Case Study: New Year’s Resolutions

New Year's

New Year’s Resolutions. How often do they turn out to be empty rhetoric?

A resolution is a special kind of goal. It is not just a one-time target, like doubling sales for the year. When you make a resolution to lose weight or stop smoking, your goal is to change your habits and routines to make a permanent change in behavior. That’s one reason that achieving New Year’s resolutions can be difficult.

I think another reason that many people have trouble achieving their resolutions is that they misunderstand the role of willpower. Often, it seems that willpower is all that is needed. This is rarely the case.

To see this, consider the story of how I achieved one of my resolutions one year some time ago.

My resolution was to keep a clean desk. I had found that whenever I let my desk get cluttered, I felt unmotivated to do administrative work for my business. I thought that keeping a clean desk would help me stay on top of that work.

I anticipated no problem forming a new habit. I was already cleaning up my desk regularly. I expected that I could use just a little extra willpower to clean it up every day.

I was wrong. Despite my commitment, I didn’t clean up my desk any more often after I made the resolution than before.

Seeing this apparent failure of willpower, I asked myself, “What is stopping me from implementing such a simple change to my routine?”

There was a very good explanation. My routine consisted of cleaning up the desk before going to bed. This meant I often faced a choice between cleaning up or losing sleep. I know how much sleep I need to be productive — so, given that alternative, I often, quite properly, chose sleep.

To keep a clean desk, I needed more than a little willpower. I needed a radically different daily routine, one that didn’t create a conflict between sleep and neatness.

I wasn’t sure how to make that change. I didn’t want to disrupt my workday. So I started looking for opportunities to make an incremental change to my daily routine.

I noticed that after I did my hard thinking in the morning, I often piled up the notebooks, dictionaries, papers, etc. into a stack, and put them on my desk. I thought, “Why don’t I put them all away immediately?” I knew that wouldn’t solve the whole problem, but I thought it was a good step in the right direction.

I was right. This was an easy change that significantly reduced the clutter on my desk. It took only a little willpower to spend an extra 30 seconds to put things away instead of leaving them in a pile.

I saw many opportunities to extend this success. I started putting marketing materials away after I used them. I started unpacking immediately after returning from a presentation. I rearranged my office to make filing easy. I had learned a new principle, “Put things away as soon as you’re finished with them.”

I found I could implement this principle with just a little willpower, each time I finished a task. My desk became neat, if not clean, by the fall.

Despite this progress, I was unsatisfied. Although my desk was no  longer piled high, it still attracted papers that needed action — and they still lingered there. To completely achieve my resolution, I decided to try harder. I put in extra effort. A terrible thing happened. Administrative work seemed to multiply. If I worked through the tasks on my desk, more came in. Soon I’d get frustrated — and let the new work pile up on the desk. I could not seem to keep a clean desk, nor keep on top of the administrative work.

I call this kind of situation floundering. It’s a situation in which you exert significant effort, without making reasonable progress toward the goal. In my course, I teach that the first step to end floundering is to re-evaluate the goal.

After thinking about it, I realized that cleaning up the remaining papers on the desk would not, in itself, motivate me to do more administrative work. The desk was clean enough.

The deeper problem was that I experienced a conflict between doing administrative work for the business, and doing intellectual work to develop my ideas, which is what really interests me. When I used willpower to do more administrative work, it generated even more administrative work — work which then took me away from thinking and development.

Willpower, i.e., “trying harder” and “just doing it,” can’t resolve a conflict like this between two important values. If I had relied on willpower, I would have fallen into thrashing. I would have alternated between intense work on one task then the other. When you’re thrashing, you keep working harder on the task at hand, until you realize that the other task is facing disaster. Then you drop the first task to salvage the second one.

Instead, I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile this conflict. How could I keep up with the administrative work so necessary to the business, while maintaining a steady schedule of intellectual work so necessary to my job satisfaction? I came up with a plan (a new morning schedule) but that is another story, the story of my 2006 New Year’s resolutions.

The moral of this story is that it takes more than willpower to implement a New Year’s resolution. It requires a commitment to thinking — thinking about whatever problems face you as you pursue  your goals, so you can be sure your willpower is put to good use.

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