IT’S NEW YEAR’S DAY. You wake up hungover, or perhaps, fine because you spent the night alone, and you decide you’re going to change your life. This is something you’ve done on many New Year’s days, as well as on your birthday. You feel that somehow, with the passing of a year, your life isn’t where you want it to be. You remember your list of goals that you set yourself 365 days ago. Despite having over 8000 hours to achieve them, they sit there as reminders of how badly you’ve fucked up your time.
What was it? Youtube? Video games? Overeating? Procrastination? Fear of failure? Social anxiety? Never asking anyone out? All of the above? You run through all the reasons your life isn’t where you want it to be, and this makes you feel like shit. So instead, you retreat into a fantasy of where it ought to be. The success, the confidence, the feeling of control over your life. And that fantasy, mixed with the anger at your own failing alchemically transforms into a new and empowering motivation.
“This is the year.” You tell yourself, maybe looking directly into the mirror.
The motivation feels like your fantasy is now an achievable certainty. You pace about your room, sometimes speaking out loud, crafting new goals that will, in turn, craft you into the person you feel you must become. Then, feeling like you have a grip on exactly what it is you need to do, you set yourself some concrete goals.
“Start my business.”
“Write my book by April”
“Quit my job by July.”
And maybe you do something to get started on them today. Then you go to bed, feeling that you’ve surmounted the obstacles that beset you last year, and have now entered this new year with a newfound capability and self-mastery that ensures your success. Smiling, you fall asleep.
But then you wake up.
WHY YOUR NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FAIL
There are over 500,000 minutes in a year. Sure, you’ll probably spend half of them asleep, but no matter what your goal is, that’s plenty of time to achieve it. Hell, it’s plenty of time to achieve multiple goals.
Why is it then that they so rarely get achieved?
I think the answer revolves around a basic misunderstanding. Instead of setting our resolutions around an honest understanding of who we are, we set our resolutions instead around a desperate desire of who we want to be.
And that’s where we slip up.
The start of a new year is a weird time. There’s the arbitrary desire to reflect on your life and assess how far you’ve come along to date. The fact that this can be done at any point during the year doesn’t seem to affect it, even if you actively do this. So we’re all left, day one, sitting there wondering just who the fuck we are, and why we aren’t where we wanted to be.
In part, this stems from a western way of looking at life. Goal orientated. Ladder orientated. Constantly trying to improve your lot. You’d think, given the important role Christian thought played in western culture that “take no thought for the morrow” would’ve gained more traction, but we really went the other way. We’re constantly searching for what it is we want next. We’re constantly looking for the next “thing” to achieve, possesses, or become.
Where eastern philosophy is more about living in harmony with life, westerners, rightly or wrongly, have a predilection to see life as something to be consistently conquered. Couple this with basic human motivations (fuck more, earn more, impress others more) and insecurities (you’re not good enough, nobody loves you), and you’ve got a recipe for everyone massively overestimating the importance of the New Year (it’s no different from any other day), and some serious self-esteem beatdowns.
Stemming from all of this is a simple perspective:
I’m not who I want to be. I’m not where I want to be.
And this perspective, understandably, makes you feel like shit. Why wouldn’t it? You’re essentially telling yourself that you’re not good enough as you are right now. You’re also telling yourself, inherently, that you will feel better once you become who you want to be and arrive at where you want to be.
(Spoiler alert: humans are terrible at predicting what will make them happy. So you’re
probably definitely wrong).
Happiness has become a destination. Cue the fantasy of your life to come.
Now I’ve railed on fantasy before. And rightly so. Most of them, if you’re honest, are vain and have their roots in a desire to be more loved, respected, admired and so on. Even the shallow ones, like having sex with hot women, have sinister roots in a desire to feel approved of (read: mommy issues). But in the instance of resolutions and goals, fantasy presents a unique obstacle.
When you build goals around the person you want to be, you neglect to pay attention to the person you actually are.
THE NEGATIVE FORCE OF HABIT
Over the course of your life, you have acquired certain habits and are acting under the influence of others that may well be genetic. The sum total of these habits are the actions you take on a day to day basis. But here’s the crucial part:
Just as these habits determine the flow of your day to day life, these habits also act against any new habits you try to force upon yourself. This is the resistance that acts against you when you attempt anything that is contrary to how you have lived so far.
When undertaking any new goal, you have to take into account that it is YOU who is undertaking it. The entire way you’ve lived your life until now, what you are comfortable with, what you have conditioned yourself to do, what your strengths, weaknesses, limitations, culture, and rhythms of living are… All of this has to be taken into account.
You can’t just break a goal down into steps and assume it’ll work for you.
This is one of the great failings of the self-improvement industry, and why so many people are left empty-handed by it. What works for me does not work for you. What works for guys like Tai Lopez, Tony Robbins, James Clear, Mark Manson, does not work for you.
What works for you is what works for you. And only you can figure that out.
For you to achieve any goal, or in this instance, ring out 2019 having achieved your resolution (you go girl), you have to find a way to apply that goal to the person you currently are. Because like anyone else, you are imperfect and chaotic. You don’t make sense. Many of your character traits are random, and not beneficial. This is who you are. But you’re also unique (that’s right snowflake!), so you have to apply a unique solution that works for you: one that takes into account all your chaotic, random imperfections.
In other words, the most important part of your goal isn’t the goal itself. It’s that it’s yours.
HOW TO SET NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS THAT DON’T SUCK
I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. You’re probably not a slob. But luckily for us both, I am.
