December 30, 2017

Don’t Be Noble When Choosing a New Year’s Resolution

If the new year’s resolution you choose feels noble, that should be a red flag, a sign that you have almost surely made a mistake.

Emotions can help guide decisions, but different emotions are helpful for different decisions. When you are considering a new year’s resolution, how you feel about committing to the specific goal might tell you that it is within reach, something you can reasonably hope to do on your own initiative in less than one year’s time. If a resolution feels smart or dumb, for example, it is a sign that you automatically assume you can complete it, and those hunches are usually a reliable guide. On the other hand, if several of your friends are talking about the same resolution and you think you should do it too because you are afraid of being left out, that feeling is a cautionary sign. You would have a more positive justification for the resolution if you were moderately confident that it was something you could do — for example, you might say you were doing it to support your friends. Fear of being left out is rarely a good rationale for strategic action, and it can lead you astray in new year’s resolutions too.

If you like a resolution because it feels noble, you probably need to pick another one. Look at how many different things can go wrong with a new year’s resolution that is motivated by feeling noble:

  • It’s big. It may be more than you can do yourself, or more than you can do in one year — either way, not conforming to the format of a new year’s resolution.
  • It’s based on ego. Something may feel noble if it puts you in a position of power with respect to others, if you see yourself leading a small pick-up army, or if you think it will prove something about yourself. These may be good things in the right context, but they aren’t conducive to success with a new year’s resolution. For example, when you are leading a group you have to detach from the outcome of the group’s efforts and defer to the collective will of the group, both hard to do if in your mind, you have already chosen the outcome in advance.
  • It feels distant. For many people, something feels noble only if it is well removed from everyday life. The goal may even be far removed in the sense of credibility. Imagine telling your new year’s resolution to a random selection of acquaintances. If you are afraid they would laugh because the goal doesn’t sound like something you would do, that’s probably because you don’t do anything like that on a daily basis. A distant goal is one that you will work on “someday,” but most likely not one that you will go to work on today, tomorrow, and every day.
  • It’s not something that directly benefits you and the people you are closest to. A new year’s resolution, at best, is a significant part of your life over the course of the year. Most people find it easier to go out and do the daily work when the goal is something that lets them feel the benefit. A generous impulse won’t carry along even a very generous person day after day for a whole year.
  • It has nothing to do with your individual skills and strengths. If you want to make a difference, you make the biggest difference by doing the things that are especially easy for you to do compared to others around you. Something might seem so easy that to even state it as a goal feels almost dumb, yet it can still be immensely valuable if your actions save a large amount of work for others (or for yourself).
  • It’s not even really a goal. A well-formed goal has a finish line, a way of knowing when you have done everything you needed to do. While you are still working, this helps you see what you need to do next. An idea like world peace or dressing nicely, noble though it may be, is probably too vague for you to know how your efforts measure up. When a goal can’t be measured, what usually happens is that you end up not doing anything. If you have a grand vision that helps guide you, by all means keep that vision, but use it to help you pick something smaller and more definite for a new year’s resolution.

None of the rules about new year’s resolutions or goal-setting are absolute. Remember, though, that a new year’s resolution is a gimmick to help you focus on actions that will improve your life over the course of one year. It is easy to overestimate your ability to focus when you’re in the process of choosing a goal to focus on. As I say every year, choose just one resolution if you possibly can, and make sure it is memorable enough and visceral enough that it will still be burned in your mind when January is over. A shocking proportion of new year’s resolutions are simply forgotten within a few weeks. Resolutions that are remembered are the ones that are most likely to succeed. This usually means you shouldn’t reach very far for your resolution. Rather, it should usually be something that is right in front of you, something that, after you have chosen it, feels like the obvious next step.

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