20 New Year Resolutions in 11 Weeks

I.  The Beginning


I recently decided to undertake a personal experiment, and it completely rocked my world in the best possible way.  I’m sharing the results because I’ve found that this approach A) works for me, unlike many other approaches I’ve tried in the past, and B) it has also worked for family, and friends, and friends of friends, and C) if you’re interested in sparking a flame that explodes in a radiant tapestry across a slumbering sky, this could also work for you.  Like many stories, this one has a beginning:

Flash back to winter break with the New Year just around the corner.  Here I was, doing what almost every grad student dreams of doing over break: absolutely nothing except lounging and sleeping.  This was great for a few days, but then the nothing began to spread (cue neverending story theme song) until it had consumed my motivation to do almost anything.  The experiment sprouted from a simple question: If I were able to graph my productivity over time, would it take a nosedive at the beginning of every break? I felt like I wasn’t really “doing stuff” at the time, so I started keeping track…

…and sure enough when the break ended 14 days later,  I immediately jumped to…

Though I couldn’t collect data retroactively, it was safe enough to assume that the answer to the original question was yes: when left to my own devices, I’m lazy. But how exactly was I able to arrive at this conclusion?  How was I able to quantify my productivity?  And what the heck are “points”?  These are all good questions, last things first:


What the heck are “points”?

Points are arbitrary values assigned to things that I believe have a positive impact on the overall quality of my day; from small things, like keeping a clean room to larger things such as healthy diet and exercise.  The values are weighted such that little things are worth less, and larger things are worth more.  Similarly, things I really want to accomplish will received an increased value.  These points inherently have no value, but they begin to assume meaning once they are attached to clearly defined goals.


How was I able to quantify my productivity?

Long story short, I created a spreadsheet (you can download the template here). In order to get a sense for my baseline, I began by simply taking note of stuff I’d done (or not done) at the end of every day.  Before thinking about the question of ‘where do I want to go from here?’ I needed to begin by figuring out where here was.  Inherent with this entire mindset was the idea that knowledge is power: if you can easily quantify desired behaviors, you’ll begin to hold yourself accountable.  And this is exactly what happened.  At the end of the break I evaluated my baseline standard of living and set a new bar.  The next question defined the following 11 weeks of my life: what happens if I perpetually raise the bar?  How far could I go? It turns out, I could go from not exercising at all to exercising every day, from eating junk food to eating only healthy meals, from accepting a messy room to living in a perpetually clean space, from wasting time on Facebook and YouTube to pouring my free time into meaningful projects.  More importantly, I found a deeper level of happiness in my everyday life, and a wellspring of inspiration and motivation.  The next section explores my journey…

A graph that will have more meaning after you’ve read the next section

II. The Challenge

This may all sound like a lot of tedious work, but in the end it amounts to about 5 minutes a day of actually keeping track. The largest change comes with a perspective shift on what it means to pursue your goals.  Rather than taking on one goal in an all-or-nothing pursuit of a new you (absolutely no drinking this month!), you can take on many goals at once and slowly gain a sense for how they all balance and interrelate.  It’s absolutely fine if you don’t feel like accomplishing a particular goal each day, but each week your personal bar will move a little higher.  You can spend your time and energy in any way you see fit each day, so long as you’ve hit your overall goal for the end of the week.  And the next week, it starts all over again with a little more intensity.  The trick is to figure out what your ideal week will look like, and to draw a line from here to there.

I believe that the reason many individuals don’t succeed in their New Year resolution is that they set the bar too low.  Does anyone really want to set out to accomplish one goal this year? I don’t think so. I think they’d actually like to accomplish every one of their goals.  Think about it on a personal level for a moment, what bad habits would you like to break, and what good habits would you like to adopt? Do some soul searching.  If you will, imagine an absolutely perfect day.  You’re essentially trying to imagine the you that embodies the lifestyle of your dreams, and mentally live a day in those shoes.  What do you do?  What don’t you do?  What goals might you need to accomplish on your way towards this lifestyle?  Here’s my list, keep in mind the fact that I’m a grad student with largely un-structured time, your list will probably look completely different:

My Goals:

6 – Productive Research Day (+1 for each consecutive day, resetting Monday)

3 – Exercise – I finished the Insanity workout series, definitely recommended if you’re on a tight schedule.(+1 point for every consecutive day, resetting Monday. )

3 – No Facebook

3 – Healthy food (-3 if I eat anything unhealthy)

2 – Clean Room

2Two free points at the beginning of the day for being on time.  Minus one for every time I’m late (even 5 seconds).

