was easy, because most people don't like that anyway). Then I stopped smoking while drinking. Each of those steps took time and willpower. But eventually, there were only a few places and times where I could smoke. At other times, I'd promise myself I could have a cigarette later (I accidentally stumbled on this now well-researched trick). Then, at the end, I concentrated all my willpower on the few times left... and then I didn't smoke anymore. The whole process took, well, over a year I think. It was as far from a one-time declaration as possible.

* Yes, this means I'm older than you.

Below are 5 of the top 6 New Year's Resolutions in 2016 (according to some survey that is probably pretty unscientific). If this is what people are resolving, I'm not at all surprised that like 92% of people fail. Accurate or not, I'm going to take these in reverse order, explain why they're undoable, and then suggest alternatives. Now, I'm aware, that resolutions are traditionally short statements or declarations. It might be that behind the scenes, people are actually doing all the good goal definition or planning. But if they were, we'd probably see a better success rate, so assume that the resolution we have here is all that there is.

Don't do this.

Pay down debt
This is probably the most doable of the resolutions in the list, though it's still missing key aspects. I'm not going to complain that this isn't a good idea, in fact it's a very good idea that has all kinds of positive repercussions. The problem is that this is not yet a goal and there's no plan for achieving it. Before anything else, you need to start by understanding how much debt you have and what interest its charging. And then you need to do a budget to see where your money is going. This activity could take you a couple of weeks or more, depending on how nebulous your finances currently are to you. And that's only the first step.

After that, we need to make the goal more concrete:
  • pay down $10,000 in debt
  • pay off high interest credit card
  • pay off car loan early
  • pay extra on the mortgage
All these goals require sending more money to the debt than you have been. So where will that money come from? Maybe your goal is really "make more money and use it to pay down $10k in debt." That's better, but even better is including how you will make that money. Or maybe instead of making more money, you want to re-purpose the money you have. So now your resolutions look like this:
  • take a weekend job and use the money to pay down $10,000 in debt
  • cancel the cable and use the money to pay off high interest credit card
  • sell comic collection on ebay and pay off car loan
  • stop buying Starbucks and pay extra on the mortgage
Finally we should include a time frame that depends on the means and the size of the debt:
  • take a weekend job and use the money to pay down $10,000 in debt by the end of the year
  • cancel the cable and use the money to pay off high interest credit card by August 2017
  • sell comic collection on ebay and pay off car loan six months early
  • stop buying Starbucks and pay $50 a month extra on the mortgage
From this longer, but much more actionable resolution, you can easily create a list of tasks you need to do go accomplish this goal, from applying at the coffee shop to buying coffee to make at home, or photographing your comics or calling the cable company. Things you can actually do.

Spend more time with family and friends
Human connection is something that's really necessary for health and happiness. When people make this resolution, they are probably feeling lonely and disconnected. We're fundamentally social animals after all.

This is a somewhat concrete goal, but what's missing is the HOW and WHY. First, how much time are you actually spending with your network and how much would you like to? This is your gap to fill. And how do you see these people now? Do you have breakfast together, watch movies, play poker? The next question is why don't you see them more? Are you working too much? Are they? Are your kids massively over-scheduled? Are you disorganized and don't return calls or reach out as much as you want? This is an exercise in understanding and scoping the problem.

Once you have a better grip on the problem, you need to clearly identify whether this issue is even in your control. You can't resolve to spend more time with friends and family if THEY'RE the ones who are too busy/distracted/disorganized. It's not within your control to change people. At best, you can reach out and encourage them into your cause (let's spend more time together). And if it's your family, you will obviously need to all cooperate to make it happen. If you're really craving connection and your friends and family aren't, then the best you can do is replace them or, more likely, subsidize them with additional people who are. You can only make resolutions for yourself on things that you have some control over. So change your behavior (reach out, work less, schedule stuff) but don't expect to change others'.

