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How to Make Resolutions that Stick

New Years is overrated. Fall is the time to make resolutions. For students, this is obvious — Fall denotes the new school year. But it also holds for most other positions in life. Regardless of your business, summer is probably a slow period. When the leaves start to change your work pace picks back up. If you want to make a change, now is the time to get it done.

Unfortunately, many people are terrible at making resolutions. They’re too generic. They focus on lofty goals without addressing the details that are relevant to the day-to-day grind. And they’re quick to abort.

Let’s fix this. Here is a simple system for making resolutions that stick:

3 Rules for Making Realistic Resolutions

  1. Resolve to Follow a System, Not Achieve a Goal.
    It’s easy to resolve to “lose 10 pounds,” “get a 4.0 G.P.A.,” or finally “write that brilliant, original screenplay about a group of high school kids trying to lose their virginity.” But it’s also easy to quickly learn to ignore something so damn vague. Two weeks later, when you’re busy, and stressed, you’re not going to think about what you might do that day to help get closer to your goal.

    • Instead…Resolve to follow a highly specific system that spells out what you do at what times and on what days. For example, instead of resolving to lose 10 pounds, resolve to go the gym, on Tuesday and Thursdays, in that one hour gap between your 9:00 am and 11:00 am class. Instead of resolving to write a screenplay, resolve to spend three hours, first thing when you wake-up each Saturday, in the same library working on your draft.
    • Because…We all suffer from a chronic shortage of will-power. Systems are easier to follow than ambiguous goals. Why? Systems eliminate the need to think or plan, which represent the real choke point in will power exertion.
  2. Establish an Exception Policy.
    Even well-designed systems can be weakened by a momentary lapse. For example, your gym plan works great until a busy period, followed by spring vacation, gets you away from exercise for a few weeks. The momentum is gone. The system is broken. And it’s back to your old habits.

    • Instead…Establish, as part of your system, a specific set of rules for dealing with exceptions. For when busy periods strike, you might, for example, have an abbreviated work-out routine you do one day, early in the week, which you augment with the occasional run on other days. Or, maybe, you have a push-up set you can do in your room, on the road, on vacation, wherever you might happen to be, to keep some fitness alive. Following the screenplay example, you might, during a busy week, require that you instead record at least 10 new scene ideas in a moleskin that you bring with you everywhere.
    • Because…You cannot let your momentum fade. This idea has been recently making its way around the blogging community under the title “Don’t Break the Chain,” in reference to the Seinfeld documentary, The Comedian, in which Jerry talked about the importance of working on his material every single day, without exception. This exact logic is at play here. It doesn’t matter if, during a busy week, the work you do in your system is close to worthless. The fact that you are doing something makes its exponentially easier to continue with the full system the next week.
  3. Respect the Rule of Three.
    We can only handle so much scheduling before we seem to lose control over our lives. If, for example, you have eight or nine different systems to manage at one time, something, eventually, will have to give. Too many time conflicts will overwhelm even the ability of your exception policy to keep the momentum alive. Frustration with the lack of free time in your day will lead to mental mutiny. Or, simply, things will just be forgotten.

    • Instead…Limit the number of system you run concurrently. A good rule is to never follow more than three at a time. This covers both your professional and personal life (from big projects to keeping the house clean). There is, however, a loop hole. If you keep up with a simple system for more than six months, and it gets to the point where you don’t even thinking about it — you follow it as regularly as brushing your teeth — you can consider this system ingrained and free up that slot for a new system.
    • Because…Too many systems and everything breaks down. Tackle only three improvements at a time, and the whole project remains tractable. As you move along, some systems will fade away as it becomes clear that they are not producing results. Some will be tweaked or combined with others. Some will finish! And some will be ingrained. With each new season you can introduce new systems to fill the vacated slots, and your march towards self-improvement continues.

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