Today’s Wall Street Journal has a really good article on what it takes to keep your New Year’s resolutions, “More Rational Resolutions,” by Angela Chen.
My main takeaway was a technique called “pre-hindsight,” which is part of a three-day workshop hosted by the Center for Applied Rationality:
[P]re-hindsight . . . uses emotional cues to create more foolproof plans. It works like this: Imagine that six months have passed, and you haven’t achieved the body of your dreams. How surprised are you? The less surprised you are, the less likely it is you will succeed at your goal. Then think in detail about each reason you wouldn’t be surprised if June comes and the number on the scale hasn’t budged. Each reason—whether “I don’t have time” or “I don’t like running in the mornings”—is a possible cause of failure. Using the surprise level to anticipate these is crucial to creating a plan to address each weak point.
Common sense, sure. But while reading this passage, it occurred to me that some resolutions I might make would be a piece of cake to keep. I would be really surprised come June if I hadn’t managed to achieve a goal like drinking more water every day or reading more books. On the other hand, some goals would be a pleasant surprise if they actually had gotten accomplished—which means that on some subconscious level they must be goals that I don’t truly believe I can reach in the first place.
So what I’m doing tonight is listing a few goals I have for the coming year. Then, under each thing I’d like to accomplish, I’m noting everything I can anticipate holding me back. These potential causes of failure, and not my actual goals, constitute my real New Year’s resolutions.
All the individual action items comprising these resolutions are not just a collection of random weaknesses, either. Often they exist in a cause-and-effect chain of roadblocks. So I’m also figuring out which items I need to address first and setting up calendar with reasonable deadlines for eliminating each “barrier” to my eventual success.
Every few years it becomes fashionable to bash New Year’s resolutions. Articles appear in the newspaper explaining with cynical humor why resolutions are a foolish waste of time. This year I haven’t seen any such essays, which I take as a hopeful sign for our society as a whole.
Happy New Year!