Alternatives to New Year Resolutions


I’m not a big fan of new year resolutions. I suppose it’s all those past years of self created disappointments. My theory is that ‘resolution’ as a word is somewhat pointless. The word has a certain sense of certainty when there is no such thing. I prefer ‘goals’ or ‘intentions’ which can be done at any time of the year.

The good thing about the new year resolution time of the year is that I get a chance to glimpse the approach of other people. This year I found some interesting ideas and approaches to goal/intention setting from some people that I respect and like. In this post, I point to the techniques and the folks that mentioned them and my hope is to use them throughout the year.

Here’s the TLDR; of what I cover:

  1. Getting rid of the old through David Allen’s approach
  2. Considering the quality of time and life from DHH.
  3. Using Jeffrey Way’s approach to create concrete lists that collect both the good and the bad of the past year and how to use these lists for the new year.
  4. Snapping yourself out of the unimportant/urgent moment-to-moment parts of your life through the Eisenhower Box
  5. And using some Core Intuition to guide your projects and next-action creation.

Buckle up 🙂

From the godfather of GTD: Get rid of everything that you can!

In his first post of 2016 in the GTD Newsletter – David Allen talks about the value of getting rid of everything you can. I’ve been imperfectly using GTD for over a decade (with an especially imperfect review component…sigh). For the past few years I’ve used OmniFocus (OF) as my tool of choice for organization.

Some great and actionable advice from David’s post include:

It’s time to purge.

The start of a new year is a great metaphorical event to use to enhance a critical aspect of your constructive creativity—get rid of everything that you can!

Your psyche has a certain quota of open loops and incompletions that it can tolerate, and it will unconsciously block the engagement with new material if it has reached its limit. Release some memory!

I challenge each of you reading this to test out the following hypotheses, and prove me wrong. (And if you discover that any of these work, please email me with your story, and I’ll do a post-mortem on this essay at some point with the results!)

Want some new visions for your life and work? Clean up and organize your boxes of old photographs.

Want to know what to do with your life when you grow up? Start by cleaning the center drawer of your desk.

Want to trust your day-to-day, moment-to-moment decisions more? Get rid of any email backlog that is taking up real estate in your inbox.

You will have to do all this anyway, sometime. Right now don’t worry about the new. It’s coming toward you at lightning speed, no matter what. Just get the decks clear so you’re really ready to rock ‘n’ roll.

For me my OF project list is full of old projects, on hold projects and general crap. This post encouraged me to create a “Projectfill Trash Dumpster” folder (‘projectfill’ as opposed to ‘landfill’…I know…clever :-O ). I created a 2015 folder and I’m in the process of moving all the old cruddy projects into it. It’s the first step. The next step is to put all of these projects in an “on hold” status, and eventually (when I’m feeling really brave), I will put the projects in “delete” status and archive them via OF’s excellent archive feature.

From the Godfather of Ruby on Rails – DHH: WTFAYQH – where … are your quality hours?

DHH has an interesting article about “quality time” and how to deal with the “I must juggle it all to be productive” mentality (Read it! It’s going to be 5 minutes of quality). The key point of the article is this singular sentence:

If I have a trick, it’s a focus on the quality of each individual hour.

I think that the techniques mentioned below (like the Eisenhower Box) can help with the concrete creation of quality time. But it’s important to step back and really consider what is important and what is urgent. After all, when everything is important, then nothing is important. When everything is urgent, then nothing is urgent. You might as well go to bed and take a nap…it’s a better use of your time than running around like hamster on a wheel. Another way of saying this (per the article) is:

Covering your ass to yourself or others might give you some temporary comfort, but it won’t cover the deficit of ambition in the long run. Resignation is a coping mechanism for the beaten.

It’s ironic that in running faster you are resigning yourself to the false idol of the immediate urgency, when the really important is not coming from you…the core of what you really want and who you really are.

The article is focused about work related time. But what about the rest of your life?

Do I really need to be involved in this? (“I should be able to do this sheet rock fix…I just need to watch YouTube for how to do this thing, then go to Home Depot and get the repair items, then come home and watch YouTube again and then attempt to to this thing which I’ll never do again”)

Could this wait? (“But all the other parents join the PTA…so I definitely absolutely need to join”)

Can I bail on this? (“Well how about this email from my buddy John…he wants me to come and help him move because he’s too cheap to pay movers…so I should go and potentially hurt my back for pizza…sounds peachy”)

Am I ready for this? (“I MUST learn __name any JavaScript framework__ because it’s the hot thing right now…it’s guaranteed to be in demand for next 2 years/months/weeks/days/hours/minutes”)

Quality is an overloaded word. But I think that if you look back at the past hour, you can tell fairly quickly tell if it was a quality hour or one full of hamster wheeling busy-ness.