I hate waking up. I have poor self-control with food. Or rather, I have poor self-control with anything. I procrastinate often. Minor, forgotten chores build up into a mountainous day long ordeals. My work ethic is random and unpredictable. Some days it’s 16 hours, other days it’s 16 minutes. Either way, it’s never on what I need to do. And to top it off, I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of my life walking around daydreaming.
By all accounts, these traits would make me completely worthless. I mean really, read that over again. What a piece of work. But luckily for me, I have slowly managed to, uh, manage these traits.
My dating life is great. My work is going well. And despite constant obstacles, I generally bounce back and am usually pretty happy.
Which begs a question: how can someone who on paper blows complete ass do okay despite it? Don’t you have to be some completely composed, Bruce Wayne hardcore motherfucker to nail this stuff?
The trick is what I like to call the PRINCIPLE OF UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES. (I know, great name). And when you couple it with a little bit of understanding Y-O-U, you’ll be just fine. No matter how much Dorito cheese dust you’re covered in right now.
THE PRINCIPLE OF UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES
Here’s how this bad boy works.
First, you need to understand that you suck. You don’t inherently want to do things as much as you think you do, your motivations are inconsistent, unreliable, and likely vain, and you’re flawed in ways that directly conflict with whatever you want to achieve.
Second, you need to understand that your goals and resolutions suck even harder. Telling yourself to lose 15lbs, start a business, write a book, get laid; these are all vague goals that have little to no connection to who you actually are, how you live, or how you’re flawed. Unless you’re like Tiger Woods and have spent your entire life pursuing your passion, you’re probably not very well calibrated to it.
But more importantly than that, the goal itself is an outcome. Losing 15lbs, starting a business, writing a book, getting laid; these are all outcomes of certain actions that you will have to take. And those actions are outcomes of even smaller actions that exist in small, day to day moments.
Here’s an example:
Want to meet a nice woman, have a great time, and get buck wild?
This is going to require you to approach women and talk to them. This is also going to require you to start going out to places where women are more often. Perhaps that’s just being more pro-social, perhaps that’s specifically going to bars. This is also going to require you to confront a lot of anxiety when it comes to other people, regardless of their gender. On a day to day basis, this is probably going to mean you’ll have to take more risks socially, in order to confront and manage your anxiety, so that eventually, sometime this year, you’ll be comfortable enough to meet plenty of women, and eventually, the one for you.
In which case, you might think the resolution would be to take more risks, as that’ll end up with, uh, the buck wild. But I’d go even further than that. The resolution would be to confront your emotions and allow yourself to be vulnerable on a day to day basis. More so than you ever have. Dating is an emotional process after all.
But that’s not even the full picture. That’s just me breaking it down for a random fictional man who doesn’t exist. You do exist, and you would interact with that breakdown in conflicting ways. Which brings us to:
Third, and finally, you need to set incredibly simple, achievable goals that take into account your flaws, and take into account these simple principles. And then you need to do them.
Here’s another, and I promise final, example:
Let’s say you’re an ambitious, intelligent, creative guy. And like any ambitious, intelligent, and creative guy you want to write a great book, and start a great business. Okay kiddo, sounds good. But you also happen to be lazy, disorganized, and a chronic procrastinator. Oh boy, no longer sounding good.
Now you would probably, in anger at your flaws, and the fact you’ve let yourself down for years set yourself all manner of specific goals (i.e. first draft by February. Latest!). But as you’ve read this article, maybe you’ve broken it down into even more specific goals. After all, isn’t getting the first draft by February an outcome of smaller actions? You bet your ass it is. So wouldn’t it be better to set writing every day as a goal?
Now you’re on the money. Except…
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
You never write every day. You often wake up late, feeling groggy and disorganized and kiss the whole day goodbye. Then you get mad, set an alarm, wake up early but feel like crap because you haven’t got enough sleep, start procrastinating and then pass out at 3 in the afternoon. Fuck, this isn’t going so well!
And you don’t understand. You feel like you have everything you need to achieve. But everything’s a mess. You can be consistent for a little while, but then it all falls apart and you return to type. It’s not even that the writing and business work is hard. It’s just that you can’t be consistent. But then you realize…
The work isn’t the thing you need to focus on. You already want to write and start a business. Finding that motivation isn’t the problem. The problem is that you’re always lacking sleep, feeling groggy, and either missing or not having access to the best energy of your day.
Your resolution shouldn’t be any of those goals. It should be to go to bed early, sleep a decent amount, and wake up on time. If you did that, the rest would start taking care of itself.
This is the underlying principle. The thing that actually determines whether you will succeed or fail. And it’s almost invariably nothing to do with the goal itself, but everything to do with mistakes you’re making in your everyday life. Some flaw, or bad habit that you’re letting get in the way.
Fix that, and things start to click.
By taking into account the underlying principles of your goal, and understanding the inherent flaws of your own character, you get to the heart of the changes you need to make. Instead of getting lost chasing goals and fantasies of the far-flung future, you stay in the here and now, making the exact, simple, achievable changes you need to make in order to succeed.
This is why when people tell me their grand, impressive resolutions for the year, I start to zone out. I’ve heard it all before. More often than not, from myself. Not only do we usually tell people these for other reason than that we want them to admire us (as if we’d actually achieved them), but these resolutions aren’t the things we actually need to achieve.
It’s the small moments where we stay up late, keep our phone in our pocket, or hide from the risk of anxiety. Those are what count.
Because at the end of the day, the big things you’re chasing, they’re just made up of the little things you’ve never paid any attention to.