Don’t Make Resolutions: How to be a better person and a better marketer.

Joel Kelly
Dec 30, 2017 · 6 min read
As Ryan Holiday puts it, “The Obstacle is the Way.”

I had my last sip of alcohol at an office summer party in August of 2016. Well, the last so far. Chances are I’ll drink again — it’s hard to kick a habit permanently on your first try. But, a year and a bit ain’t bad.

Why? Well, I had gained a dangerous amount of weight over a relatively short period of time, and felt terrible all day, every day.

And I had started reading The Power of Habit. And suddenly everything clicked into place.

The key to making significant life changes is the same key to creating marketing success: keeping your plans to yourself.

Stating Your Intentions

Shouldn’t you announce your goals, so friends can support you?

Isn’t it good networking to tell people about your upcoming projects?

Doesn’t the “law of attraction” mean you should state your intention, and visualize the goal as already yours?

Nope.

Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

— Derek Sivers

Reading that article by Derek Sivers back in 2009 changed my behavior for good. I used to talk about my intentions, and used to telegraph my plans. It’s not a bad thing to do, and it’s natural — we’re super-social apes looking for reassurance from our fellow apes. We want to tell people what we plan to do so that they’ll say, “I know you can do it,” and “I’m so proud of you,” when you do finally do it.

The problem is, we want those feelings more than we want to make changes. In fact, we make changes because we want those feelings. Announcing our intentions gives us the nice feeling, and we leave it there. Our goals unaccomplished and our changes undone.

The Obstacle is the Way

In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg provides powerful, persuasive examples of how single “anchor habits” can hold us back in a variety of ways, and how properly focusing on these anchor habits can allow us to make sweeping changes throughout our life.

For me, it was drinking. It was an anchor habit. I wouldn’t exercise because I didn’t feel like going out after a cocktail. I wouldn’t read as much as I wanted to because having a drink and watching TV was entertaining enough. I wouldn’t focus on my longterm goals because whiskey is an excellent short term solution to any problem of any magnitude.

Now, I’ve lost 30 pounds and I read more than ever. And I started a company.

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way provides historical and present-day examples of focusing on the primary challenge and obstacle in your life, career, relationship, or anything else and seeing how it can be turned on its head to provide its own solution.

The obstacle to Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg was an entrenched army in a fortified town, perfectly defended to withstand any frontal assault. So Grant pulled off a daring, extremely risky strategy that attacked from behind, trapping the Confederates in Vicksburg—a town so well defended that with Grant’s Union forces boxing them in, it turned into a prison of the Confederate’s own making.

The obstacle—an unbreakable defence—was the way: a town with no good routes in has no good routes out. And so a brilliantly-planned attack and prolonged siege could prevail.

Drinking, I felt, was keeping me from doing what I truly wanted to do. And attempts to adjust, to skirt, to avoid the issue kept smashing up against an entrenched enemy (habit) and I made no progress.

The obstacle, though, was the way. Every glass of whiskey was an excuse to not do something else, and so the answer was to simply remove the whiskey. Not to cut back, not to “take a break,” but to push through to the other side completely. To force myself to see what I would do with my time and energy without this habit.

It turned out I would lose 30 pounds, start a company, and live the happiest year of my life.

Crucial to all of this, though, was telling absolutely no one my true intention. Everyone got the same answer to the constant question of “Why aren’t you drinking?”

“Oh, just cutting back.” Or, “just taking the month off to lose some weight.” Or, “I’m not feeling well.”

Never: “I have stopped drinking so that I will spend my time, money, and energy better.” Never: “I’m quitting drinking.”

Every statement of intent would be a request for encouragement and praise, the very things that could keep me from succeeding.

Marketing and Habits

Now just what in the holy hell does any of this have to do with marketing?

Well, absolutely everything.

Marketing is work. Marketing is everything that creates or keeps customers. And it is hard. And it takes a long time.

During all that time, work, and patience, we desperately want praise for our upcoming plans.

Some want people to know about their new product before it’s ready, because they want them to be excited. Some want to announce their new project today, not in two months. Some want their old coworkers and bosses to be surprised and impressed. For some, they want their parents to read about them in the news and say they’re finally proud.

Some of us just want people to think that we’re doing okay, even if we don’t feel like it every day.

But every press release that goes out too early, every award submission for work that didn’t actually run, every product launch that doesn’t actually launch a project, every post on Facebook about your new campaign you’re just too excited to keep to yourself — every single one makes you less likely to actually succeed.

It gives you the pat on the back before you’ve earned it.

Keep your product a secret. Don’t tell a goddamn soul about your new launch. Force yourself to avoid the praise until you’ve done the work, and you might actually do it.

Don’t hire the team before you have a plan. Don’t start looking for agencies before you have a budget.

So When is it Time?

But when do you get to announce your plans?

Never. You never get to announce your plans. You only get to announce your progress.

Don’t announce how many times a week you plan to run—let us know when you’ve finished your first 10k.

Don’t announce your upcoming product launch—let us know when we can download it.

Don’t announce your desire to work with a specific client or brand—let us know when you’ve inked the deal.

All of this is hard, and it feels like you’re denying yourself something you need. And you are: everyone needs praise and encouragement and to know that we’re not alone in this world.

But I’m not saying you never get to have that, I’m just recommending that you put off that praise and encouragement until you’ve done the work you want to do. Until you’ve run that race or you’ve built the business you’ve been thinking about for so long.

This Won’t Work for You?

But what if this disagrees with what’s worked for you in the past? Well, then, ignore it. My advice is the same for personal changes as it is for marketing: If it’s working, don’t change a goddamn thing.

But, as with marketing, chances are it’s not working as well as you’d like. Chances are, you wish you could do things better. In that case, give this a try. The only thing you need to do differently than what you’re doing now is to talk less about your plans.

It’s harder than it sounds, and almost impossible at times. Because people will ask you what you’re working on, and they will ask you about your New Year’s Resolutions. Be prepared with an answer, but keep the whole truth to yourself.

In marketing, as in life, the only real power you have is over what you say.

Don’t waste that power, or hand it over to the first person that asks for it. It’s all you have.

Keep it.

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