Saturday, January 8, 2022

The DUMB Approach to New Year’s Resolutions


Well, it’s that time of year again, when people start sentences with “it’s that time of year again.” What’s worse, it’s the time for countless articles about New Year’s Resolutions, and why people fail at them, and how to finally get them right. As you can see, I’m just adding to the problem—but this post is different because I’m right, whereas all those other articles are wrong. So keep reading!

Why not SMART resolutions?

One of the most hackneyed mnemonics for setting the right resolutions is taken from preexisting theory about goal-setting (another quagmire of behavioral theory). We’re told to make our resolutions SMART: that is, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Even the New York Times published a New Year’s Resolution article on that theme, here. Now, to be fair, that article does go into some other stuff that is useful, like breaking bad habits down into cues, routines, rewards, and alternatives (for example, if the cue is you’re tired, and the routine is you light a cigarette, and the reward is you feel stimulated, the proposed change in behavior is, “Instead of smoking a cigarette, replace the stimulus with something else, like cocaine”). But all the stuff about SMART is so tired (the NYT cited it in another article here, for example), and it’s empirically ineffective. People have been touting SMART goals since 1981 and yet it’s still just this hypothetical notion of what behavioral framework people should adapt to. If it were that great an idea, its actual practice would be commonplace.

(Note: my fact-checker has just alerted me to a typo in the preceding paragraph. The NYT did not in fact recommend cocaine as a nicotine alternative. They recommended coffee. But it’s too late to go back and fix my error now. Also, my fact-checker has just pointed out that “hackneyed mnemonics” would be a good name for a rock band. Fair enough, but this guy is starting to bug me.)

So, where was I? Oh yeah: it’s bad enough how old and tired SMART is, but actually, I think most New Year’s Resolutions fail because they’re SMART. So I’m going to teach you how to succeed by making DUMB Resolutions.

DUMB? Am I kidding? No, for once I’m not. I believe the best New Year’s Resolutions are duplicate, unimpressive, mealy-mouthed, and best-effort. I shall explain.


This article in Forbes declares that the #1 “really bad” New Year’s Resolution is something you’ve failed at before. The writer snarks, “If you haven’t been able to keep a resolution before, what makes you think that things will be different this year?” To me, this is just defeatist thinking. Is that how life works—if you ever fail at something, you should just give up? I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart (which I’ve repeated, albeit ironically, many times to my children), “If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.”

This “fail fast” notion is specifically refuted in another article, in the New York Times, which points out that many Resolutions fail because the new behaviors are difficult and have to be worked up to gradually. The writer advises, “No marathon runner ever steps up to the start line in a big race without putting in the training miles. He or she has been practicing for months, if not years. You should do the same with your New Year’s resolutions.” He recommends starting on your Resolutions in December, so that even if you stumble at first and your Resolution feels futile, January hasn’t even started yet so you won’t get discouraged.

Great point, but why limit yourself to starting a month in advance? If you spent the first three months of last year trying to implement a lifestyle change but abandoned it, you surely learned a lot in that time and there’s no harm making adjustments and trying again. I doubt many smokers have kicked the habit on their first try, but many have indeed kicked their habit eventually.

(Note: my fact-checker has just asserted that “duplicate” might not be exactly the right “D” word here, because a recycled-but-tweaked Resolution isn’t in fact an exact replica. He suggests the D should be for “derivative,” and though he has a point, you may be pleased to learn that I just whacked him and told him to shut up.)


That’s right, I’m actually going to explain why impressive Resolutions are more likely to fail. Why? Well, the question to ask yourself is, why am I even doing this? If your goal is to be able to tout something, that Resolution will probably only last as long as the annual chatter about Resolutions. I read some article ages ago (and I tried to have my fact-checker go chase it down, but he’s not talking to me) which was really interesting: it asserted that boasting in advance can actually lower your chances of achieving something, if the approval of your peers is the main point. Why? It’s because, having enjoyed the accolades already, the person no longer has much motivation to actually do the thing.

I have seen this play out. I worked with a guy over twenty years ago who was, it must be said, kind of a douche. For example, he once called in sick so he could go skiing, instead of just using his vacation time like an honest person, and was found out because when he left his “cough-cough gosh I’m feeling too sick to come in today cough-cough” voicemail for his boss, he was calling from the ski lodge and accidently put the call on hold instead of hanging up, and instead of hold music they had a running ad for the various amenities of the resort. His boss played the voicemail for all of us in the lunchroom, following which another colleague called the guy’s cell phone and left a voicemail of his own: “Enjoy the slopes, dude!” with all of us laughing in the background. (No, that has nothing to do with bragging-in-advance; it’s just to convey this guy’s douchiness.)

So anyway, that spring the douche announced to the whole office that he was going to run some local marathon on such-and-such a date. Seems like a SMART goal, right? And then for the next two or three months I had to endure all his updates about how the training was going, etc., and everyone was really interested and supportive and impressed, which got old since the guy was such a douche. Finally, the day of the marathon came and went but I didn’t hear any updates. So I asked him about it and he said, “Oh, I didn’t end up running it. I got sick.” Where had I heard that before?

