Cost-First New Year’s Resolutions

It’s the last day of the year, so it’s time for the tradition of trying not to think about how you failed at your New Years resolutions. The making of New Years resolutions is a durable tradition, but not because it works at its stated goal: New Years resolutions work as a ritual because they convince people to try out a different lifestyle for a little bit. Most lifestyle changes don’t stick, but occasionally people discover that they are the sort of person who does X as a habit, but only if they force themselves to form the habit.

I think most people are aware of the standard advice on resolutions, and lifestyle changes generally: don’t set a goal, set a habit. Instead of “Save X dollars by year-end,” the goal is “Save a minimum of Y dollars per week.” Rather than “Lose ten pounds” it’s “run every morning.” This is sensible, because to be a person with more money or a person in better shape you have to be the kind of person with more savings and lower body fat, i.e. you have to change your habits.

Resolutions in this format also minimize decision fatigue. If you have a general goal, your options are either a) to frame every single thing you do in terms of that goal, or b) to mostly forget about it. Habits are pretty cognitively easy: you just have to ask yourself if today’s the day you choose to fail. A corollary to this is that if you must choose goals, choose really extreme goals such that every single thing you could do is either a) necessary for achieving that goal, or b) a distraction.

There’s a softer, saner variant of this, though. The point of habit-based rather than goals-based resolutions is to incrementally change the kind of person you are — instead of being the kind of person who has to set a goal, you want to be the kind of person who had achieved that goal without changing anything. And that’s a change you can make directly: since every accomplishment requires tradeoffs, and tradeoffs are always unpleasant, a good experimental resolution is to frame your resolution in terms of the tradeoff you’ve decided to make:

  • Instead of “lose X pounds” or “work out Y times per week,” set a goal like “somebody will make fun of me for being a picky eater.”
  • Instead of “read more books,” set a goal like “I’ll be the last of my friends to see the end of Game of Thrones.”
  • Instead of “save $X,” promise yourself that 2019’s vacation will be much crappier than last year’s.
  • Instead of “waste less time online,” target “In 2019, least one person on Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit will ask ‘What ever happened to’ me.”

This is all very grim. Can’t we focus on the upside rather than the downside?

No.

Downside is the controllable constraint. You can’t affect how naturally skilled you are at something, so all you can affect are your priorities. It stands to reason that unless there’s some vast efficiency gain available to you that you’ve been deliberately ignoring, doing better at one thing next year will mean doing worse at another. If you closely read the biographies of successful people, there’s a nonstop theme of sacrificing the inessential stuff: less fun, fewer friendships (or, lots of work friendships[1]), minimal pop culture awareness. In The Snowball there’s a chapter about a day in the life of Warren Buffett, and it goes like this: he wakes up and reads annual reports, sometimes he talks to people about what he’s read, and after a long day of that he goes to sleep. The author of Money Mavericks tried to spice up his average day, but it’s basically more of the same: wake up, read a lot, deal with some phone calls, pass out.

This is boring in one sense, but in another it’s freeing: the only way to accomplish more in the next 8,760 hours than you did in the last 8,760 is to spend more of those hours on stuff that matters, which means spending fewer of them on stuff that doesn’t. I have a long list of stuff I’d like to get done in the next year, but every interesting project has an order of magnitude range of uncertainty around how much time it’ll take to accomplish. Instead of optimizing around uncertainty, I can optimize around certainty instead: whatever I need to get done will be done in the time I spend not-on-Twitter and not-reading-Hacker-News.

It might not be a worthwhile trade. Another reason people often fail at their resolutions is that they don’t really want to accomplish their stated goal. They might want to want it, but they really want other things more. If having less fun in 2019 sounds like a bad goal, fun is probably more important to you than whatever you’d sacrifice fun for. That’s fine; I’m not judging, just clarifying. The habits-over-goals approach works because it reduces decision fatigue, but eliminating the bad stuff reduces decision fatigue even more; it takes the low-mental-effort part of the habits approach, and applies it to an entire day rather than a subset.

Setting goals begs the question: have you failed to accomplish this already because you don’t actually want it, or merely because you’re incompetent? Habits are an improvement; easier to implement, less demotivating. And cost-first resolutions are the best of all: they’re a way to apply the habitual decision framework over a broader set of decisions. Goals are exciting but nonviable; habits are boring but doable; and costs are actively depressing. There’s an efficient market here: the most annoying approach is probably the one that works.

So with that in mind, I wish you a 2019 that’s measurably worse than 2018 on at least one unimportant dimension. Good luck!

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[1] One thing I’ve noticed about hyper successful people is that they evangelize their friends to join their chosen career. I wonder how much of this is a subconscious desire to not feel guilty hanging out with them. This often works out for the best. Warren Buffett, for example, was best buds with a lawyer and real estate developer, and eventually convinced him to open up an investment partnership. That turned out to be a good decision for Charlie Munger.

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I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter: https://diff.substack.com/

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