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The end of 2020 - Essay from Newsletter 40

Reasonable expectations


Last week I noted that January first is an artificial marker.

And yet many are counting down the three days until the end of 2020 as if something magical happens at midnight.

We make resolutions - “my new diet starts….now.”

We promise to quit unconscious eating, smoking, drinking or whatever habit we think we need to leave behind and vow to start exercising, reading more, being more understanding, or whatever trait we think we need to embrace.

We could start that today, but somehow January first is that magical date where we make these changes.

I feel bad for gyms this year. This is the month where they usually sign up many new members who come for a couple of weeks and then stop - while paying the monthly memberships that keep the gyms in business.

This year, I humbly suggest you don’t make resolutions.


Maybe, as Andy Matuschak wrote in 2017, “Adopting new habits is hard! What a shame: New Year’s resolutions could represent such a bright spark of optimism. Instead, they’re a clichéd punchline on the futility of human will.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t note the tweet that led me to Andy’s three year old post, but his take may work for you.

He suggests that instead of going cold turkey and quitting or starting a habit all at once that you choose a modest entry goal and first achieve that.

So, for example, I don’t say that I will walk the dog every day starting January first. Instead, I say that I will walk the dog at least once a week.

This is a small achievable goal.

Of course I can walk the dog daily and still achieve this goal - but that’s not what I’m measuring success against.

Once I can comfortably achieve this goal, I move the goal to twice a week.

This is Andy’s notion of achieving by ratcheting.

I’ve seen people do this when deciding to eat healthier. They decide to have at least one meatless meal a week. After they see how that goes they move the bar to two. And then more.

Take a breath

Other people say, “no, that’s not enough. I need to make a big enough change or I’ll never lose the taste for chips, or meat, or cigarettes, or whatever it is.

I’ve told this story before, but I worked with a man named John Webster in Cleveland radio who had a thirty minute rule.

He quit many things using this rule including cigarettes and over-eating.

His method was simple and powerful.

If he wanted a cigarette he’d look at his watch.

He knew that mostly he wanted that cigarette because he was bored or triggered by something else that he always had a cigarette with.

If in a half hour he still wanted that cigarette, he’d smoke it.

Mostly, he said, he’d have forgotten about that cigarette. In the meantime he might have a new desire for a cigarette. The clock starts again from that point.

He was never not having a cigarette or a meal that he really wanted. He was just eliminating the ones he didn’t.

Three words

For quite a while, I’ve been picking three words to guide my behavior throughout the year. These aren’t resolutions. They are more goals coupled with reminders.

I learned this habit of three words from Chris Brogan.

He writes, “Choose 3 words (not 1, not 4) that will help guide your choices and actions day to day. Think of them as lighthouses. ‘Should I say yes to this project?’ ‘Well, does this align with my three words?’”

I’ve been playing along for years although I now spend much of January identifying my words rather than preparing them and beginning January first.

I really want to get out of the habit of planning for big changes when we hit this artificial marker.

Be realistic

One of the most important things about making resolutions or deciding to make changes is to have reasonable expectations.

It is unreasonable to expect that at midnight Thursday night our lives will magically change.

Not to bum you out, but more than one million people in the US flew on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

How many of them brought the disease from their homes to the friends and family they travelled to visit?

How many of them brought it back to their homes and communities after their visit?

The number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths will not magically become zero on January first. In fact, new cases still outpaces vaccinations.

We begin the new year, no matter what our intentions, carrying our past along with us.

We can make changes - but have reasonable expectations.

Small Changes

Make small changes that you can sustain.

It is amazing how important and impactful these changes will be. If you’re not already, wear a mask and keep your distance. Neither action is as difficult as any resolution you’ve had in the past.

Move a little each day.

Be kinder to others than you were last year. Not the fake, “have a nice day”, kindness. But the real, feel it when you say it, “have a nice day”, kindness.

The weight thing - sure, do that too.

And here’s one you may ratchet up over time - choose one person and send them an old fashioned letter. One that you write on paper and send with a stamp.

Maybe after doing that you might write another one.

Have a safe and happy new year.

2021 will be better.

Just not all at once.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 40. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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