The problem with New Year's resolutions

I used to think New Year's resolutions were dumb because they seemed like an excuse to put off what you should be doing now.

I'll start eating healthy after I finish enjoying all these holiday treats.
I'll begin writing my book two weeks from now, after I've taken this week to rest.
I'll do the thing. Not today, but soon.

Why not just do it now?

This is what I used to think. I mean, it probably won't magically become easier to do it on January 1st.


Years pass.

Niko grows up a bit, sees that part of the reason he looked down on New Year's resolutions is that he didn't like doing things that other people did.


And here we are today, and I see things a bit more clearly.

New Year's resolutions are:

  1. Awesome
  2. Problematic

Awesome because they provide an opportunity for a beautiful calendar:

Don't break the chain

This is sometimes referred to as the Seinfeld technique.

You buy or print out a calendar. Then you put a big X on each day that you did the thing (e.g. wrote, studied, exercised, and so on). After a while, you build up a chain of X's. And the thought of breaking this beautiful chain becomes unbearable, so you keep doing the thing.

Chains are most beautiful when they start on the first day of the year and continue uninterrupted.

I used to do this to stay consistent with my Japanese studies. And many years ago, I had thousands of NativShark students printing out their own calendars and doing the same thing.

Just thinking about a pristine, X-filled calendar makes me want to do a New Year's resolution.

But it sucks pretty bad when you do break the chain.

And that's just the thing: If it's the right kind of resolution, you will break the chain. You can't keep this up forever.

The problem with New Year's resolutions

I'm not going to have a single drop of alcohol this year.
This year, I'm finally going to run a marathon.
Starting January 1st, no more junk food for me.

These are all laudable goals to have.

And yet, they are problematic. They feature a common pitfall of New Year's resolutions: They aren't permanent.

If you want to produce meaningful results, you need lifestyle changes that are long-term and consistent.

No alcohol this year is great. But what about next year? Are you never going to drink it for the rest of your life? If not, what will the rules be after this year is over? What about for junk food?

What happens after you run the marathon? Do you keep running marathons? What about when you get older? What if you develop knee problems?

As I talk about in the About page of this site, I have a severe case of Something New Syndrome (SNS). Which makes it all too easy to say things like:

I'm going to learn Korean/Spanish/Guitar/Whatever this year.

...without thinking about the year after that. Or the year after that.

I once heard a wise person say: People overestimate what they can do in 1 year and underestimate what they can do in 5 years.

(I forget who said this. Sorry.)

We could phrase this much less generously: You are unlikely to make significant progress in 1 year.

Yeah, you could write a book in a year. Or start a business. Or develop healthy habits. But if you keep at them for 5 years, I guarantee year 5 will produce a lot more than year 1.

But a 5-year goal? Sounds serious.

And it is. I can think of a lot of ways I'd like to spend my time today, next week, or even for the next year. But ask me if I'd like to still be doing that in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years from now, and... yeah, probably not.

But what if, instead of a New Year's resolution, you made a half-decade resolution?

I am going to consistently do X every day/week for the next 5 years.

Now we have to be very selective about what we choose.

Starting a podcast sounds like it would be fun. But do I want to still be recording podcast episodes five years from now? Not really.

Learning Russian sounds awesome. But do I want to keep studying on a regular basis to maintain my Russian skills five years from now? Nah.

By setting a lengthy time period as a prerequisite to the task, I force myself to choose something that I actually want to do long-term.

Long-term goals are liberating

It's tempting to think that a long-term goal will be intimidating, frustrating, and demotivating, but with the right mindset it can be the opposite.

In fact, by capitalizing on the fact that we can get more done in 5 years than in 1, we can set some pretty exciting goals without burning ourselves out as we set unrealistic daily and weekly expectations.

Below are a few of my half-decade resolutions, along with the rationalizations behind them.

Write a chapter of a novel per week. I mentioned in the last post on manipulating accountability systems how this was a birthday gift for my wife. If I continue writing a 1500-2000 word chapter per week, in 5 years I'll have 260 chapters — 360,000 to 520,000 words — enough for several novels, and possibly an entire series.

Write a post on this blog every week. I have yet to decide how I might monetize this blog, although I have some ideas. Even if I never do, however, forcing myself to clarify my thoughts in writing every week for 5 whole years will make me a better thinker and problem-solver. I'm certainly continue wanting to think more clearly and be smarter 5 years from now.

Continue getting better at Japanese. This one is cheating because I oversee the content team at NativShark, and I quite literally cannot do my job without learning new Japanese pretty much every day. As I strive to create new ways to improve, I'm sure to help benefit our students more, as well. I also just love the language and would be happy to study it every day for the rest of my life.

I also have one half-decade resolution that I've yet to start:

Learn Korean. My wife's mom is Korean, and we have a lot of family in Jeju. In 5 years, I'll want to talk to them in their native language as badly as I do today, so it is unlikely that my interest in this pursuit will fade. That said, I'm waiting until we start teaching Korean at NativShark before embarking on this journey.

Do you want to do it 5 years from now?

How about 10 years from now?

20 years from now?

If the answer is no, maybe it shouldn't be your resolution at all.

If the answer is yes, then what are you waiting for? Even baby steps add up a lot when you spread them out over years and years of your life.