An unimpressive Resolution won’t lead you into this scenario, and besides, self-improvement should be private anyway, and its benefits should be their own reward, rather than anything you’d tout. For example, I could resolve to bore people less. You could never try to impress people by sharing this Resolution with them (i.e., admitting something lame about yourself), and isn’t that kind of the point? Instead, if I’m successful with this, people might gradually decide, “You know, I always thought that Dana guy was kind of a tool, I mean just totally boring, always blathering about stupid stuff like farting, or the spelling of “kindergartner,” or his frickin’ colonoscopy or whatever, but lately I find him a lot less annoying somehow … maybe he’s okay.”


Yes, I sincerely contend that your Resolutions should be mealy-mouthed—that is, I refute the idea that Resolutions should be specific and measurable. Consider this: the NYT article says, “If, for example, you want to stop biting your nails, take pictures of your nails over time so you can track your progress in how those nails grow back out.” Doesn’t this seem like exactly the kind of fussy and annoying task that would cause somebody to abandon this Resolution? You’d have to be really organized to achieve this, and I speak from experience. Last year I went to a dermatologist to have some moles looked at. She said they looked fine but need to be monitored to make sure they don’t change, so she took some photos of them as a benchmark and scheduled a follow-up exam six months out. Just because I’m a very thorough person, I asked her to snap photos with my phone as well, which she seemed slightly annoyed by, but nevertheless did. Well, I went in for my follow-up and she breezily confessed she’d lost the original photos. And this is a medical doctor! Who does this for a living! And melanoma is a matter of life and death! It’s a good thing I’m so organized I had my own photos with me for the follow-up … but of course this is a very rare thing (and I can see why you hate me for it). It’s just not practical to add a lot of extra accounting bullshit to a behavior change that’s already hard to make.

But even if measuring your progress isn’t hard to do, it’s a bad idea. Why? Well, for one thing, when your goals are specific and data-driven, that makes it easier to decide you’ve failed, when in fact you may have made some progress. For example, let’s say you’ve resolved to lose five pounds by February, and so you’ve cut out dessert, and cream in your coffee, and are eating out less, and meanwhile you’ve really increased your exercise. Then you step on the scale on February 1 and you’ve only lost three pounds. Despondent, you cry out, “It’s hopeless! Eating right and exercising don’t work!” and then you chalk up another failure, feel bad about yourself, and go back to your previous habits. And yet what if you’d actually (but unknowingly) lost five pounds of fat and added two pounds of muscle, thus improving your lean-to-fat ratio, which is more important than weight anyway? You just let specificity and measurability ruin a perfectly good health improvement trajectory!

That’s why mealy-mouthed goals are better. For example, you could resolve to eat more fruit—and gauge your performance via something vague, like thinking, “Hey, I was still a bit hungry after my main course and saw that bowl of fruit and actually grabbed an apple, I’m doing okay!” or, conversely, “Oh, crap, I just ate a bunch of chips when there’s a bowl of fruit right over there—next time I’m going for that.”

(My fact-checker, seeing an opening to deride me, has just pointed out that I myself keep detailed digital records of my bike ride data, which practice complies with the M in SMART. To this, I’d like to point out that the data about my rides is actually trivial. I’m not measurably fitter, based on average speed and the times I’m clocking on climbs, than I was a year ago, despite riding a whopping 87% more miles in 2021 than in 2020. So you can see how setting a specific goal, such as “improving fitness,” and measuring it using data, can be demoralizing as we age. A truly mealy-mouthed goal like “stay in shape” or “age well” is clearly better. Take that, fact-checker!)


The NYT confidently asserts, “There’s no single reason that most people fail to stick to their New Year’s resolutions.” This is false. There is a single reason: we fail because we assess. A college student could take a midterm and fill out the multiple-choice bubbles completely at random, but won’t get an F on the test unless somebody grades it. Grading exams is necessary for deciding who passes a class and ultimately gets a degree, but judgment is totally unnecessary where New Year’s Resolutions are concerned.

Instead, we should just consider our Resolutions best-effort. I can decide I’m going to try to eat more fruit and be less boring, and not worry about whether I can ever check these off as “done.” I mean, what if, in late December of this year, I look back and decide I nailed these? Does that mean I can stop now, and go back to eating chips and droning on about Simplex bike shifters or my vasectomy? No, that would undo the Resolution!

Meanwhile, if on March 31 I look back and realize that I haven’t had a bite of fruit in months, and that all winter I’ve been blathering nonstop about family shibboleths and high school wrestling, should I now just give up and conclude that my Resolutions weren’t good ones? Of course not. It’s never too late to try harder.

Finally, if I realize at this time next year that I’ve become truly carpophagous, and that everybody hangs on my every word, I can come up with new Resolutions (though without any fanfare or celebration that would suggest completion of the previous ones). On the other hand, if I’m as boring as ever, still prattling on about mirrorless cameras, epic bike rides, and the metric system, I’ll have my first duplicate/derivative Resolution identified for 2023 … and I already know it’ll be DUMB!

(A final note: my fact-checker, still sulking, has just announced that he’s found a factual error in this post but won’t tell me what it is. If you find anything, please let me know.)

Further reading

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