Some Thoughts on a New Year

Another year has arrived. Are you thrilled about it? Pessimistic? Just happy to see the previous one gone? Well, here we are at a new milestone, arbitrary as it might be in the scheme of things 1. All that potential seems magical. All those untapped days and hours ahead of us across yet another expanse of time. We look ahead with optimism and imagine what we can do this time around. But it isn’t optimism or magic that will make anything new or better happen. It’s work. Focused, intentional, difficult fucking work. So let’s talk about it.

Learn From the Last Year

You can’t change things, get better, or even know where you stand without a good amount of honest self-reflection. So take some time and look back on the last year and ask a few questions. First, what went well? This is a question that applies to all the various spheres of your life. Both in terms of what you accomplished and what you are simply grateful for. In my case, 2018 was the year that my son and I hiked the John Muir Trail. I also hit most of my financial goals and managed to stay employed through a post-acquisition merger/reorganization. Second question, what did not go well? The places that you fell short matter for determining what to do next. Last year, for example, I struggled with some of my learning and reading targets so I know that’s a place I need to be mindful of in 2019. Remember, you have to be brutally honest with yourself for this question. It’s easy to hide, easy to pull punches. Don’t do that to yourself. As for the last question, you need to ask, what am I going to do differently? This is where you start setting up intentions for the coming year. The things you want to change and work on.

Identify What Changes/Outcomes You Want

We are frequently dissatisfied with our lives. Frustrating as we might find it, this is a good thing. Human progress, functional economies, the entirety of civilization, and our baseline survival depends on us wanting, needing, and seeking more. How is that manifesting for you here and now at the beginning of a new year? There is always room for improvement. There are always goals we need to strive for. There is always more to be done. You are a work in progress. So what work do you need to do in the next year? What do you want to accomplish? How do you want to change? Again, this is about setting up some intentions, goals, and targets. This is not about resolutions.

Resolutions Are Worthless

The vast majority of resolutions are broken by February. Many are done in the first two weeks of the new year. Because resolving to do something is literally the least you can do. It’s completely insufficient to counter the force of all your existing habits and choices. Those grooves you’ve worn into your mind and your routine don’t give a damn about what you’ve resolved to do. Whether it’s quitting smoking, drinking less, eating better, saving more; all the myriad of good intentions are going to fail you when it’s only your limited willpower against all the stresses and challenges of the world. You have to do better than that.

Outline a Plan.

Change and achievement are difficult. You have to have more than resolve. You have to deconstruct the larger vision that you want to impose on reality into a set of actionable tasks, effective processes, and trackable metrics. Want to lose 50 pounds? Good, but that’s not a plan. What does your workout schedule look like? What’s the meal plan going to be? What other details do you need to take into account to facilitate this goal? Break it down into things you can do, milestones you can hit. Also, consider the possibility that what you need is to establish a repeatable pattern more than an actual goal. Losing a set amount of weight is a goal, being healthy in a way that enables that is the larger pattern.

Establish a Choice Architecture

Do not trust in willpower alone. There is never enough of it. Especially if you are trying to enact change in your life. Instead, you need a choice architecture that helps enable the habits and adjustments you are focusing on. There are two facets to this, your rules and your environment. The rules are internal, you have to decide what they are and commit to them. Keep them simple, effective, and as few in number as possible. The environment is external. You have to change your setting in such a way that the right choices are easier and the wrong choices are harder. Don’t have junk food in the pantry when you are trying to eat healthier. Don’t carry a lighter when you want to quit smoking. Unplug the TV if you want to watch less of it. Set your notebook in a prominent place on your desk if you want to journal or write every morning. Adding and removing friction to our various cues changes the way we have to apply willpower.

Build processes

For every goal or target, you need to have a process that enables it. Choice architecture helps enable the good actions. It’s still on us to execute them properly. Schedule time into your calendar, track metrics, set up reminders, have an accountability group. Whatever systems you need to put in place to enable proper action. To take an example, let’s say you want to write a novel. You need to set aside the time (preferably each day) and an actionable goal for the day - a set number of words, a chapter rewrite, etc. Maybe you also need to join a writer’s group to have the external accountability.

Recover When You Stumble

Some changes are harder than others for us. There will be times when we stumble. When those new rules we’ve set get broken and the plans seem impossible. We don’t always live up to our ideal selves. The important thing is to recover. Don’t let a temporary lapse be the catalyst for a larger failure. The next choice is always more important than the last one. Unhealthy lunch? Make sure you have a healthy dinner. Miss a morning workout? Try to make it up in the evening and don’t let yourself miss the next day. Bought a pack of cigarettes and had a couple after that stressful day? Get rid of the pack and start again tomorrow. Whatever it takes to minimize the damage that happens as a natural part of being human. We all struggle so don’t be too harsh on yourself (but don’t go easy either - there’s a line between self-forgiveness and indulgence). Get up, dust yourself off, make a note of any critical factors that precipitated your stumble (so you can be mindful of them next time), and get back on the path.

It is never too late to improve. To be the better version of yourself. It’s also never too early. Sometimes we decide to do things differently on a birthday. Or on January 1st. Or after a major life event. Or simply when our previous circumstances become untenable. Just remember, every day is the start of a new year. Where do you want to be in 365 days? Who do you want to be? Commit to that. Don’t wait. Be ready to put in the work. Start …

  1. Yes, it’s arbitrary. Any point on the ellipse of our orbit is more or less the same for the purposes of marking a revolution. It’s a human construction, not an astronomical one. Our calendar is one of many possible solutions to a complicated problem. It works, but that doesn’t mean that January 1 isn’t arbitrary. Ironically, it is within a few days of an astronomical event. Perihelion, the closest the Earth gets to the Sun. Not that anyone knew about that when the calendar was set. ↩︎

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