The Two Questions That Determine Whether You’ll Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Maxwell Anderson
Jan 14, 2017 · 10 min read
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When I was in college, my friend Cole totally changed the way I thought about New Year’s Resolutions. I hadn’t thought much of them, but they were a major part of his life. Every year, Cole and his family set resolutions in five areas: Family, Health, Faith, Learning, and Wild Card (at least I think that’s what the categories were). Everyone in his family would also participate in a weigh-in on New Year’s Eve to see if they gained or lost weight from the year before. If that sounds awful to you, you’re not alone. My reaction was like:

He swore it was all in good fun — they laughed their way through it and there was no shaming. I never got into the family weigh-in tradition, but I did start making resolutions across categories. This year I’ve set 25 different New Year’s Resolutions across 6 categories (Health, Faith, Family, Friendships & Community, Work, and Personal) and 12 subcategories. Will I keep them or fail miserably? The answer to that depends on the answers to two other questions.

People have been making New Year’s resolutions for thousands of years, at least since the time of the Babylonian empire, when every new year people swore their loyalty to the king and to their gods. Later, during the Roman empire, generals swore their oaths to Caesar at the start of every new year. In the 18th Century, John Wesley, who founded Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, a church service held on New Year’s Eve when worshippers would re-affirm their belief and faith in God. Only in the last century or so have most New Year’s resolutions turned secular and become less about fealty to a God or king more about making promises to ourselves to live better.

A Zucker’s born every minute…

Today most resolutions are about losing weight, but somebody is always doing something more interesting. This year, for instance, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has made resolutions to learn Mandarin, to read two books a month, and last year he resolved to . This year Zuckerberg made a . Some speculate that this new resolution hints at possible political ambitions:

In early December, unsealed court filings from a class-action lawsuit filed in April revealed that Zuckerberg and two board members had discussed how the CEO might pursue a political career while retaining control of Facebook.

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, one of the company’s most prominent investors, texted Zuckerberg in March to say that the “biggest issue” of the corporate proposal was “how to define the gov’t service thing without freaking out shareholders that you are losing commitment”. —

Zuckerberg seems to have a good track record on delivering on his resolutions. Last year he succeeded in building an AI home assistant. He calls it Jarvis, and the Morgan Freeman is the voice of the software. This video of Zuckerberg and Jarvis in action is really cool. I laughed out loud a few times. Definitely take the three minutes to watch.

Silicon Valley billionaires aside, most of us have trouble keeping our resolutions. , 41% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 9% end up keeping those resolutions. In this spirit of hopelessness, the New Yorker’s Susanna Wolff suggested a list of “.” Here’s the first couple:

Instead of preparing ambitious New Year’s resolutions like we did last year, let’s get ready for 2017 by collectively aiming a little lower.

2016: Declutter your home. Really get organized and start the year off right!
2017: Buy a new shower curtain. Stop wondering if there’s a difference between black mold and just very, very dark mold.

2016: Spend less time on Twitter.
2017: Spend less time on Twitter than Donald Trump does.

Even if it doesn’t work for everyone, setting goals at the start of a new year can be a rewarding and life-changing exercise. Jac, a friend and Weekend Reader wrote this about her experience:

My life changing New Years resolution was eight years ago. I committed to writing in a journal every day. The rules were simple:

— I had to write something before I went to sleep for the day

— A single word was sufficient (but I only did that once)

— If did not have my journal with me, I could write on another piece of paper and tape it in later.
— If I forgot, I had to write the entry as soon as I remembered.

— I was not allowed to write for an audience, only for myself.

It did indeed change my life. I got out of bad relationship, I lost weight, I got my life in order. I purged so much. And then doors opened. I made a film which it took me — and my journal — around the world. I discovered deep reservoirs of optimism and gratitude within myself. Something about documenting my daily happenings reduced my anxiety. And living a city with no seasons, I looked to my journals to mark the passage of time. I only wish I had started sooner.

There’s more to tell but I’m under a deadline for a script and both babies are asleep right now. I would love to say I still write in my journal everyday. When my first was born it got hard. Now with two, I write probably once a week. But I still open a fresh journal every New Years Day and write a whopper of an opening entry. It’s the best.

I have created a productivity training program for entrepreneurs and business executives called . In it I emphasize the importance of goal setting and some of the secrets of setting goals well. Many of you will never get to take the seminar but I want to share one insight about goal-setting that has made a world of difference for me and that might help you make your new year’s goals achievable.

It’s a very simple. So simple that you won’t think it’s very impressive. Yet I’m astounded by how often I encounter people who don’t implement it. The secret is to answer two questions. And the questions are as basic as they come:

The first question is Why? The second question is How?

Goal-setting is a three-step process. First you set the goal. Second, look backward and answer why. Third, look forward and answer how. Do all three, and you’ve radically increased your chances of achieving the goal.

The importance of “why”

Say you set a goal to run every day. If you don’t have a “why” for a goal like that, chances are you will burn out. You might run every day for a few weeks based on enthusiasm and willpower. But a time will come when you don’t really feel like running. It’s a bleak and cold day in January. It’ll be uncomfortable. And there’s a lot of emails you need to answer. Why should you bother?