2 – No Caffeine

2 – No TV/Netflix

2Vitamins (every am + pm)

2Face Wash (every am + pm) – A few easy goals to balance everything out

2 – Training on Lumosity.com every day

2 – 2 points for every hour I wake up before 10am

2 – No cell phone distraction while interacting with others, no email distraction while working

2 – 30 minutes of reading for pleasure

1 – 10 minute meditation. Details here

1 – Clean Computer – The desktop must be clean and organized, at least 20GB of free space

1 – 30 Minutes engaging in a creative outlet.  This is anything from playing guitar to writing new algorithms for generating audio/visual art

1 – Learn to speed read / increase typing WPM

1No pornography – Self explanatory

1 – 1-minute cold shower. Details here

Each of these categories has a description that takes out all the guesswork, such that there’s no such thing as right or wrong… there’s only points or no points.  For example, if I wake up at 8:55 and lie in bed for 6 minutes, I won’t give myself 2 points for being up at 9am.  The only way to succeed in this goal is to be out of bed before the minute rolls over.  The same rules apply for my goal of being on time.  If I’m 5 seconds late I lose a point.  It’s simple, and I never need to think about that fuzzy line between good and bad.  I’ve found that it doesn’t make sense to assign points for cleaning my room, because my end goal isn’t to clean my room every day, the end goal is to have a clean room.  I set a baseline of 1 point for having all my clothes cleaned off the floor, my bed made, and my desk clear of clutter.  I’d get the second point for either having a spotless room, or spending an extra 10 minutes tackling a small task that pushed my room a little closer to being spotless.

I like to describe this process in terms of a game of life chess (or checkers), and if you don’t set up the rules early on then the unmotivated version of yourself that’s sitting across the table will start getting away with silly moves that should be illegal.  When it comes to finding excuses for bad behavior, we are unbelievably clever; if not absolutely, positively, downright brilliant. When you clearly define the rules, the unmotivated-self at least needs to play by the rules, and the playing field becomes even.  You’ll still be faced with challenges that are unbelievably difficult, and at times making progress may seem impossible, but at least the playing field will be even.  You’ll come to find that the unmotivated version of yourself isn’t truly unmotivated at all; rather, this part of yourself has simply become comfortable with a certain lifestyle and is resistant to change.

Creating a map is one thing, and walking the path is another thing entirely.   At the beginning of each week, I established all my goals for the next 7 days and highlighted each of them in yellow:

If I didn’t feel like cleaning my room on Monday, no big deal!  I could choose to meditate for 10 minutes instead and everything would balance out in the end.  You may have noticed that certain goals have incrementing rewards.  I set these up because I find it more difficult to exercise on a Friday evening than I do on a Tuesday, and similarly I find it more difficult to focus on research at the end of the week.  If I decide not to exercise on Friday, I’ll need to find a way to make up 7-points over the weekend.  At the end of each week I’ll mark my successful categories in green, and points I miss are marked in red:

The average weekly goal is the important number (far right).  I can score lower or higher than this number on any given day, so long as I hit my weekly average. This value is automatically calculated by the spreadsheet as the week progresses. Here’s the breakdown of the entire 11-weeks, including the two initial weeks I spent figuring out how everything would work:

I can look back at different patches of red and remember various circumstances that contributed to missing a string of goals.  It’s also easy to see that certain goals were consistently difficult, while others were green for almost the entire 11-week period.  I ended up dropping a few goals off the sheet once I felt I’d successfully picked up the new habit, and those are not shown here.  You’ll notice the set of bars to the right that provides a graphical representation of my overall daily scores.  I also set up a series of graphs that auto-generated for every week, and the same week I showed earlier looks like this:

