Why Resolutions Fail
Increase their Breadth, Depth, and Tread to Succeed
Reading Time: 9 minutes
By this time in 2021, many of us find our resolutions have failed or faltered. Or they’ve been forgotten altogether. I have a sense why this is. And with the repositioning laid out here, we can have a fresh shot at them.
Resolutions fail because they’re thin. For them to succeed, we need to increase the breadth, depth, and tread of those resolutions.
Here’s what that looks like.
Why Resolutions Fail: It’s Got Nothing to Do With You
Resolutions are a shady little Hallmark gift from the capitalist system. A one-two sucker punch from the shadows.
Capitalism and its grind tire us out. We find our way to habits and vices that soften the edge. Then, standard resolutions guilt us and goose us into more spending: on gym memberships and fad diet programs. Resolutions are built to fail because they are rooted in a cycle and mentality of scarcity and self-flagellation.
Let me unpack this a bit.
Unless you’re living deep in siesta culture, in a vibe or community that prioritizes balance and rest, self-care and joie de vivre, life is a hustle. A grinding and frantic shuffle. Unless you’re espousing an outlaw slow-down, you’re in a nonstop benchmark binge, a sincere surcharge of stimuli. And that’s just the baseline.
Even outside of covid times, life can be hard. Take covid off the table for a moment. You’ve got divisive politics, jacked inequality and racial injustice baked into the wiring of every living day. And that’s on a backdrop of end-of-the-earth climate collapse narrative, sensational news cycles, and constant commodification around every corner.
As Aldous Huxley wrote two generations ago:
Modern civilization is ‘organized lovelessness’; advertising is ‘the organized effort to extend and intensify craving’; the 20th century is ‘The Age of Noise’.
And this 21st century has doubled down on that noisy treadmill. On and on, the standard globalized American Dream is stressful.
Don’t get me wrong: life can be an abundant party, and I know I’m grateful for all the blessings, comforts, and opportunities in my life.
But doing the work of always better, faster, more, bigger… it’s the relentless background of our days. Some can 100% thrive with that; most cannot.
Enter the end of the year. A reprieve, a little bit of redemption, a vacation, the hope of a new leaf. We determine to make ourselves better. But the so-called game barely gives a fuck, barely gives a break. Thus, the thin resolution prevails. Stop eating sweets, stop drinking, stop lazing, drop the smoking, the vaping, the doom-scrolling.
Those are the most common resolutions every year, give or take, data shows. All the things that feel, actually, kinda good. All the activities that are a tiny, numbing balm to a burdened body and brain. All the habits, yes, and defaults, yes, that soften the blow of a hard day and a solid, abrasive grind.
Problematize the little balms of life. That’s the thin resolution.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t aim to better ourselves and get ahead. Finding healthful ways of feeling better in our minds, bodies, spirit, and connections is exactly what we should be doing.
Resolutions could be the key, but the thin ones we’ve habituated to are the actual problem. We need to make resolutions that have more breadth, depth, and tread in order to succeed.
More Breadth: From Symptomatic to Thematic
The most common resolutions every new year are symptomatic challenges. We decide to reduce our screen time by x hours per week. We want to stop eating sweets after dinner. We don’t want to drink alcohol for the entire month of January.
For some initiatives and projects, tackling a thing symptomatically is a strong move. But when it comes to the revolving door of resolutions, it’s the wrong way. A better solution is to come at resolutions thematically.
You know that class of anecdote? It goes something like…
People don’t want refrigerators; we want cold beer.
People don’t want toasters; we want crispy-crust pizza at home.
In the same vein, people don’t want “x less hours of screen time”; we want more time. People don’t want “no alcohol for 30 days”; we want wellness and balance.
People don’t want to give up the little balms of grind-life. We want an overall sense of being on the right path. Devising a system, such as The Theme System, where a theme of our choosing is kept as an orienting principle, failure is not a part of the lexicon.
You want greater wellness, and Wednesday night you decide to binge Bridgerton and a mid-size bucket of popcorn? There’s six other days of the week to move the trend back towards wellness.
With a theme of wellness, you’re always moving on trend. And you’re no longer problematizing activities and behaviors that actually feel kind of good.
More Depth: From the “What” to the “Why”
Thin resolutions are not only symptomatic but also pretty shallow.
Think about it. Complex and evolving “you” are more than just your so-called bad habit of insta-scrolling for an hour before bed. Beautiful and growing “you” are more than just your default crutch of watching outtakes of Friends on YouTube after the kids are asleep. “You” are so much more than your little predilection for partaking of three glasses of middle-of-the-road rosé with your zoom-friends.
We are whole beings with visions and hopes and ideals. And when we devise behavior change based on the thinnest, most superficial of our activities, what’s the point?
Philosopher and entrepreneur Daniel Schmactenberger of Neurohacker Collective developed an outstanding framework that drives the resolutions conversation about annual review and behavior change into a place of more depth and thus more resolve. His annual review is worth exploring. I’ve done it three years in a row now and find it invaluable. It’s a simple framework, and requires a couple of hours of thought and journaling.
The gist of the exercise is that you divide your life into your “Personal” and “Professional” selves. You then carve out different, meaningful buckets for each.
So for example, in my “Personal” self, I include buckets for:
my Physical Health and Fitness
my Emotio-Psycho-Spiritual Wellbeing.
