Ever notice that New Year’s Day lasts longer than a day? And it doesn’t so much “end” as drag out until it just isn’t noticed anymore? It’s like Uncle Phil’s tipsy toast at the wedding reception: it starts good-hearted and mostly coherently, but eventually it’s a slurred slow mumblingly ramble.
New Year’s Resolutions just don’t fail neatly; they trail off incoherently, sort of there, sort of not. Like Uncle Phil, they’re still mumbling later, even though he’s laid his head down on the table and the best man has called him an Uber. With New Year’s Resolutions, those first “cheat” days in mid January become cheat weeks by late March, until sometime by April it’s clear that the resolution failed. New Year’s “day” is finally over and we can finally put it, like Uncle Phil, to bed.
And why do we make resolutions to make ourselves better people in Winter, in literally the hardest season of the year, and the darkest time of the year? At least, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, New Year’s Resolutions are set up to fail. The classic resolution is to “lose weight”. And how many of us know someone who actually lost weight and kept it off because of a New Year’s resolution? Yeah, me neither. Starting an exercise and diet plan in winter, when we’re hard wired to conserve energy and consume higher calorie foods as an instinctive protection against the harshness of the season, that’s just asking for trouble.
But the “lose weight” resolution is also in itself just never going to work. It seems so easy, but “losing weight” isn’t a simple action. I can’t just grab some extra tonnage off my back-end and drop it during a walk in the park and “lose” it. The verb “lose” is deceptive: it seems like a simple step with a clear action. But it’s just not. It implies two major tasks--exercise intelligently and eat intelligently. I say “intelligently” because pisspoor exercise plans are more likely to lead to injury than muscle, and radical diets are more likely to lead to malnutrition and binge eating than fat loss. To exercise and eat well, there’s research needed: from advice from your doctor, a coach, a nutritionist, to learning new recipes and finding good jogging routes.
“Losing weight” isn’t a simple task, it’s an Epic, to borrow from product management. It’s a Big Action with lots of smaller actions hidden in there, and those smaller actions have even smaller actions hidden in them. But we can do Epics: remember college? Yup, you did that, you got that degree. So, what does that sort of Epic have that “Losing Weight” doesn’t? With college, it was that someone else already designed the tasks that needed to be done: someone else created the specific goals for the major, designed the curriculum, developed the courses to fulfill that curriculum, and set out the tasks to successfully complete that coursework. Most of those tasks were small--listen to this lecture, do that homework. Some of them were bigger--write this paper, prepare for that exam--but we then broke those big tasks down to small ones, tasks that can be done in a reasonable sitting, usually tasks that take an hour or two. We didn’t just “get a degree:” we did lots of little things that lead to us getting a degree.
Successful Epics (and Resolutions, New Year’s or not) have two things: small tasks and a game plan. No one can just “get a degree”, other than in the crude sense of picking up a diploma, just as no one can just “lose weight”. But we can schedule jogging 3 days a week on our calendars and then make sure that nothing double books those times.
Notice, though, that the tasks use a verb. The verb shows what needs to be done, and it shows whether it is actually small and reasonable. “Researching diets” is a verb and a noun, but “researching” all possible diets in an hour? People have advanced degrees in the subject, so that’s not going to happen. But “meet with a nutritionist to ask about diets given my age/sex/goals” is doable in an hour or two. So use a verb with your tasks, that way you can make sure you know what to do and that you’ve not bitten off more than you can chew (sorry, pun intended).
To make our lives fulfill our resolutions, we need to take those resolutions and break them down into small, doable tasks and plan them out on our calendars, creating a game plan so they actually do happen. If we avoid self-sabotaging--like trying to lose weight in winter, or letting people willy-nilly double book our calendars--our resolutions are then doable. But they are only doable if we break them down into small tasks and if we plan them out, unlike Uncle Phil, who clearly decided to just wing it for his toast at the wedding. This year for your New Year’s Resolutions, don’t be Uncle Phil.