I have a confession to make. It shouldn’t be a confession, since it’s actually a positive thing, but so many people hate New Year’s resolutions that I feel a little guilty about it. It’s simply this: I love making them, and they (sometimes) work for me. There, I said it.
Some of the reasons I love editing are the reasons I love the New Year: the blank slate; the opportunity to apply completion, pattern, and consistency; the order and organization of a resolution held.
And so I thought I’d share my resolution habits, in case they help anyone — not just for resolutions (it’s a couple weeks late or eleven months early for that anyway) but for any other applications they might have.
Although I’ve always loved the idea of the resolution, I wasn’t always successful at it, for the same reasons others shun it. It takes self-discipline to start a good habit or stop a bad one, and most resolutions are for things you don’t truly want to be doing; you resolve it because you know you should. It took many years of fiddling with the formula before I found a way to make it work for me (and to figure out why sometimes it already had).
The key was overresolving.
This isn’t the same as setting overly ambitious resolutions, but setting all the resolutions I wanted.
Now, there are a couple of other guidelines I follow that you’ve heard before, over and over, in every list of ways to be productive ever. The fact that they’re cliché also means they’re time-proven and necessary. The first is making sure your goals are concrete (that is, “Write half an hour every day” rather than “Write more”). The second is making sure to set both shoft-term and long-term benchmarks (such as the writing example for the short term and “Complete a novel by the end of the year” for the long term). I won’t go any more deeply into those because plenty of other people already have. Let’s get straight to the weirder one.
I’ve always been ambitious with my resolutions — I’ll usually write down a dozen or so on the last day of the year. But my practice of overresolving-as-strategy dates back to one year when, after doing so, I managed to fulfill every single “Do ________ every day” goal I had set for myself on January 1. I’d gotten up bright and early, met my work target, exercised, cooked, cleaned, read, written trivia, and even practiced the guitar that usually gathers dust in the corner. Everything I wanted to spend every day of the coming year doing, I did. I went to bed with a tremendous sense of accomplishment along with the potent awareness that I was absolutely insane. It was, after all, 2 in the morning; it had taken me 19 hours to do all that.
It had never been so clear how much I’d overresolved before because I’d never managed to accomplish everything I’d planned. Instead, I’d finish the day thinking I’d failed at half my resolutions yet again. With the new realization that complete success on these terms was genuinely ludicrous, I began to develop a different definition of failure and success.
Over the coming days and weeks, I allowed myself to be a bit more flexible with some of the things I was trying to do. I let most of my resolutions fall away or become much less stringent until I was left with a few I was managing to stick with. The guitar went back to gathering dust, and daily cooking was demoted to twice a week. I let the resolutions tell me which among them I would do 365 days out of 365. When the rest were pared away, I ended up with three completely manageable goals: scooping the litter box every morning, washing all the dishes every night, and maintaining an organized client and project spreadsheet. I kept these all year, and they’ve become enough of a habit that I no longer need to resolve to do them — I just do.
The main and obvious question, I realize, is probably Why don’t I just make fewer resolutions in the first place?
And I certainly could do that, but what overresolving does, when accompanied by a comfortable paring-down, is let me figure out which ones the sticking resolutions are going to be. If I only made three, and I discovered I couldn’t keep any of them — because those weren’t the resolutions that my current life circumstances had room for — then I’d be left without any improvement in my habits. But setting twelve and then keeping three, without knowing ahead of time which three they’re going to be, allows me to discover my successes.
So would this strategy work for anyone else? I honestly have no idea. If you aren’t already one to see the new year as a blank slate and an opportunity for change, then this won’t alter that. But if your brain works as oddly as mine does, and you’re someone who wants to make and keep resolutions but haven’t been able to, then maybe it would be worth a try.
I can think of a couple of ways this topic can apply to other situations, though. For instance, if you tend to have a concrete perception of failure and success, it helps to remember that those perceptions aren’t always set in stone. It depends on context, of course, but not all failures are truly objective, and viewing small setbacks as part of the process of success is more often an option than it’s sometimes easy to think.
For example, if you’re applying to jobs, it can be easy to feel let down by each and every one that turns you down or that you never even hear from. If you define success more broadly and see the declined jobs not as failures but as steps to the eventual offer, they shouldn’t be as disheartening.
Another application is in learning to build flexibility into your goals, projects, plans, processes, and so on. If, for example, you’re writing a dissertation, you may need to stick to a standard intro/lit review/three chapters/conclusion structure or whatever variation on it your advisor prefers. You might even start with a tightly structured outline for every chapter. But that doesn’t mean you need to stick to it if your material is pulling you in a different direction. Writing a dissertation can be a fragile process, and getting the words on the page is more important than having them in the correct order when you write them.
As an example of how this applies elsewhere, I see this principle coming in handy when I’m doing my volunteer tech support in Second Life. A lot of the time, people have an idea of what they want their computer to do, and they’re absolutely certain it should do it. They don’t take the time to listen to what the computer is telling them about its capacity to perform. It’s worthwhile to pay attention to your graphics card, to your resolutions, to your dissertation. They may be inanimate objects and abstract concepts, but thinking of them as “communicating” their needs with you is a helpful way to see when you’re applying force where adaptation would be more productive.
While I certainly have a lot of room for improvement in the area of productivity myself, I can certainly add my two cents to this pepetually useful topic. The most important strategy is whatever you find works for you. If the strategy of overresolution fits in your bag of tricks as it does mine, then I’m happy to have given it to you.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.