If you have no answer other than “I want to run everyday,” you might find the whole enterprise far less compelling than you did on January 1. So you skip a day. The sky didn’t fall, skipping wasn’t so bad. But then because you skipped a day,your streak is over, so you think might as well skip another day. Pretty soon you’ve rediscovered it’s easier to not run than to run. Resolution over.

You need have a strong “why” at the moment you’re questioning whether to continue pursuing a goal you’ve set. Why am I running every day? Because I’m training to run a half-marathon. Because I want to lose 20 pounds. Because I love the way it gives me a sense of accomplishment throughout the day. Whatever the why is, having it, and writing it down will be helpful when the moment of doubt comes.

Sometimes you need to ask “why” several times to get at the root answer of your motivation. Why run every day? Because I want to run a half-marathon. Why run a half-marathon? Because five of my friends are doing it and I want to spend time with them. At that point you can pause and consider whether setting up coffee dates would be an easier way to achieve the goal. Or maybe none of your friends drink coffee (the horror!) and this is your only option.

The blogger Charles Chu read that Warren Buffet once said the secret to his success was reading 500 pages of books every day. Unhappy with his own life situation, Chu set out to change by following Buffet’s advice and made . And he succeeded. How did he achieve his outcome goal of 200 books? First, he had a strong why: “I was going to read and read and read and never stop until I got some damn answers.”

His other secret? He had a strong “how.” He built “a fortress of habits” and by leveraged environmental design (“remove all distractions from your environment and make books as easy to access as possible”).

The importance of “how”

Goals aren’t enough. You need a plan to achieve them that is specific, concrete, and clear enough that a stranger could read your plan and start following it without asking any clarifying questions.

Here’s another example of the importance of how. Researchers studying what prompts people to exercise ran . They took 248 adults and randomly divided them into three groups. The first group was the control group. They were asked to keep track of how much they exercised over the next two weeks.

The second group was given the same task and asked to read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise. This was supposed to motivate them to exercise more.

The third group also read the pamphlet but was asked to “explicitly state their intention to exercise by completing the following statement…

‘During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].’”

Two weeks later, researchers found that in both of the first two groups less than 40% of the participants exercised at least once per week. But in the third group, 91% of participants exercised at least once per week. The intervention wasn’t hard — just fill in the blanks on a simple sentence — but the effects were amazing.

As Heidi Grant Halvorson, a professor at Columbia, put it:

Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success.

Fighting the limits of willpower

Why would such a small difference in planning create such a big difference in outcomes? The answer is a psychological concept called ego depletion. You might think that people who seem to have the most will power are the ones who constantly test their will, but science suggests the opposite.

Some scientists are coming to think that willpower is not just a metaphor for what’s going on inside your head. It is “a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.” It is as if you have a certain amount of willpower every day and once it is used up, you lose your will. This is why so many bad choices are made at the end of the day when we are tired. Roy Baumeister calls this mental fatigue “ego depletion”

Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago found that “people with the best self-control, paradoxically, are the ones who use their willpower less often. Instead of fending off one urge after another, these people set up their lives to minimize temptations. They play offense, not defense, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises, conserve their energy and outsource as much self-control as they can.” —

One of the principle benefits of answering the “how” question is you start to play offense. If you put your daily run on your calendar, that decision is off your mind. You’re not spending additional willpower each day to think through if you should run and if so, when. If you want to develop a new way of life, set up a routine that removes as many decision points as possible. If you want to run everyday, schedule it for first thing in the morning, sleep in your running clothes, and have your sneakers set up beside your bed so you can slide into them before your feet hit the floor.

When you make a New Year’s resolution, don’t just set the goal. Take a moment to ask yourself why it matters. Then write down a plan for achieving it that covers exactly what you’ll do by when including, for bigger projects, the very next physical action you need to take.

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I have 25 resolutions this year. Is having multiple resolutions like I do better than having one big hairy goal for the year? Would I be more likely to keep my resolutions if I told you what they were or if I kept them private? I’ve done a lot of reading on both of these questions, and they are worthy of posts on their own. But I don’t have time to write about them now. I’ve got 25 resolutions to pursue and 50 questions to answer if I’m serious about keeping them.

For Reference:

  1. by Olivia Solon in The Guardian (3 min)
  2. in Statistic Brain (2 min)
  3. by Susanna Wolff in The New Yorker (2 min)
  4. by James Clear on his blog (7 min)
  5. by Charles Chu in Better Humans (6 min)
  6. ” by John Tierney in The New York Times (10 min)
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Upcoming topics: Russia, Virtual Reality, Fake News



Maxwell Anderson

Written by

I publish The Weekend Reader. Subscribe at I’m also a founding partner of


READ WIDELY. READ WISELY. The Weekend Reader explores technology, culture and the meaningful life in the modern world. I share the most valuable writing from multiple sources to explore the ideas and trends shaping our world.

Maxwell Anderson

Written by

I publish The Weekend Reader. Subscribe at I’m also a founding partner of


READ WIDELY. READ WISELY. The Weekend Reader explores technology, culture and the meaningful life in the modern world. I share the most valuable writing from multiple sources to explore the ideas and trends shaping our world.

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