From Laracasts creator Jeffrey Way: Using 3 Simple Lists to Look to figure Future Planning by looking at the Past for Feedback

I really like short podcasts and Jeffrey Way’s “The Laracasts Snippet” fits nicely with a 5-10 minute discussion about mindsets related to technical subjects. I like Jeffrey’s brashness and no-nonsense approach in ‘telling it how it is’ (for him).

His “Prioritize, Incentivize, Optimize” episode covered an interesting approach in reflecting on 2015, and using that reflection as feedback for the new year. It’s 8 minutes of delicious reflecting/planning gold.

His approach is as follows (starting at 00:57):

  • Create 3 lists with the following headings and meanings:
    • “Prioritize” (i.e. prioritize the things that you love)
    • “Incentivize” (i.e. incentivize the things that you need to do)
    • “Optimize” (i.e. optimize the things that you hate to do)
  • Start with 2015:
    • (01:40) On the “Prioritize” sheet write out the things that you really love doing. The focus for this is on writing the things related to your day-to-day not that one-off vacation that you had or that one moment during the year where you felt at peace. So your list is about the day-to-day…what is it on a daily basis that you love doing…that thing that hits your butter zone. This should be a quick list – just list out 5 things (so you don’t get bitten by your own analysis-by-paralysis piranha).
    • (02:47) On the “Incentivize” sheet write out the 5 things that you may not love to do on a day-to-day basis, but it’s something that you need to do. For example, working out may be something that you need to do for your health, but it is not something that you love to do on a day-to-day basis. A way to detect these items is anything that you can argue yourself out of. For example, “well – I got too many things to do today, so I I’ll skip my 10,000 step walk…I’ll do 20,000 steps tomorrow…worst case I’ll do 50,000 steps by the end of the week”.
      • So what do you do to do these things? You find incentives to do these things. Jeffrey refers to the Freakonomics podcast about some approaches that he found. Two approaches:
        1. Join the thing that you don’t want to do with a thing that you do want to do (for example: “I’ll watch ‘The Blacklist’ only when I work out”). The key point is that you’re not allowed to do the thing you like unless you do the thing you don’t like (either at the same time or first).
        2. Another approach is to provide some kind of backlash (for example: if you don’t work out 4 days a week, then something bad will happen like – give $100 to your best friend or do a shame tweet, or dance a weekly jig in front of your office mates). The idea is to find something that you are averse to that you’ll have to do if you don’t do the thing that you have to do. It’s basically a negative incentive.
    • (04:56) On the “Optimize” sheet write out the 5 things that you hate to do. Think back on 2015 on a day-to-day basis – what are the things that you hated to do? Now figure out a way that you can potentially optimize it. For example, lets say that you need to answer customer support emails as part of your business and you hate doing it (lets say an hour per day). Write this down and ask yourself ‘how can I optimize this?’ Maybe it’s a SASSy solution like zendesk. Maybe automate common questions. Maybe you need to fix something in your product to fix/remove these questions.

The goal of these lists is to do more of what you love in this new year and less of what you hate.

So these 3 lists are Jeffrey’s approach to new year resolutions (i.e. replacing the resolutions approach). I really like this approach because it is extremely concrete and it uses last year as feedback for your current/upcoming year. It also lends itself for more frequent value calibration through something like the 3-list review on a monthly basis than just a yearly basis.

This approach is has a bit of intersection with the Eisenhower Box that I describe below. The key benefits are:

  • It is easy to do (just pick 5 things for each list).
  • It focuses on concrete things that happen in your life.
  • It is a clear sharpen the saw activity that you can do at any time

The Eisenhower Box

When I think of the word “Eisenhower”, I think 1950s conservatism and wearing a suit at work. However, the Eisenhower Box is quite different.

The Asian Efficiency (AE) Podcast (episode 72) had an excellent discussion about new year resolutions and the various approaches that were used by AE’s team. The item that caught my eye (or better said ear) was a passing comment about using the Eisenhower Box for prioritization. In episode 72’s show notes they link to a great article by James Clear about the origin and usage of the Eisenhower Box.

