January 27, 2022

Blog @ Munaf Sheikh

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The correct way to do new year resolutions

Introduction

At the start of every year commences a ceremony that humankind have engaged in since the beginning of time. Millions of people around the world do it, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. But many, many people fail to do it correctly. Companies invest billions of dollars in this ceremony. Documents, oftentimes hundreds of pages long are produced to record these sessions. Quotes about it exist. Songs have been written about it. In fact, if done incorrectly, they almost certainly will fail. There are many names for it. But most common is “Planning”.

This article is about planning. More specifically, it’s about planning your year. I look at some tools that can be used to create a plan which cannot fail. I create a checklist, based on sound project management principles, which can be applied to a resolution, a note, a goal, vision or idea in order to guide it’s insertion into my list of resolutions. To be frank, if this guide doesn’t help, then nothing will. I look at the following ideas and discuss the motivation for considering it as part of my checklist. And then I look at my own list of resolutions, and assess how well the checklist applies.

The Checklist

  1. The wellness wheel
  2. Scalability
  3. Agile mindset
  4. SMART goals
  5. Systems over goals
  6. Micro-habits, Tiny Habits, Atomic Habits.
  7. Accountability

1. The wellness wheel

The wellness wheel is a framework that was created by wellness expert Gay Hendricks to help people achieve balance. Understanding the various components of the wellness wheel helps you visualize how you can work towards better holistic health. Depending on which version, which understanding of wellness you follow, the wellness wheel guides you by breaking wellness down into between 6 to 10 components. These components are graphically represented together as spokes on a wheel. The length of each spoke determines how much satisfied you are with that component. The objective is to have similar length for each spoke so that the wheel is more round. Emphasis is placed on having as many spokes as possible being similar in length, rather than anyone spoke maxed out.

The key takeaways here are: think about your life holistically. You may be favouring one area of your life over another, and as such, not be experiencing the maximum level of fulfillment possible.

2. Scalability

In the last few days before New Year’s day, it’s holiday season. We’re all in holiday mode. To move from holiday mode into full on New Year resolutions mode – it’s a car crash into a wall. Or a icy cold shower. It’s much more difficult to sustain radical change than gradual change. Simply put, focusing too much on the end goal could make it seem impossible. And without a proper plan to ramp up your pace, it will be challenging to sustain your change. Break your goal up into smaller goals, and in doing so, achieving the end goal becomes possible, if not, a certainty.

Change

My goal is to run 1,000 km this year.

into

My goal is to run 85 Km every month.

or, even better:

My goal is to run 20 km every week.

or, best of all,

My goal is to run 3 km every day.

Clearly, in the evolution of goals, the last one is much easier to wrap your mind around. And with a smaller, initial goal in mind, it’s easier to scale up your regiment in a manner that is more sustainable over the year.

3. Agile mindset

Agile is a buzzword used very often in the world of software engineering. Agile refers the ability to adapt to events and change the direction/goal. The process of changing direction is often referred to as “pivoting”.

If your goal is to run 20km every week. Let’s say you’re progressing swimmingly well and meeting all your targets for each week. And then boom, the unthinkable happens: you sprain your ankle. Your goal goes out the window. Your project has failed. Your time has been wasted – maybe you shouldn’t have started at all.

In agile, a timeline is broken down into “sprints”. Sprints can vary in duration from 1 week to 4 weeks. You’ve probably come across all the lingo that goes along with Agile. There are various ceremonies (meetings) to be had at various times during the sprint: Planning, demo, retrospective.

For our application, we won’t need to adopt all of these ceremonies. However, the more you do, the better your chances of detecting patterns or trends that require you to update your strategy. In the example above, we could generalize our goal so that should we fail at running, a suitable alternative can be found. This is usually quite dependant on individual preferences. i.e. If swimming isn’t an option, how about rowing or cycling 3km every day.

4. SMART goals

What are SMART goals? Runnye and Grove (2010) define SMART as “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound”. These five criteria should be met to make sure that the objective pursued is a goal and not a dream. There are different opinions on the matter, but SMART goals are considered the best way to set goals.

  • specific – Vagueness is the enemy of progress.
  • measurable – How do we measure progress in this goal?
  • achievable – Is this goal achievable, firstly by mankind, and secondly by you?
  • relevant – make your goals relevant to you, your age, and your situation.
  • time-bound – Goals with deadlines are more likely to be met than goals with vague deadlines.

5. Systems over goals

A system is a set of rules or guidelines that govern the way something is done. It’s the way that humans, animals, and other systems behave or operate. For example, an oncologist may have certain rules for prescribing different treatments depending on the type of cancer, while a gym instructor might have guidance for “spotting” people during weight lifting to avoid injury.

Systems can be created by individual people or groups of people setting out guidelines or they can be created by computer programs for tasks like interacting with customers in an online store. Some of the more popular systems that we may be more familiar with include; exercise routines such as CrossFit, UFCFit, Taebo, various diets eg banting, paleo, etc,

Systems are more effective in achieving goals because they are better at adapting to changing circumstances. They are great because they help us be more mindful of what we are doing. They provide constraints that make it easier for us to do the right thing, even when we don’t feel like it.