Maybe the result is a resolution that's more like:
  • work with my family to get support for having supper together 5 nights a week
  • make some new friends who have more time to get together
  • cut back on work and hobbies to make time to see the people who love me
  • make a point of reaching out to people twice a week
Save more, spend less
This is similar to number five above. A good idea, but needs more specificity (how much savings, what type of spending). Even more importantly, if you can't point to exactly what you are spending and what you are saving every month now, you aren't going to make much headway with this. And once you do know where the dollars are going, this is all about priorities. What will you spend less on? Where will you cut? Fundamentally, this is an exercise in what you value. No wonder it's hard to accomplish this sort of goal! If your resolution was "understand all my expenses and then determine and document my values and priorities in order to cut costs so that I can improve my savings" you wouldn't expect to be able to flip a switch and have that change happen starting January 1st, right?

Lose weight
This seems like a good idea, but it's actually not. First of all, why do you even want to lose weight? To have more energy (exercise is a better goal)? To avoid a health issue (don't diet, change your diet)? Or to look hot in a bikini (a combination of eating less/better and exercising more is a good start, but you may also need to look at skin care, cosmetic procedures, and so on)? The plan will differ greatly depending on the reason.

Next up, how much weight and how fast? People are terrible at being realistic about this sort of thing. If you gained 10 lbs in the past year, then losing that 10 in the coming year is the sort of sane goal you may actually be able both accomplish and maintain.

Finally, how will you lose weight? Eating less and being hungry has all sorts of repercussions, which is why the consensus is that calorie restrictive diets don't work. There are reasons that this is the actually the worst of all goals, but we'll be getting to that in my willpower post soon. My recommendation is to avoid this resolution altogether and exchange it for concrete exercise goals and concrete nutrition goals. You'll feel better and be healthier and may lose some weight in the process (bonus!).

Live a healthier lifestyle
Please. This is the perfect example of an undoable goal. In fact, this is really about six undoable goals rolled into some kind of undefined meta goal. There's no way someone will resolve this and then be able to wake up the next day and actually do... what exactly? Situps? Eat kale? Stop drinking a fifth of Jack for breakfast? What does this mean!?

One of the primary pieces of advice for making resolutions is to pick one goal and work on it. So, of all the ways you can live possibly mythical "healthier lifestyle" pick one. Then turn that into a real resolution like:
  • Go to the gym three times a week and work out for 30 minutes
  • Replace soda with water and have a veggie-based lunch or dinner five days a week
  • Stop drinking a fifth of Jack for breakfast (this is actually a really good idea, if it applies to you... though you might need some help)
Now even these aren't enough to actually accomplish the goal, but at least they are concrete and measurable and you can make a plan to do them.

How meta... my resolution is to remember to resolve to follow through with my resolutions.

If you want to be one of the 8%, you need to choose goals that are definable and doable and not just nebulous woo-woo. The number one resolution from that survey is to Live Life to the Fullest, which is a great idea in theory, but in order to do that, you have to determine the gap between what you're doing now and what you want to be doing to have that full life. From there you create the goals. Pick one, make a plan, and get busy. Because just deciding or announcing isn't enough to get you to a solution. 

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At January 19, 2016 at 5:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the best tips about resolutions was one I picked up from Deb Castellano of, in her "New Year, New You" program four years ago. Everyone else breaks their new year's resolutions — so don't make your new year's resolutions on December 31, or in January generally. Make them in February or March, so that you're not attached to the same egregore of broken resolutions that everyone else is.

This is how I started my tai chi program four years ago. It's not been an unqualified success, but it's also been highly beneficial to keeping me on track. I began it in early March, and then kept it going all this time. That act of shifting the resolution window from January to later in the year turned out to be brilliant, and I've done it successfully for several other projects.

At January 19, 2016 at 9:45 AM , Blogger Ivy said...

That's smart. Like me starting my round of bike riding in spring when the weather is nicest, there are probably logical best times to start new things. For example, to start a gym habit the winter is a good idea, since it's ugly outside. The general start and fail energy of January could very well be a issue.


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