Covey’s “Put First Things First” comes from the Eisenhower Box (I didn’t know this until now). In any case, it’s a great approach to looking on both a moment-to-moment basis and a long-term basis and evaluating whether the project/task/action that you’re doing – whether it is:

  1. Important/Urgent: DO aka Do it now!
  2. Important/Not-Urgent: DECIDE aka Plan – schedule a time to do it.
  3. Not-Important/Urgent: DELEGATE aka Who can do it for you?
  4. Not-Important/Not-Urgent: DELETE aka Eliminate it

As mentioned before, Jeffrey’s approach is in line with this approach (but more concrete and simple). The mapping would seem to be as follows:

  1. Prioritize = Important/Not-Urgent
  2. Incentivize = Important/Not-Urgent
  3. Optimize = Not-Important/Urgent and Not-Important/Not-Urgent

I think the Not-Important/Not-Urgent would fall into the optimization list by way of “eliminating/deleting” the item. In fact, James Clear in the Eisenhower Box article states this very thing:

Elimination Before Optimization

There is no faster way to do something than not doing it at all. That’s not a reason to be lazy, but rather a suggestion to force yourself to make hard decisions and delete any task that does not lead you toward your mission, your values, and your goals.

Too often, we use productivity, time management, and optimization as an excuse to avoid the really difficult question: “Do I actually need to be doing this?” It is much easier to remain busy and tell yourself that you just need to be a little more efficient or to “work a little later tonight” than to endure the pain of eliminating a task that you are comfortable with doing, but that isn’t the highest and best use of your time.

As Tim Ferriss says, “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

Tim Ferriss’ quote reminds me of the hard ass Unix professor that I had at one point. One of my peers was doing a lab exercise and ended up going down some pointless rabbit holes that had nothing to do with the exercise that he was solving. He was in a sense pursuing any problem that he could think of to show the professor that he was doing something (“hey professor – look at me – I’m doing something by spinning this hamster wheel”). So the prof comes over and looks at what he’s doing and in a loud vehement voice the prof says “STOP doing mental masturbation on this exercise and do the damn exercise already!” I suppose that productivity tools can be that, a way of not doing the things that we need to be doing.

This elimination approach fits in with Allen’s “Get Rid of Everything” approach and DHH’s quality discussion. You need to get rid of the crap that is of poor quality which is the same stuff that is not in sync with your mission/values/goals.

Core Intuition 214

In the Core Intuition’s episode 214 Daniel Jalkut speaks of his disbelief in resolutions. In a tongue and cheek way he says that his whole life is one big resolution. That’s both a funny and a strangely profound thing to say. If all our lives are one big resolutions, then is the issue that many of us don’t figure out what that resolution is before our lives end? (i.e. the holy grail of finding our “life’s purpose”)

At time mark 33:38 he mentions a comment from Dennis (from Core Intuition’s live chat at the time of the podcast). Dennis indicates that this is how he approaches resolutions:

  • Resolutions are for long term goals for things you wish were true.
  • Values are the metrics for choices on deciding on a daily basis the way to prioritize things.
  • Practices are the concrete activities which make your goals come to pass.

Dennis’s reflection caught my attention. Initially, I was resistant in considering resolutions as long term wishes. After all, I may wish for the fuzzy goal of “world peace” but how likely it is that I would accomplish this? Perhaps this is an issue of specific versus vague? I would rephrase the first point as Resolutions are for SMART long term goals for things you wish were true (where SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound).

The values piece is directly reflective of DHH’s quality approach as well as the Eisenhower box prioritization.

The practices piece refers to actually “doing it”. It’s David Allen’s next action question of “the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.”

In a sense, all the approaches that I have covered reflect and bounce around in this small silver resolution box that Dennis creates through his comment.


Are there alternatives to New Year resolutions? Absolutely! I personally like the above sources and how I ordered them (from somewhat fuzzy conceptual to more concrete/actionable). So to review:

  1. Begin by getting rid of the old through David Allen’s approach
  2. Then consider the quality of your seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and the whole (past) year.
  3. Use Jeffrey’s approach to create concrete prioritize/incentivize/optimize lists that collect both the good and the bad quality things/activities of the past year and use these items for the same set of lists for the next year.
  4. On a daily basis snap yourself out of the unimportant/urgent moment-to-moment parts of your life using the Eisenhower Box
  5. When creating projects and next actions for those projects during your day or week – use the guideline from Core Intuition. This is also useful for periodic reviews of what you’re doing and where you are in your life.

There is a “write your obituary” exercise that many life coaches promote. That seems like a bit of a downer (but it may be effective I suppose). I think a more interesting question is encompassed by a quote that I saw on John Gruber’s site on Martin Luther King Day:

‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
>Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the end of the day, our actions, goals and aspiration are not in their own bubble. They are ripples on a vast ocean that reflect out and affect others. The ripples of all of our resolutions, goal settings, and various machinations – these ripples are the ones that form our ultimate legacy or lack thereof.



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