Making and keeping (or discarding) New Year’s resolutions

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2015, The New York Times Company). It began with this flattering note from the editors: “We have always been impressed by how much Austin Frakt gets done. In September last year, he wrote a memorable article for his blog, The Incidental Economist, about how he does it. (We highly recommend it.) So we asked him for advice on sticking to a resolution. As we expected, he came up with a method that others may find useful.”

Do you have trouble sticking to a New Year’s resolution? You should do whatever works for you, but in case it’s helpful, I think I have found a way to increase the chances you reach a goal.

Contemplating a resolution, I start with two questions: “Why don’t I do this already?” and “Why do I feel the need to do this now?”

The first question is practical; it seeks the barrier. The second is emotional; it seeks the motivation necessary to sustain an effort to remove the barrier. I might as well not initiate a resolution unless I can target the right obstacle and have sufficient desire to overcome it. Without those, the resolution is doomed from the start.

Last summer, I felt scattered and unable to focus. I wasn’t working as efficiently as before, whether writing a research article or an Upshot article. Feeling less productive made me unhappy. That was my emotional motivation to change, but what was the barrier?

Answers like “It’s the nature of the information age” or “I’m over 40” would not do. Those excuses don’t provide a modifiable contributor to my loss of focus, so they’re the wrong targets. The right answer was that I felt like I was bouncing from task to task all day — because I was. My work days had become cycles of: type a few sentences, check email, check Twitter, check the news, repeat. This process was itself interrupted by sporadic meetings and phone calls.

I couldn’t focus because I had spent years training my mind not to do so.

Because this was a problem of my own making, I could change it. I devised a schedule with several hourslong blocks per day for uninterrupted work. I dedicated other periods of time for meetings and phone calls. The plan allowed for checking email, Twitter and news only a few times per day (morning, noon, evening). Phone and desktop alerts were to be turned off. Each morning would begin with about 45 minutes of blog post writing, precisely the time of day when my brain is best suited for it. No longer would I squeeze writing around other things — five minutes here, 10 there.

Plan in hand, next came the test of whether it was sound. For one month, last August, I fully dedicated myself to the schedule. Apart from meetings or phone calls I was not at liberty to reschedule, I did not cheat. Testing a change with a time-limited commitment is a trick I’ve used before, including curing myself of insomnia.

I’m not the only one. Over coffee at a Boston cafe, a medical student, Karan Chhabra, related a similar approach. Inspired by a suggestion in The Huffington Post, he and some friends resolved to make specific, personal changes like meditating, flossing regularly and not complaining. Each resolution was for a month at a time. For accountability, they entered their resolutions into a shared Google document. Not every one stuck, but Karan credits his routine flossing to this effort.

This approach has two benefits. First, fully committing to a change is the only way to know if it is a helpful one. If Karan or I made only a partial effort and failed, we wouldn’t know if that was because it was a bad idea or that we just didn’t give it a solid try. Second, a monthlong commitment provides a concrete time for assessment. When we attempt a change, neither Karan nor I presuppose we’ve got the right approach. We’ll know better at the end of the month. (You may find a month is not long enough for you. Change it. The idea is to specify a period of full commitment, as a test.)

The test of my new schedule was successful. A month into it, my productivity increased, and I felt more focused. Just as with my insomniacure, months later I retain the habits I started to develop that first month of commitment. (It doesn’t always work out this way. After a monthlong test, I abandoned running down and up the stairs at work every hour. It was a strategy to move more, but I found it too disruptive.)

This January I’ll test another resolution — to improve my memory. Asking colleagues to remind me what we discussed last week is embarrassing and wastes time. This is my motivation to change. I suspect a reason my memory isn’t as good as it used to be is that I’ve left no time in my day to reflect on and review past events or decisions. Life has become a constant blur of information and commitments. That’s my obstacle to overcome.

My plan: In January, I will dedicate a portion of my commute to reflection, letting my mind mull over whatever seems important. Will this resolution work? After a monthlong, committed test, I’ll know.


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