Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 16

Monthly Resolution

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Last week I talked a bit about why new years resolutions aren't a good idea. Today, I'm going to talk about what you should replace them with: monthly resolutions.

First off, why make resolutions at all, at any scale? Well, I think the most important reason is clarity. When you make a resolution, it's a decisive, solemn event. The next day you don't think, "so am I really doing this?" You know your are -- or at least, that you're supposed to. That's very important. Because the hardest part about following any self improvement system is resisting all those excuses you're going to concoct. And the best excuse goes like this: "Consciousness of failure is painful. But I can't fail if I'm not even trying, so let me see if I can somehow convince myself that I'm not really trying." Clarity is the only defense against this, and a resolution gives you that clarity. Another benefit of making a resolution is that initial rush of willpower that you get. It's like starting the ignition switch in your car.

So what's wrong with making resolutions on a yearly scale? A bunch of things.

  1. It's hard to plan realistically at that large a scale. It's possible, but you'd have to spend a lot more time thinking about it than I imagine most people do. Most people don't think seriously about their resolutions until after they've had a few drinks and they're watching that ball about to drop.
  2. not only are you more likely to make planning mistakes, to plan badly, but it's harder to recover from these mistakes. When you screw up, the temptation will be to wait till next new years resolution to recover, because that's when you get your clean slate again. There's no built in structure for failure recovery in a reasonable amount of time. And so your motivational structure -- new years resolutions -- actually becomes an excuse for procrastination, it becomes anti motivational.
  3. A year doesn't map well to the number of problems we have. how many resolutions do you make a year? How many problems do you have that you'd like to solve? You probably have a lot of problems. And if you try to take account of this great multiplicity of problems and make lots of new year's resolutions each year to address them, you're likely to lose focus. If you make just one a year, well, that's not a lot of problem solving going on, even if you do succeed (which is unlikely). It would have taken me centuries to achieve minimal life competence if I'd stuck to just one resolution a year.

Making monthly resolutions gives you the clarity and motivation benefits of yearly resolutions, without all these disadvantages. A month is a much easier scale at which to realistically plan. And if you screw up, you don't have to wait a whole year to get your clean slate and recover and reset, you just have to wait till the end of the month. And you can focus on just one problem at a time and still (theoretically) solve 12 problems a year.

A month is also long enough (over 21 days, right?) for some serious habituation to occur, even with a slip up or two. It works great in conjunction with the habit traffic light I talked about in previous podcasts, because a month is a page in a calendar. Marking off success/exempt/and failure days in green/yellow/red gives you a striking and motivating picture of how you're doing for the month. And it's especially perfect for the Christmas season -- it's like an advent calendar. Except instead of a little piece of chocolate every day, you get a little piece of the consciousness of virtue.

I limit myself to just one resolution a month, because I don't want to pile on more new behaviors than I can handle, and I don't have to worry about not getting around to my other problems because I know I've got 11 more slots for the year. Every month I ask myself "what's my one new resolution for this month?" Some stick, some don't, but it's no huge loss if they don't because next month I get another shot. So another benefit is that it lowers the risks for self experimentation. If I get several great ideas for new habits, I choose one, and reserve the rest for future months (and it's amazing how ungreat they often seem by then).

I read a funny statistic that the average new years resolution barely lasts one month anyway. So in a way, you've always been making monthly resolutions on new years, you just didn't know it. Work with this reality of human nature instead of against it, and you'll get much more done.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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