My no resolution resolution

by Glenn on January 2, 2016

This is the time of year when people ask each other about goals for the coming year: “Do you have any New Year’s Resolutions?”

My resolution is not to admit having any resolutions.

At the end of 2014 someone asked me if I had any big goals for the year. The answer was yes and I could have answered yes, but I said, “No, not really.” I was probably a little more surly than I needed to be as I said it, but I don’t enjoy talking about goals too much because it’s too easy to talk about goals. Actually achieving anything of import is a real challenge for me.

There’s so much bravado at the beginning of the year: “I’m gonna … [this]” and “I’m gonna …[that].” Great intentions abound at the outset, but the New Year’s resolution that becomes a promise not kept seems more like the norm.

This time of year is so full of energy and promise. And we Americans, we like to add things to our lives don’t we. More is better is our operating principle. But this strikes me as the worst possible time to start much that is new. Many of us are on a holiday of varying lengths from work, which frees up a lot of time in the day. It’s easy to add things into your life when you have an extra eight, nine, ten hours a day that are free. You can do more when you have time for more. It’s pretty easy to get to the gym (which I’m dreading because it will be packed full of people who decided this is the year they are going to get in shape) when your calendar is open.

But then Monday arrives and we’re back to work and the old routine, which was demanding enough, but now there’s more and it’s like we’re trying to pilot an overfull wheelbarrow.

I remember someone telling me they were going to do the 90-day Bible plan. A great goal—reading through the Bible in 3 months. But you do the math and you realize that that’s going to take some work through a demanding regimen. I’m a slowish reader and reading through the Bible in a year takes over 15 minutes a day. That’s mainly a requirement of personal discipline. To do it in ¼ of that time, though, means someone who reads at my speed would have to spend over an hour a day every day for three months to finish reading the Bible, which for me doesn’t feel possible for that long a stretch. That hour you are spending is an hour you can’t do something else you’ve been doing or need to be doing. I never asked, but I think they abandoned their goal.

Some time ago I came across a short Ted Talk with a simple but important lesson that is part of the reason I don’t say too much about goals. The speaker, Derek Sivers, encouraged people to keep their goals a secret. The talk is only 3’15” so it’s quick to take it in, but the essential point is that telling someone about a goal you have gives you the same emotional release as you get from actually achieving the goal. So, by telling people your goals, you make your mind think it’s already achieved them, which makes it actually harder to go after them. As Sivers says, “Your mind mistakes the talking for the doing.”

One of the troubles we have is that we need room to do the work it will take to achieve whatever goal we set before ourselves. We need to create some space so that we can get to work. By space, I really mean time. In other words, to do one thing, especially if it is a new thing (like attempting to read through the Bible in three months), often requires that (or, at the very least, makes it easier if) we stop doing something else.

And so one big achievement this past year was actually to stop doing something. I was remarkably (for me) consistent. It didn’t start as an effective January 1 goal, but over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays of 2014 I noticed I wasn’t listening to talk radio and decided that I wasn’t really missing it. I wondered how long I could go without it. Turns out, nearly the entire year. It wasn’t until summer that I dared tell anyone what I was doing.

I had a couple of brief moments during the year where the local jazz station I’ve begun listening to to went to the news at the top of the hour and I forgot to turn it off. And on Christmas Eve I listened to the BBC broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge and didn’t turn it off right away after it was finished so I was treated to the strange juxtaposition of a Christian service with Bible readings with British talk radio including, later, my first introduction to a very funny performance by an American comic, Tina C1, while I was working in the uncharacteristic conditions of a quiet morning by myself. But that was it for the year. When I wanted news or commentary, I read it.

I was taking advantage of the “nature abhors a vacuum” principle to see what would open up for me. For one, it turns out I got to hear a lot of beautiful jazz on Portland’s KMHD, a phenomenal radio station completely devoted to jazz music, with the exception of the sometimes news segment from OPB at the top of the hour.

I didn’t realize how much of my life was taken up with talk radio, whether political commentators or the news on OPB or the Saturday OPB line-up that I really enjoyed, including Scott Simon with Weekend Edition, Car Talk, and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

Over a couple of weeks in November, I listened to a book in the car, which I hadn’t done for a long time. Last week, I read Steve Leveen’s The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to get more books in your life and more life from your books. One of his recommendations is audio books. He even coined a new term, ristening, for the experience of listening to a book being read. I’m wondering, now, about listening to the Bible in my car this year. I wonder how far I could get in how long.

With the arrival of this New Year, I’m thinking about what else I can stop doing. Elimination creates more space (and greater possibility for gains) than trying to become more efficient in the midst of it all. Rather than take an additive approach, I’m looking forward to getting back to the races on Monday with a lighter load.

Recently, I came across this quote in a newsletter from David Allen:

“The enemy often tries to make us attempt and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished. Sometimes he even suggests the wish to undertake some excellent work that he foresees we will never accomplish. This is to distract us from the prosecution of some less excellent work that we would have easily completed. He does not care how many plans and beginnings we make, provided nothing is finished.” —St. Francis de Sales

For me, the essential element in doing more is doing less. This year I’m looking forward to not doing some things. And not telling anyone about it.


1 The performance can be found here for a limited time. Early on she says, “There’s only one thing in this world better than a country music song. What’s that? A medley of country music songs.” It’s quite a shtick she’s got going: part parody, part irony, part social commentary, with a giant wink at the audience with the occasional double entendre.