For my “Professional” self, I include a bucket for:
Lone Mountain (the food business I co-own and advise)
my Community & Network
Service (board memberships)
Then, for each of those buckets, I undertake a journaling exercise and answer the following questions:
Ultimate Vision: What is my ultimate vision of what I want this area of my life to be like? What would my ideal be if I thought it was possible?
Ultimate Purpose: Why does this area of life and my vision for it matter to me? What are the core values underneath it? Why is this essential for my dharma?
Resources: Who do I know that can help me with this? What trainings, education? What hires? What reminders? What are the resources that can support me?
3 Pillars: If I could only do the 3 most important things for this category to thrive, what would they be?
Self: Who do I want to be in this area of my life? What kind of person? How does this relate to my dharma and deepest self?
By locating and exploring these deep parameters, it’s like planting seeds, watering ground, and nurturing a healthy root system for the activities and goals that are meaningful for those important buckets. I’ve laid the foundation of a successful year by exploring the depth of WHY for all of these aspects.
With that framing, I’ve given deep attention to the soul of who I am and who I want to be. I’ve given zero mind to willing any so-called bad habits away.
Attention on the “Why” is the fundamental concern. As Simone Weil wrote:
We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will…. Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
With an attention on our vision and purpose, we orient in right relationship to the activities that align with them. From there, the process gets more tactical. You break down actions, milestones, and goals for each quarter.
This visioning process is one of the strongest I’ve come across. It’s an outstanding way to position the right organizing principle in your orbit. It’s a cheat sheet and deep hack for Slipstream Attuning.
More Tread: From Platitude to Exactitude
A vision of “why” bolstered by a thematic mission gives resolutions the breadth and depth they need for them to be successful. Even just one of those two — the vision of “why” or the thematic exploration — will serve the process. It takes the thin resolution we’ve all bandied about around the new year and gives them some gravitas and grounding.
But leave them there, and they’re liable to stay static in the dirt. That’s where the tread comes in: the dirt-in-the-boot, grit-in-the-teeth daily work of making small actions into the habits we dream for ourselves.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has pretty much cornered the market on this subject. There is no better tome for habit-making than this. The whole book is worth the time and money, but I’ll single out three critical tenets of Clear’s wisdom here.
1. The All-Important Law of Compounding
Every achievement in life is a direct result of earlier, smaller achievements compounding.
Or put another way:
You can reverse-engineer your future achievement, simply, by consistently achieving the smaller wins. It’s basic — and brilliant AF.
In other words, make the treads daily. Don’t delay and certainly don’t skip a day: it’s just shorting your assured future achievement.
2. Big Goals, Tiny Actions
Further to that point, goals should be big. Goals that are aligned with that deep vision of self can be bold and audacious. The bigger they are, the more opportunity for tiny actions there are. These are the daily treads.
This is where a habit tracker comes in handy. I’ve tried a dozen habit trackers over the years, and I’ve landed on Everyday as my app for now. Designer Joan Boixadós has created something elegant, sticky and simple to setup.
The template image above exemplifies the magic of this tracker. You set whatever tiny action you choose as your habit, and you start tracking — toggling ‘yes’ for the days you’ve succeeded.
As your habit forms, the customizable color grows deeper in hue, evoking the compounding effect of the habit.
(If that looks like too much, there’s also the simple, streamlined Priorities app.)
3. Friction is the Key
Every goal or habit worth its weight must be tethered to that deeper vision for ourselves. And the force that underlies that tethering is friction.
When we want to do something more often, we must reduce the friction to increase that frequency. When we want to do something less often, we must increase the friction to minimize that frequency.
Two examples from my own habits:
I noticed that I felt more zen and accomplished on days when, first thing, I made my bed, opened the drapes, tidied the room. To reduce the friction of that habit, I paired that practice with another habit I already had, of brushing teeth. During my 2-minute tooth brushing, I putter around with my one free hand and regulate the bedroom. Now it’s a habit.
Similarly, I noticed that I felt more calm and nourished by bedtime when I didn’t spend loads of time on my phone late at night. To increase the friction of that habit, I set my iPhone Down Time such that after 8pm, I can’t open up an app without entering a four-digit code. It’s the smallest bit of friction, but just enough to make me consider how badly I actually want that bit of screen time.
Coherence, Consistency, & Integrity: The 3 Pillars of Toku
Making resolutions is a bold act. It’s us espousing a vision for ourselves and putting a flag in the ground on that vision. For all of the reasons above, common practices of resolutions do a mediocre job of enacting that vision. After all, real vision is a verb, not a thin platitude.
Philosopher, ordained Zen Buddhist priest, consultant and advisor, Yasuhiko Genku Kimura developed this “To Be A Leader” framework at his Vision-In-Action Leaders Roundtable back in 2006. In it, he discussed the Japanese concept known as Toku.
Commonly translated as “virtue,” with a wider frame, it also means “power” or “integrity.”
Toku is the consciousness of the whole that makes your life coherent, consistent, and integral. Therefore, toku is integrity, and toku is also power because through toku your vision, action, and result become coherent and consistent. Success in life and business requires power to make your vision realized through action. Success thus requires integrity in the sense of toku.
By increasing the breadth, depth, and tread of our resolutions, we approach the coherence, consistency and integrity needed for growth and leadership.
Thanks for reading. I hope this was helpful.