(Three Weeks Later &) Here’s how to get rid of New Year Resolutions

This is the best time to write those new year resolutions post-mortem advice. Many would be knee deep already and will be wondering if there is a better approach to it all. Among hundreds of articles full with useful advice, nothing beats Scott Adam’s (the Dilbert Guy) revolutionary article: Goals vs Systems.

Imagine yourself setting out on a journey from Sydney to Melbourne by road. The distance is around 870KM so approximately a typical trip should take anywhere between 7–10 hours. Setting goals will be like putting a target; say reaching Melbourne in 8 hours. But this target setting is primarily a wish disguised as a carefully selected point considering all the preconditions and constraints available. What if the only vehicle you have available for this trip is an old clunker.

You set out for the drive and ambitious to reach your target, you push your clunker to the max to give you an average of 108.75 km/hr. You may or may not reach on your set target of 8 hours but quite likely your car will not be in a shape to bring you back from the trip; let alone all the possible chaos your little bugger might have caused on the freeways.

What if instead of setting your goals, you would have focused more on capabilities and the rate of improvement in them instead. In such a model, the idea is to keep driving with average speed that is the core capability of the vehicle and fix things that are slowing you down or not letting you give a sustainable and enjoyable journey. That’s akin to improving the ‘system’ in Scott Adam’s article.

Over the last four years, I’ve been improving my own ‘system’ by honing on certain skills which i call ‘meta-skills’ as these don’t chase targets but rather improve my ‘system’. These skills are what Dan Ariely called in his latest book Payoff as ‘uncountable dimensions’. Therefore, creating a metric to assess your progress on these meta-skills is not as relevant as keeping track on your ability to practice them. The actual system will get to be improved the more you see a delta in improvement in these meta-skills on a relative scale.

1 — Learning How to Learn

2016 was definitely the year of Machine Learning and chat bots and AI and it seems this year the ethical and sociopolitical aspects around the rise of ‘intelligent’ machines will be pretty obvious. A lot of people are expected to lose jobs in the near future due to technology and they are not just truck drivers. In Japan, an insurance company has started to lay off analysts with the promise of machines offering better. Radiologists and many of the paper pushing jobs will be soon under attack.

This means that the most sought after skill will be the ability to learn new things in this VUCA world. This includes systematic and structured process of ‘unlearning’ things that don’t hold true anymore and employing a host of novel techniques to learn new concepts and skills (like slow learning, spaced repetition etc).

A great starting point is an online course on Coursera called ‘Learning how to learn’ by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Terrance Sejnowski.

2 — Dealing with Uncertainty

In a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, we are essentially shifting away from a world of problems to a world of dilemmas. The key measures in such a world are our ability to make consistent decisions quickly and making a lot of good ones then finally understanding what does it all mean. We are witnessing a cycle of ‘creative destruction’ that demands a change in focus from predictive planning to more empirical and agile planning in life. Creating better heuristics for common day dilemmas and improving ability to estimate things under rational assumptions become essential.

Atif Saeed’s Photography (Creative Commons)

Someone asks a hypothetical question: What will you do if you will see a raging lion coming towards you? Answer: I won’t do anything, its the lion that will do everything. Our brain’s limbic systems create the sense of panic and hampers our ability to think ‘slow’. Uncertainty brings fear along for some that causes them to make decisions they regret.

When dealing with complex problems in complex environments, there is always an issue of having to plan ahead and our knowledge before we start such an initiative is far less than our knowledge at the end of the initiative while our (predictive) plan requires us to plan for things at a stage when we least know about them. On the contrary, our ability to defer such decisions for later when things become more certain lets us to achieve better overall results. In Software Engineering, we call it ‘Lazy Evaluation’; decisions that can be made later should be made deferred for later. The entire movement of Agile acknowledges the uncertain world and instead of removing uncertainty, embraces it using principles from empirical process control.

3 — Processing (Mis)Information

Misinformation in media is now mainstream and Facebook has been accused of changing the opinion of pollsters in US due to fake news. But this is not a Facebook only problem; its universal. For instance, check out this 5 years old TED talk on the same topic:

Algorithms are working day and night to serve you in a filter bubble. Everyone now has his/her own echo chamber perceived as reality. After all, the success of these content & social media platforms depends on your constant addiction to them. They reinforce our biases and great silos around. Identifying the sources of news should become habitual and a skeptic mindset goes a long way. On the other spectrum, we have the information overload problem. There is just too much information out there. This also leads to increased noise and thus finding true signals become harder with more noise added.

Not relying on social media platforms to ‘curate’ content is one thing. The ability to critically analyze information and create a world view that is based on rational and consistent logic is paramount to progress individually and as societies. One way to learn being rational is understanding that we are consistently irrational. Another interesting blog that focuses on helping us become better rational beings is ‘Less Wrong’. For a quick read, you may head over to this journey of rational thinking as well. Haven’t reviewed it but here is an interesting new course offering “Calling Bullshit in the age of Big Data”

4 — Genuine Empathy

2016 has been a year of the rise of nationalism for mostly wrong reasons. Brexit, Trump, Russia, China, India and soon to follow France and Germany getting populist leaders. Overall, this rapid surge in nationalism post financial crisis of 2008 may continue in years to come while countries clear on globalization and technology will remain far and few between. The 2017 edition of Edelman Trust Barometer has seen a decline for the first time since inception with very low confidence for Government, Business, Media and NGOs. The Open Data Barometer and The Open Government Partnership have also seen decline in trust in recent years. One can attribute these with the filter bubble phenomena nevertheless, its the best time to improve our empathy towards others; both emotional and cognitive. For a number of years, this TED talk from Brene Brown has resonated very well.

5 — Grit

Grit can be defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”.

We generally tend to overestimate with what we can do in the short term and underestimate what we can do in the long term.

As a result, target setting while chasing goals is mired with the burden of estimating the right targets. Ones that are achievable but give a significant challenge. Grit on the other hand is focused on the long term and thus capitalizes more on ‘perseverance’ rather than haste. Arguably to enable grit, one has to have thicker skins to sustain and self motivate to achieve more.

In Payoff, Dan Ariely talks about the most essential ingredient of motivation is having Meaning. Grit is the technique that lets one sustain on a path to meaning.

Here’s the full talk by Angela Duckworth on Grit.

One of the benefits of focusing and improving Grit is the ability to build habits instead of setting targets. Habits are easier to perform, there is significantly less cognitive overhead in performing habits as opposed to adhoc tasks. Habits also allow one to work on very granular short term activities instead of burdening oneself with long term tasks and ‘work breakdown structures’. Habits are also systematic to build and destroy; one has to become more observant of the Habit Loop to nurture them.

Habit Loop: Charles Duhigg


I started my ‘systems’ journey four years ago and have been continuously adapting and simplifying my way to organize and progress on life.

This year, I finally have established a baseline system using a variant of GTD — Getting Things Done from David Allen that makes me improve my overall system.

Weekly system built on Evernote

Each week is a small enough unit to self reflect and make necessary adjustments and is small enough to tackle uncertainty with ease. Each week I set out tasks for the week, distractions, unexpected work and the highs and lows. Overall 52 weeks in a year leading with 35% of great weeks and 38% weeks where I just hung in there ended up far better than looking at a year in terms of a list of wishes.

For 2017, a value ratio will be introduced that will let me understand the ratio of time spent on activities worth valuable vs maintenance / mundane work.

At the end, your meta-skills are more important than actual skills. They act like an intellectual compass and let u experience this vast universe and life with style.