New year resolutions suck (and what to do instead)

A common way to end a year is to make new years resolutions. Lose five kilograms. Work out more. Read two books per month. The data shows that about 50% of the adult population in the west comes up with new years resolutions… and that about 10% manage to keep them for more than a couple of months.

Something about human psychology seems to make us revert to our old habits after a few weeks of really high motivation. The problem is that new years resolutions often involve major lifestyle changes with many or unrealistically hard to achieve goals.

Work out four times a week? No more smoking from January 1? These changes are often too drastic and people go back to doing exactly the same after trying for a while. So if you really want to do new years resolutions, they should be realistic, time-bound and achievable.

But I suggest to discard them entirely because there is a better, more practical alternative.

What to do instead

I picked up something interesting on one of Tim Ferriss’ latest podcasts. Instead of doing new years resolutions, he suggests doing a post year review with a few simple rules. You take your calendar, ical or otherwise, and take a look at the entries. Starting from January 1 of last year, you review all entries and go all the way to December 31. Before you do that take a sheet of paper and make a table with two columns, one for plus and one for minus. Now, while reading all your entries in the calendar, work events, vacation trips, coffee with friends, ask yourself two questions:

– Which 20% of activities or people have brought you 80% of your positive emotions?
– Which 20% of activities or people have brought you 80% of your negative emotions?

Next you put down the positive stuff in the plus category and negative stuff in the minus category. Be really specific. Skypecall with that friend. Lunch with this friend/colleague. Family trip to the moon, etc. This task is really simple but it can give you an idea what activities and people really make you happy, and which people or activities cause you headaches. It takes around 30 minutes, depending on how well you maintain your calendar.

Learning from the plus and minus

For me, the three biggest things that stand out on the plus side are a family trip to Belgium with my brothers and sisters, Christmas with my family and a trip to Thailand, where I also started writing stories for kids. A common thread appears to be getting out of the daily routine, in company of some very close people and travel. I learned from this that I really enjoy those trips with my family, but in reality I see them only a couple of times each year. So why not organize a trip like this myself?

This is specific for everyone but I’m sure you get the idea. You can learn a lot from the negative side as well. It could be people that disappointed you or activities that annoyed you a great deal. Perhaps writing them down gives you an idea what do about these people or activities. Sometimes realizing that someone isn’t good for you can help you let go of that person. Similarly for activities, perhaps there is a way that you could avoid this activity or at least do less of it in the future.

There is one important caveat to bear in mind. Just because an experience gave us a bad feeling (or good) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad (or good) for us. Oftentimes pain and challenge are required for us to grow and many of our weakest moments later turn out to be transformative of our lives. And of course it is easy to see that not all things that make us feel good, are actually good for us in the long run (think alcohol).

Follow with action

While this task is great for developing insights, I suggest you don’t stop there. This insight is valuable in itself and a good reason to do the exercise. But you can also take some immediate action. For example, when you think spending time with friends gave you a lot of positive emotions last year, you could tell them with a simple message that they were one of the reasons why your last year was a happy one.

Or if you found that one specific vacation or hobby gave you a lot of happiness last year, perhaps you can use the early part of the year to schedule time for a trip or a hobby. Using a personal example again, I realized that I really enjoy dancing Salsa and Bachata. Checking the biggest festivals in Europe I found that two take place in Germany, so I immediately blocked my calendar for them.

I think it’s important to make time for these „fun“ times early because if you try to schedule them more spontaneously, work always fill the void. Another reason why this can be good is anticipation. When you schedule and pay for a trip to Prague now that takes place in June, you have something to look forward to (which can be just as great as actually going).

A year in review

At the end of the year, it’s common to look back at the things we didn’t like and swear to make changes next year. The impulse is good but the strategy to do it is misguided. Looking back at what was and understanding what contributed to our happiness and unhappiness is a better way than to come up with unrealistic and hard to keep new years resolutions. Developing insight about what has worked and what hasn’t can enable us to take specific actions to improve our life next year.

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