We can create systems in our daily lives in order to achieve our goals more effectively by breaking them down into smaller manageable tasks instead of setting them as an overarching goal at one time. One such application of systems could be in creating daily, weekly and monthly routines to follow. Having a daily routine that is conducive to meeting your resolutions will help to build those good habits, which then become easier to fall back on during times of stress.

6. Micro-habits, Tiny Habits, Atomic Habits.

The key takeaway here is it’s possible to make radical change with only a very minor tweak to your current behavior. The book “Tiny Habits” refers to an anchor point in your current frame of reference to which you make a small change. This change then compounds over time to have the desired outcome. The “Atomic habits” claim to fame is of getting 1% better every day. At the end of a year, that compounds to 365% better – which is 300% better than where you are right now.

In my day job, I have a daily stand-up (meeting) at 10:15. When I’m working from home, at about 10am I head over to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. I can then sip on a nice cuppa during the meeting.

I tweaked this routine in the tiniest way possible. Before sitting down to connect to the meeting, I do 5 to 15 burpees. And sometimes, I may replace the coffee with a glass of water and fruit. I do something similar when I’m at the office. I take the stairs instead of a lift. I change the get whole wheat bread instead of white. I do a static stretch and neck roll every hour. I send a message to someone, “Hey how’s it going?”. Whatever your habit may be, the difference made due to the compounding effect is huge.

7. Accountability

Accountability and rewards go hand in hand. Motivation is a key component of accountability. It’s much harder to hold yourself accountable as the pleasure and pain responses are also controlled by you. Because we’re much more likely to blame external factors for our failure, the penalty that you impose on yourself for not meeting your goals needs to involve some degree of harshness so that you feel the “pain” of not meeting your goals. And when you set a pattern of not meeting goals and then reinforce it by not penalizing yourself, you then dig your proverbial hole even deeper.

Your habits are positively reinforced when you are disciplined enough to accomplish a goal, and then provide yourself a reward for accomplishing the goal. The cumulative effect should then be sufficient to propel you forward, through at least 1 “sprint” in which you fail to meet your goal, and then have the penalty applied. At the same time, failing to meet a goal should incur a penalty, but this penalty should be commensurate with the goal – and not significant enough to completely demotivate you. Needless to say, your reward should not negate the progress made in achieving the goal.

To further illustrate, if your goal is to ‘lose 5kg this month’, then a suitable reward could be ‘treat my self to 1 pizza’ at your favourite pizza joint whilst at the same time keeping on with the same habits (or a micro-habit change off the same habits) that led to losing 5kg. A ‘reward’ that reverses the progress you made would be to treat yourself to a pizza every day – which obviously sets you much further back than you started.

On the other hand, an inappropriate penalty for not losing 5kg this month could be to prohibit yourself from all junk food for the entire month. This would be particularly inappropriate if you ate junk food several times a week. A more suitable penalty would be to have to increase by a factor of 5% the number of steps / or kilometers logged per day. Because we’re anchoring the penalty to a practice that will increase our physical fitness, the result of applying this penalty makes us want to apply it even more as it builds on the good habits that we were originally trying to form. Hence the penalty translates into a booster that propels us towards our goals.

Conclusion

At the end of this process, let’s look at a resolution and how we can improve on it.

By the end of this year, I’d like to be HOT. — Not a good resolution.

  1. Holistic Wellness: HOT in what sense? Does physical attraction translate to emotional confidence or financial independence? Certainly not. Let’s be a bit more specific. Let’s define HOT at 80 Kg. Well, is weight sufficient to be hot? Definitely not. We’d have to evolve this metric so that it applies across the wheel to various aspects of life.
  2. Big-Bang: Running on the treadmill every day for an hour is definitely not the best strategy. We could break that down into a gradual increase plan.
  3. Agile mindset: Without proper planning, and review sessions, it would be harder to track progress towards the goal.
  4. Not SMART. Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-constrained? Fail on all 5.
  5. Systems: Let’s build in time for some form of exercise into our day. We’d also want to re-look our diet.
  6. Micro-habits. Let’s update our system and add 1 activity that allows us to drop 1% body fat every month. Eg. 10 burpees twice a day.
  7. Accountability: I like posting my results on my blog (which eventually feeds into social media). The positive feedback I’ve received helps to keep me accountable. It is half of my reward. The other half is actually making progress to the goals that I desire.

Re-writing the resolution:

  • I’m going to apply a system through which I’ll decrease my body fat percentage from forty to ten percent. That is a drop of thirty percent. That sounds un-doable, but let’s break it down further.
  • Dividing that over 12 months, we have a 2.5% drop per month or 0.625% every week. What do I need to do per week to ensure I drop 0.625% body fat?
  • I could build into my routine a daily round-the-block run.
  • I could also start eating more fruit.
  • I could replace 1 cup of coffee with 2 glasses of water

Suddenly that goal has become almost a certainty.

With the above checklist in mind, how can you possibly fail? Let me know in the comments below. And subscribe to the mailing list for more like this, delivered straight to your inbox.