It has always fascinated me that people make New Year’s Resolutions. Not just once, but year after year. And that they fail. Not just once, but year after year. Smart Entrepreneurs don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, says Eric T. Wagner. Since I am not an Entrepreneur, I guess it’s ok for me to make them. I actually did, about three months ago. You can read about my plans in Goals and ambitions for 2014. But why would I make such a list, after seeing so many people fail at it? Isn’t it a recipe for failure? Not necessarily. And this blog post tells you why.
Three Powerful Words
Whereas Eric T. Wagner’s article’s title states we shouldn’t make New Year’s Resolutions, his piece actually conveys a more nuanced message. What he is essentially saying, is that we should employ a different strategy. Or rather: that we should employ a strategy in the first place. Most people have goals, but not seriously thought of the means to get there. As said before, Wagner’s article is not so much a rant against New Year’s Resolutions. Instead it tells you not to stop there and make them work. Or as David Wong put it in 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person:
Children die every day because millions of us tell ourselves that caring is just as good as doing.
The point is clear: attitudes or mindstates are meaningless if you don’t act accordingly. Stop talking, and start doing. Fortunately, Eric T. Wagner hands down some useful strategies. He first advises us to link the goals we have in mind to encompassing words. This idea, which he borrows from his friend Chris Brogan, aims to “break our goals down to 3 powerful one-word statements” and “focus on THE most important things.” I can see why this is important, because this forces us to conceive of ourselves in a complete relation to these terms, and supplies us with a why for the goals we’ve set. When Brogan first mentioned his three-words-approach to Wagner, he said that
Instead of a goal like “lose weight” or a better goal like “lose 30 pounds in the next year,” you might choose a word like “green” to represent an overall commitment to having more plant-based foods in your life, and to restore your body to a more natural state.
Actions Count, Not Attitudes
Now we know we have to identify with words, but how does that get us where we’re heading for? David Wong’s message is still ringing in our ears: actions count, not attitudes. But let’s have another look at Smart Entrepreneurs don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. Maybe these attitudes are more closely related to the actions needed to achieve our goals than we first thought. The words Brogan chose were Ask, Do, and Share. Wagner picked Write, Recruit, and Give. Notice that, apart from the example word ‘green’, they’re all verbs. And that’s a good thing. Verbs imply action. And action is what you need if you want to make a New Year’s Resolution a success story, unless you’re aiming to become Buddha.
When I thought of words that would describe the overall commitment I intend to strive after, the first that popped up in my mind were the obvious, like ‘write’, ‘learn’, ‘program’, ‘build’, and ‘play’. But then I took a closer look at the words of the two men and remembered some of Wong’s words: “I want you to purely focus on giving yourself a skill that would make you ever so slightly more interesting and valuable to other people.” Brogan and Wagner both chose words that express such a mindstate: Ask and Recruit, but especially Share and Give. Given their words and dispositions, they are inclined to live lives that are also meaningful to you and me. Let’s remember this, so we can apply it when we choose our words.
It is important to instill the attitudes these words convey. You should commit yourself to them and make them a part of your personality. But this alone is not enough and Wagner understands and acknowledges this. In the second part of his article, he tells the reader to build systems around those words. Systems focus on schedules and processes. Wagner derives this idea from James Clear and states that “the problem isn’t us setting goals, it’s the failure to put the necessary systems in place that will deliver those goals.” He offers us two pieces of advice: create routines and kill distractions.
Create Routines and Kill Distractions
You should always work on your goals on set times. So it’s a good idea to make a schedule. Schedules are not only helpful in managing your time, they also work as mental reinforcers. Every time you check your schedule, you will be reminded of the goals you’ve set. Hopefully it will work as a ‘kick in the ass’. So that’s the first thing to do: Plan your progress. And plan it tightly. You can always make additional hours, but you should never skip a planned session. There are legitimate excuses, of course, but a David Wong quote is always more legitimate:
You have to kill those excuses. Or they will kill you.
The same is true for distractions. Kill them. And kill them good. No one should ever be allowed to intervene with your schedule. And when you are working on a goal, you should turn off all the gadgets you don’t need, tell your family and friends you can’t be disturbed (unless they are part of it and their presence is necessary to realize your New Year’s Resolutions, of course), and never allow yourself to surrender to the temptation of distraction. Otherwise, it will be very hard to achieve the resolutions. And in the end, achieving is what New Year’s Resolutions are for, right?
Should We Look Forward Or Reflect?
But maybe we should reconsider the New Year’s Resolutions once more. One of the most interesting things James Clear says about goals,”is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved.” Good news if you’re aiming to become Buddha: Instead of focusing on the future, he believes it to be better to focus on the present, so you can ‘enjoy the now’. This is also what Brogan’s approach brings about: by committing yourself to a word, you will be empowered and encouraged by every action consistent with it. Failing at a goal will make you feel bad about yourself, says James Clear. But there is more to his critique of New Year’s Resolutions than just that.
He believes that working with systems will actually bring you farther than setting goals. Instead of looking forward, you should look back, by building feedback loops. With these, you can adjust the process if there’s decline. Therefore, James Clear would probably not agree with David Wong’s boldness, since goals can disencourage reflection. And that means the possibility of making the wrong choices, because you’re solely targeting the destination. And you will not recognize the legitimate excuses Wong told you to kill. Does this mean James Clear totally disapproves of goals? Not at all:
None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.
My New Year’s Resolutions? To Educate, Create, and Demonstrate
And the solution to the problem of goals might coincide with James Clear’s words, as goals become easier to achieve when they are more realistic. Consequently, your plans should be feasible. For your New Year’s Resolutions to be feasible, it might be better to keep them modest. They should fit your plan. Even David Wong said that you should try to pursue just anything, because doing something and getting somewhere in itself will let you grow as a person. So it appears it’s to blunt to state that all goals will make you feel either bad or good. When its scope is not stretching too far, a goal will be helpful. Your system should delineate the baby steps needed to reach a grown man’s goal.
What would this mean for your New Year’s Resolutions? That you need to find ways to stick to the routines. But also that you should think of ways to make them valuable for others, because this will automatically increase your dedication to it. So in my situation, it’s better to ‘educate’ than to ‘learn’, because that works two ways. You can educate yourself and others. Also, we should keep it clear and well-organized, so I won’t ‘write’, ‘build’, and ‘program’, but ‘create’. And since presenting your progress regularly helps you to stay committed to the unavoidable exercising, I will ‘demonstrate’. With this circulating system of constant education, creation, and demonstration, I’ve created a process that keeps me going. And with this blog, I have demonstrated it. To complete the circle, I can only hope that it has educated you.
Update (01/05/2014): Today I found out that Scott Adams wrote a very interesting essay about Systems that has many resemblances with James Clear’s article. You can find it on The Wallstreet Journal’s website.