@giorodriguez New Years Eve needs a makeover. And so does one of its key rituals
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When I was a boy, my parents used to drop me and my brother off at a relative in the Bronx every New Year’s Eve so they could celebrate their anniversary (yes, they were married New Year’s Eve) early in the evening and come to retrieve us after midnight. For me and my brother it was an awkward and somewhat unhappy ritual. We were almost always dressed in the same outfit, and we’d sit on the living room sofa at said relative’s basement apartment (she was the super of the building), watching the grownups dance, because, you see, said relative always had a New Year’s Eve party. I grew up thinking of New Year’s Eve from the perspective of a couch potato. It was passive, backward-looking, and, of course, depressing.
It was quite some time before I realized that New Year’s Eve is kind of like that for almost everyone. And that’s probably because we celebrate this unit of time — the year — not on the first day of the new year but on the last day of the current year. So we look back, not forward, on what we have done, or worse, on what we haven’t done. That simple exercise would paralyze most people, and keep them on their sofas, watching the ball drop on Times Square from their flatscreens with drinks in their hands, and too much on their minds.
But lo, there’s a ritual that so many of us observe on that day that can help us snap out of it: the New Year’s Resolution. While like New Year’s Eve itself, the New Year’s resolution needs a makeover, it’s easier to approach. There are three simple rules:
Resolutions that engage you daily
First, it helps to choose resolutions that are not defined by the ultimate goal — e.g., lose 50 pounds — but by the daily behavior that one needs to commit to. I know this from experience. As I noted earlier this year, one of my 2013 resolutions was to drop a significant amount of weight and I was only able to do it by committing to a daily regime of diet and exercise. Of course, the challenge here is knowing how to reward yourself daily for the incremental progress. As my friend and colleague Chris Bennett — an expert in behavior design and gamification — told me in a Facebook group today:
There is a lot of analysis and design to think about around the fact that people get an endorphin hit just by telling others about their goals. But not necessarily doing them.
I’ll get into the subject of how we might induce an endorphin hit after we do the daily deed, but the point I’m making here is that the daily deed is critical. It’s true for almost all goals that are big, ambitious, seemingly unachievable. The great novelist Graham Greene managed his ambitions by committing to a daily ritual — usually completed before the day began (he made money as a spy) — of writing 500 words, no more, no less.
Resolutions that are clearly measurable
But Mr. Greene only knew he was hitting his daily mark by actually counting the words on the page. And so it goes for any daily behavior. To track my progress with weight loss this year, I followed the tried-and-true practice of recording my daily intake of food, a practice pioneered by Weight Watchers. I also used a wristband (Jawbone UP) that recorded the number of steps I took each day. For both diet and exercise, I had a number I had to meet. It was clear and measureable. And, I must say that the measurable made the daily effort enjoyable.
Resolutions that you can socialize
Which brings me back to the question that Chris Bennett posed, how do you get that endorphin hit when you do the thing that is hard (reduce food intake, exercise more) not what is easy (tell the world about your goals). Well, as I just said, I did find the self-monitoring for my top resolutions this year enjoyable. But it was only part of the solution. What I realized was that I had also built a tiny ecosystem of friends and supporters for my project. It included my wife, who not only supported the daily grind but also helped to design our daily meals — and weekly shopping — to make it easier to stay on track. It included my colleagues who agreed to join me on walks instead on chair-bound meetings to discuss whatever was pressing. At some point, the power that socializing the resolutions became palpable. One of my partners had introduced me to the Jawbone UP. One of its many features is the ability to share your daily progress with select friends. He has been sharing his data with his wife. But it was only when he and I began sharing data that he began to take his daily regimen seriously.
I am thinking he got a big endorphin boost every time he beat me in the daily race for steps. Or maybe it was just the fun of winning together. Whatever the motivation, the rule is pretty clear to me. By crowdsourcing your resolutions, they might even come true.
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