Now that I’ve had the chance to look at the graphs for several other people, I’ve found that my weekend drop (days 6 and 7) is actually fairly common.   And the bump on Sunday occurs when a number of goals continually get pushed back to the end of the week.  I can look back over my entire 11-week graph and see how my weekend drop was slowly ironed out over time:

Many of the most intense days occurred around day 31 and day 38, before I finally realized that I needed to start keeping myself accountable on the weekends. Finding a way to keep yourself accountable is by far the most important part of undertaking this type of personal challenge.  If you can stay accountable AND respect the rules that you’ve established for yourself up front, you’ll find a path to success.   Sometimes you will completely lose sight of the path, but you’ll have the right tools to find your way back, even in those inevitable moments when you feel completely lost.

III. Creating Incentives and Staying Accountable

What excites you? What makes you work hard?  If you simply set out to tackle every single one of your goals without a clear sense of what’s on the line and why it’s important, you’re not going to find a resilient motivational drive once the initial inspiration to try something new wears off.  Towards this end, friends are invaluable when it comes to pushing towards your goals.  If you can find someone else who is interested in trying this with you, not only will you have someone else to help keep you accountable, you’ll have someone to share your experiences with. I always found it was easier to make my way to the gym at the crack of dawn when I knew I was meeting a friend there.  The fact that this was a shared struggle somehow made it more bearable.  You may find that your friend is running into the exact same problem that you’re facing. The moment you realize “oh… it’s not just me!” can truly be one of the most significant moments of your life, depending on what it is the realization is connected to.

I wanted to go an extra step towards making sure I understood what was on the line, so I created an email group with 7 of my closest friends and announced that I’d be sending updates at the end of every week.  If I failed to send an update, or failed to meet my weekly goal, I would send each friend a check for 50 dollars.  That is to say, if I fell short by one point at the end of the week then I essentially lost 350 dollars because I forgot to take my vitamins that morning.  This simple little reminder carried over to how I tackled everything from exercising to cleaning my room, and it resulted in ridiculous situations… including getting out of bed late one Sunday night when I was on the verge of sleep in order to pick up a single pair of pants I noticed on the floor across the room.  I believe at the time I asked myself out loud “are you serious!?” and the answer was yes… absolutely. When you set out to break bad habits that you’ve maintained your entire adult life, it’s not going to be easy!

IV. Make it Your Own

I recognize that there are many people out there facing life situations that are much more difficult than my own, and I can’t begin to compare my challenge to theirs.  I also know that many people are digging deeper every day, trying to find a way to unleash their untapped potential, and who are unsure where exactly to begin.  Every single human being has a unique set of needs, desires, ambitions and goals.  That being said, it’s possible to go your entire life without asking questions about where you’re going and what you really want to achieve, and many people do.  It’s also possible to be completely motivated and on track, only to find that you’ve inexplicably lost sight of what’s truly important.  I’m sharing this approach because I felt lost for quite a while with respect to a higher sense of purpose and direction, and this personal challenge helped steer me back in the right direction.  I experienced many moments in which I stared failure in the face, and pressed forward even though I truly wanted to give up. The right path isn’t always the easiest path, and the easy path isn’t always right.  If you set out to tackle every single one of your goals head on, you’re going to hit a lot of resistance.   You’ll also find inner strength that you never knew you had.

The only way that this approach will work for you is if you truly make it your own.  I initially spent two weeks thinking every day about what I wanted to accomplish, and how I could break large abstract goals down into smaller pieces.  I can tell you this: if you are looking for self-confidence, you’ll find it infused into every goal that you set.  Working really hard to accomplish something feels pretty damn awesome, particularly when you succeed.  The first step is to figure out exactly what it is you want to accomplish.  When setting goals I offer the following advice (from most to least important):

