On New Year’s 2013, I resolved to write a book—something that had been on my bucket list since I read all 200 of those Hardy Boys novels as a kid. Against the odds (only 8% of Americans actually fulfill their New Year’s resolutions, according to one study), I turned in the manuscript for what became Smartcuts two days before 2013 wound up.
Ironically, one of the main themes of the book is the foolishness of tradition and conventional wisdom. Indeed, New Years resolutions are, statistically, extremely useless traditions. Half of us make them, the vast majority don’t keep them. We waste a lot of time talking about them and accomplishing nothing. We’re more likely to get cancer than keep these goals. It’s more likely that Kim and Kanye will stay together for 50 years than that you’ll still be going to the gym by March.
Every Jan. 1, I make a list of resolutions. Like most people’s lists, it quickly metastasizes to become a wishlist for an impossible life. I’ve been resolving for better posture and to stop saying “like” for decades. On the other hand, New Year’s resolutions spurred my successful journeys to quitting fast food, becoming a vegetarian, becoming a journalist, and writing that book.
The difference (big surprise) is in working smarter. Here’s how I—and a bit of science—suggest you can build a smarter path to fulfilling resolutions:
Radical Simplification: (Ch 8)
Sherlock yelled at Watson for telling him that the Earth revolved around the sun; it wasn’t pertinent information to the detective. Einstein and Jobs wore the same thing every day, and Franklin and Michelangelo ate the same daily mush rather than indulging in culinary variety to reduce the number of unimportant choices in their days—and not deplete their reserve of willpower. Studies show that this is a thing: making even meaningless decisions saps our ability to be creative or resist that cookie at the end of the day. My favorite is the one where they made kids put their arms in buckets of ice water after spending 30 minutes choosing between various things; those who didn’t make choices beforehand held out longer. (Also, WTF authorized that study?!)
If you want to increase your likelihood of sticking with your resolution, I suggest radical simplification:
Reduce your list to just one goal.
Not two. Not three or four. One. By eliminating the notion of a list, you’ll be able to focus more, remember more effectively, and reserve that willpower, which is the statistical killer of New Year’s resolutions.
A nice side benefit: achieving an important goal often results in a domino effect that gets you to other goals. E.g. people who exercise regularly are more likely to make healthy eating and sleeping choices.
(And if it makes you feel better, you can make new goals every month or quarter once you get a handle on the first one.)
Small Wins: (Ch 1 and 7)
I’m a big proponent of lofty goals; studies across dozens of industries and disciplines show that bigger goals lead to higher performance, regardless of whether the goal is set by or for you. (In fact, the more audacious the goal, the more lateral thinking we have to employ to achieve it, leading to breakthroughs that make big goals easier to accomplish.)
Unfortunately, it’s extremely easy to abandon personal goals once we slip up—what some call “what the hell” syndrome. It’s easier for teams to power through the inevitable setbacks on the road to worthwhile goals, but when we’re flying solo, we’re more likely to jump ship when the boat rocks. Setbacks, according to Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile, have 2-3x stronger effect on inner work life than the positive effect of progress. However, Amabile shows, in her book The Progress Principle, that a continual sense of forward motion is more motivating and rewarding than almost anything else, including awards and recognition.
Psychologist Karl Weick writes that that sense of motion can be manufactured by creating Small Wins. "A small win is a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance,” he writes. "By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results."
The winning goal strategy, according to their research, is to divide goals into enough small pieces or steps so that you create success in micro as often as possible. Think Candy Crush: it’s increasingly challenging, but you get enough splashes of dopamine to keep going and going and going.
This is one reason why Jerry Seinfeld’s famous calendar method is so effective: Every day that Seinfeld practices his jokes, he puts an X on the calendar. These Xs become small wins, and they have a compounding effect; every day he not only gets the small win of the X, but he also gets the win of a bigger streak. His streak is years long, to this day. (And that becomes an incredible motivator not to blow it!)
Weick writes, "Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win."
Rapid Feedback: (Ch 3)
To make Small Wins truly effective, you need to track your progress and get feedback. The daily X on the calendar, the regular report on what’s working and what’s not—these serve as reminders, motivators, and mechanisms for optimizing our performance.
My friend Mattan Griffel recommends 750words.com for tracking your writing habit—and holding yourself accountable to the practice. I love (and hate) my FitBit Aria WiFi weight scale because it charts my weight and body fat progress over time. I love it, because it gets me results. I hate it, because I see that graph in my head every time I think about ordering a peppermint mocha.
As I documented in Smartcuts, the fastest growing media companies in the world—the BuzzFeeds and Upworthys and BusinessInsiders—used rapid feedback (headline and image testing) to build massively influential businesses. The world’s best athletes track their performance and vitals every step of every practice. I’d bet money that the 8% of successful New Years resolution-ers similarly disciplined about measurement.
These three tools—Radical Simplification, Small Wins, and Rapid Feedback—are how I became vegetarian (made it my one main goal, weened myself off of meat over a schedule, and kept track) and how I wrote my book (again: main goal, split it into 20+ sections in two-week increments, and got feedback from readers and editors at every increment). They're the reason I've made some resolutions work and the reason my others usually flop like everyone else's.
I plan to take a page from my own book this year with one main resolution, which I'll surely write about later. Chances are, I’ll still be saying “like” way too much come 2016, but hey—it’ll be ok.
Shane Snow is a journalist and entrepreneur, and the author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success. If you enjoyed this post, join his free newsletter.