First of all, I would like to wish you a very happy Christmas and a healthy, productive and gains-full 2018! Thank you so much for reading the blog. If you have any feedback, comments or ideas for future posts please don’t hesitate to drop me an email.
Should you make New Year’s Resolutions?
Now, New Year’s Resolutions tend to get a bad rap these days in the fitness community. Haters will say you should already have set goals and that there is no sense in waiting for 2018 to start working on them. That’s true. But I think the end of the year is a natural and useful opportunity to reflect on what you have achieved, what you have failed to achieve and what you would like to achieve in the future. To me it makes sense to take advantage of the quiet time at the end of the year, away from the office, to collect your thoughts and regain a sense of direction and purpose. However, even if resolutions are a useful concept in theory they can still be executed poorly in practice. So what principles can you follow to make sure you are getting the most out of your New Year’s goals?
1. Create a written record of your Resolutions
What were your New Year’s Resolutions last year? If you didn’t write them down, chances are you won’t remember. Or you’ll misremember. And if you don’t know exactly what your goals were this time last year the whole exercise of assessing your progress and examining your priorities and direction becomes a lot less illuminating.
Sometimes the most powerful thing about looking at old goals is in realising that those goals no longer mean as much to you as they used to. Part of the magic of the New Year’s Resolution is contained in charting and dissecting your shifting sense of what is important. More obviously, there is little point in setting goals if you are not going to measure how well you perform against them. The act of writing things down is powerful in itself. Turning the abstraction of a goal into a tangible object on a page is a way of committing more fully to something.
So WRITE DOWN ALL YOUR RESOLUTIONS. And keep them safe. Every two to three months, fish the page out and take a minute or two to think about how well you are stacking up against your ambitions at the beginning of the year!
2. Choose the number of Resolutions carefully
The number of resolutions you commit to is inversely proportional to the importance you attach to each. For every extra resolution you add, you naturally have to care less about each individual goal on its own. So I would urge you to strictly limit the number of resolutions you write down. In fact, I would recommend you limit yourself to 3 at most.
The reason for this is much the same as the reason why I recommend people start with 2-3 gym sessions per week rather than 5. You are much more likely to succeed in your pursuits if you pick conservative goals. It’s a psychological thing: if you set out to do 5 sessions but you only make 4, you will feel dejected and will likely lose motivation. On the other hand, if you set out to do 3 sessions and you end up making it to 4, you will feel elated. And yet you have done exactly the same amount of work. Similarly, if you set out 10 resolutions and, 6 months into the year, you realise you are certainly going to fall short of some of them, if is natural to begin to lose the drive to pursue your other goals. It’s a binary kind of mindset that we humans seem to be afflicted with.
Just as importantly, restricting yourself to 3 goals will force you to do some serious soul-searching to work out what is most crucial to your happiness and well-being. This is in itself a powerful thing to do. Half the battle of achievement is in coming up with a strong vision of where you want to go. Once you have a really clear idea of what you would like to become it is much easier to take the steps necessary to get there.
3. Choose process-oriented goals
Most goals are outcome-oriented: squat 2x bodyweight; lose 5kg; run a 5km in under 25 minutes. The problem with setting out goals in this way is that, ultimately, you do not have control over whether you succeed or fail. You can do everything in your power to squat more and yet still fall short of a double bodyweight squat. It is best to exercise control over the things we can control and leave the rest to fate. This is where process-oriented goals come in.
Process-oriented goals involve a commitment to a certain behaviour or habit. Instead of setting the goal to squat 180kg, you might set the goal to squat 3 times per week. Instead of aiming to lose 5kg, you might aim to eat a strict paleo diet with greens at every meal. A process-oriented goal is defined by an activity or habit and a frequency and / or duration of that activity. I HIGHLY recommend you employ this kind of goal in your New Year’s Resolutions.
The best way to come up with process-oriented goals is to first work out the outcomes that you would like to see. Then translate those outcomes into processes as in the examples above. Finally, you must entirely divorce yourself from the outcome. Que sera sera. Of course, you will want to measure your progress, but your success or failure comes down to whether you were able to maintain the behaviour or habit as set out in the resolution, not the outcome itself.
4. Employ MAD principles
A while back I wrote about the MAD approach to habit forming. It is an effective way to determine the dose you should aim for when setting out goals. Your resolutions need to be written down, limited in number and process-oriented but if they aren’t effectively dosed, you will be setting yourself up for failure.
The concept of dose is really simple: it is how much of a certain habit or behaviour you commit to. Choosing how many gym sessions per week to aim for is the archetypal dose-decision. Most of the time, as I argued above, people choose doses that are too high because they believe that a higher dose will help them achieve their goals more rapidly. And while that may be true, this approach ignores the deleterious effects of falling short of your intentions. So I suggest using the concept of the Maximum Assured Dose (MAD dose) to decide how much of a certain activity to aim for.
The maximum assured dose is the maximum amount of an activity that you are absolutely certain you can commit to without significant failure. It is the dose which seems almost trivial, totally un-intimidating. This may worry you. After all, if something is trivially easy to do then surely it cannot be effective? Actually, in general, you need to do far less per week or per day to achieve great things than you might think. What matters is how much you do over months and years. And in order to maximise your long-term dose sticking to lower short-term doses is most effective.
As an example, I had been having a lot of trouble creating a habit of meditation, which is something I have wanted to get into for a long time. The problem was that I kept on hearing that 20 minutes every day was optimal. To me, for some reason, 20 minutes just seemed insurmountable. The idea of spending 20 minutes every day meditating made me feel anxious. As illogical as it is, it seemed to me like that would be a waste of time. But then it occurred to me that the most important thing was just to do it. And I found that 10 minutes did not worry me or cause me any anxiety at all. And since then I have been meditating 5-7 times per week every week! So if your preferred dosing causes you to feel anxious, bloody well reduce the dose until you feel like it’s nothing. Remember: you can always increase your dose later!
Here’s to the New Year!
That’s it folks! Enjoy some well-earned rest and time with family and friends. Take the chance this year to reflect on your 2017 and build dreams for 2018. Remember to congratulate yourself on your successes but don’t reprimand yourself for your failures. Write down 3 process-oriented goals designed in accordance with the Maximum Assured Dose and reap the rewards in a wonderful, transformative and healthy 2018. I wish you all the best and I will see you in the new year.