  • 10-20 goals is a solid number to start with. Fewer than 10 is probably too few, more than 20 may be difficult to track.
  • Try to break down large goals such as “exercise more” into smaller goals that you can keep track of such as “30 minutes of intense exercise.”
  • Along the lines of the previous suggestion: when creating a goal, think about how you’ll keep track of it.  If you simply say “keep a clean room,” then how do you plan to measure it?  You could assign 1 point for “all clothes off the floor, no clutter.” and an additional point for “desk is organized, bed is made.”  Your definitions need to be as clear as possible!
  • Make sure you have some goals that energize you, and some that are relaxing. The ultimate aim is to achieve balance, not to burn yourself out.
  • Think about how the goals compare against each other, and weight them appropriately.  1 point for small goals that are easy, that won’t take much time, and 5 points for goals that are large and time consuming.  You can also assign more points for goals that you REALLY want to make sure you accomplish.
  • Your biggest category should be whatever it is that your life is focused on at the moment.
  • Points are only positive values.  Instead of simply subtracting points if you indulge a bad habit, give yourself free points at the beginning of the day assuming that you’ll succeed.  Take these points away if you do not.
  • Make sure you have a few goals that are worth 1 point, and take very little time to do, just in case you need a quick way to catch up.  For me these are “cold showers” which is 1 point per minute, and “meditation.” which is 1 point per 10 minutes.  My friend has one for writing, which is 1 point per paragraph.
  • You may want to make an extra category for items on your to-do list that don’t fall inside the point system, but are actually very important.  Don’t worry about this up front, but if you find yourself stuck because you need to complete a task but it keeps getting pushed back, attach a value to it’s completion and give yourself the points when the task is completed.   If you go this route, be careful about handing yourself free points, this can be tempting!
  • It is HIGHLY recommend that you err on the side of making an introspective point category one of your easier goals to accomplish, at least in the beginning.  This way, if things get intense you’ll start leaning on something that will help you evaluate the situation more clearly.  Meditation is one of my easier goals to achieve, and it has resulted in countless epiphanies.  For you this might be something like introspective writing, or jogging.
  • When it’s time for you to begin, you should feel a sense of “what have I gotten myself into!?”  If you’re not at least a little intimidated, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. If you’ve set it up right, you should have the exact same feeling at the beginning of every week (see steps below for setting up your spreadsheet).
  • It may help to make the official “rollover” to the next day some arbitrary time that you know you’ll be asleep.  For me this is 5am.  If it’s before 5am, I assign the points to the previous day.  This clears up any confusion about midnight points.
  • Take a few days to really think about your points; don’t rush into it!  Once you’re ready to begin, GO FOR IT! There will never be a perfect life situation that presents a good time to give this a shot, if you wait for perfect circumstances you may never find them…
  • Your point values will never be completely correct, just try to do your best estimation early on, and refine as you go.  This is YOUR challenge, don’t be afraid to make changes when necessary.
  • You may find that life suddenly throws you something unexpected and you can’t possible keep track of everything with the point system, this is to be expected.  Some people put the point system on hold until a specified date, which can end up being perpetually pushed back.  Others will try to stick with the original structure, and continue moving forward as best they can through the end of the week.

You can download the spreadsheet here.  You’ll notice that there are extra pages at the bottom for defining your goals, and tacking your progress, use them!  Here is some advice for filling out the sheet:

  1. Fill in your entire first week with respect to what you think is feasible for you at the present moment.  Don’t overdo it, but make sure it’s sufficiently difficult to make you feel at least a little intimidated.  Highlight your goals in yellow.
  2. Fill in the final week to reflect your final pie-in-the-sky dream.  Put down everything that you’d like to do, and err on the side of adding more than you think you can do.  Highlight your goals in yellow.
  3. Explore the first page of the spreadsheet, and figure out where the averaged weekly values are for the first and last week.  Enter these numbers (or values slightly higher than these number) into the “setup” box provided in the upper right.
  4. Add values in this box to smoothly transition between your first and last weeks.

You can also do this all by hand, in which case it’s easier to keep a running tally of how many points ahead or behind you are (rather than trying to compute averages as you go).  If you go this route, simply set up your columns in a notebook and use highlighters to track your goals/misses.

There has been a lot of discussion around the idea of making this into an app.  That may happen in the future, but I’m interested in helping more people tackle their goals first.  Everyone brings a unique perspective and a unique set of challenges, I’m interested in seeing how everyone approaches this concept.  My second round starts next Monday with a new set of goals…


This entry was posted on Thursday, April 11th, 2013 at 8:22 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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