My scorched-earth policy on New Year’s resolutions

(forgive me if these concepts are too basic; this was originally written for normies)

Welp, at this time of year everyone either writes a “How to set and keep your New Year’s resolution” article, or a “Why you shouldn’t set New Year’s resolutions” article.

This is the latter.

a forest fire

Letting your dreams be memes

New Year’s resolutions are a meme. They’re a “thing” in our culture. We all know how it goes. Everyone sets an ambitious goal that starts on January 1st. And the second part of the meme is that almost no one sticks to it. That’s just what “New Year’s resolution” means to us: you set a goal in January and you don’t stick to it.

To confirm this, I looked it up in TV Tropes, which is a website that started as a collection of storytelling tropes and accidentally became a comprehensive encyclopedia of all the ideas that make up contemporary culture (I’m serious). And here it is: New Year’s Resolution:

A popular tradition for people to make at the start of a new year. A new year means a new start, and a new me – so time to drop habit X!

Almost always ends with Failure Is the Only Option, in part because characters often set lofty goals for themselves that require more motivation beyond “hey it’s a new year, better make a resolution”.

So, ok, that’s the essence of it. “But that’s just a meme, how do we know it’s true?” Fine, here’s your boring statistical truth.

Whatever goal you’re thinking of for your next New Year’s resolution, you probably require more motivation than, “The year number is different now.” If you haven’t started working on the goal already, then one of two things is true. Either you planned it for a more pragmatic time in the future, which is fine (but what are the chances that all the relevant factors are best precisely on January 1st?), or you just don’t want to do it.

“But I do want to do it”

If you didn’t start yesterday, then you didn’t want it enough yesterday. If you don’t start today, then you don’t want it enough today. Maybe you know you should want it. Maybe you want to want it. But your revealed preferences say you don’t want it.

And if we extrapolate the pattern, you won’t want it tomorrow either. And you won’t want it on January 1st, but because of the meme and the social pressure of other people following the meme, you’ll motivate yourself to work on it for a few weeks.

But then it’ll fall apart, because that’s the meme you’re following. You were following it when you started on Jan 1st, and you’ll be following it when you fizzle out in March like everyone else. If you’re willing to go against the grain by sticking to your resolution after a few months, then you might as well go against the grain from the beginning, by starting it on your own time.

“Then what am I supposed to do right now?”

The best thing you can do is start today, December 29th. Look what it says about you, that you’d start a new commitment during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Who does that? That’s vision. That’s agency. There’s no silly meme for that, it’s not a familiar thing in our culture, but the impression it gives is that you’re so serious about this goal that nothing will stand in your way, not even three more days. “Well I don’t care if other people are impressed.” No, but the narratives we tell ourselves are important.

If you’re reading this post at some random time in the year, the same principle applies: Start now!

But if you’re reading this in early January, I want you to just hold on for a second…

“Why not January?”

Sure, maybe you’ll start your goal in early January and just stick to it, as everyone around you inevitably gives up on their thing over the next three months. Maybe you’re one of the blessed ones.

But if you’re letting your culture decide when you start your own goals, because it’s “easier that way” or whatever, then I infer that your willpower isn’t so great right now, and maybe you have a history of fizzling out on things. Sorry, I could be wrong.

If it’s January and you want to have a New Year’s resolution and you have a history of failing your resolutions, then I truly believe it’s better to just wait.

First, I think you’re more likely to fail starting in January than any other time of the year (because it’s baked into the meme). And you shouldn’t risk another willpower failure. In Willpower I wrote about the need to maintain a pattern of “wins” in order to keep winning.

Sometimes it’s still better to not try things, at least not right away. If some particular goal is going to take more willpower than you’re confident you can put out, it may be a bad idea. Because if you fail, it’ll damage the pattern you were building.

You don’t want to wager your willpower on a losing bet. Instead, start small, collect small wins, and start to fix the pattern.

You know what’s a perfect example of a small win? Wait till February, on purpose. Make a February resolution. It takes more willpower to go out on your own and say you have no New Year’s resolutions, than to join the herd and pick a generic one.

“Well then what should I do this January?”

Hot take coming up: be a slob this January.

Remember what I said about not wanting your goal enough? A great way to want something more is to have a negative experience with the alternatives. Spend the first two weeks of January being lazy and eating poorly and not exercising at all. Don’t just guiltily slip up every now and then: go hard in that direction like it’s your job. Got a project you’ve been excited about but afraid to start? Don’t even think about it—don’t enjoy the fantasy of it; stop telling your friends about it; pretend you never had that intention in the first place.

In other words, aggressively run away from your goals, and reflect on how miserable it is to live that way. The reflection is crucial: if you’re self-forgetful /​ not mindful about it, you’ll risk staying in that state. Do it for a week or two, reflect on how much it sucks, and in doing so you’ll condition your mind to view the goal as a valuable opportunity to escape that misery (which it is).

No middle ground

See, when it’s a choice between your goal and the complete abandonment of your goal, you’ll want to achieve your goal! Of course! It’s the middle ground that kills you—where you act in ways that you insist you don’t want to act, and then soothe the resulting cognitive dissonance by making ad-hoc excuses for yourself, or feeling guilty about it, or putting just enough effort in so you can say you’re trying. Identifying as someone who “would’ve done it but for X,” or who “feels guilty about it,” or who’s “trying”: these are clever tricks we play in order to continue identifying with our goals, without actually working on them. Middle ground!

Burn down the middle ground, or else the “enemy”—the part of you that doesn’t want to do anything—will use it to their advantage, growing a bounty of tasty thoughts and narratives that keep you satisfied just enough not to act. Scorch the earth! And Happy New Year.

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