Chapter 1

On the surface everyone likes the idea of making positive changes to their life, but in practice there’s usually something keeping you from actually making positive changes, like how much time, energy, mental resistance, focus, and willpower you have. I think the easiest way to tell if a change is a high enough priority for you is to look at whether you’ve made it already. If you’ve made the change already, chances are it’s important to you, and if you haven’t made it already, it’s probably not as important (in practice) as you might think it is.

This guide contains everything you need to make and keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, but before you write a plan to keep your New Year’s resolutions, it’s essential that you understand the hidden costs of making resolutions. Or put another way, the reason you haven’t made them already.

The hidden costs of making resolutions

As a human being, you only have so much time, energy, and willpower to get you through the day. Even the most positive changes can zap you of your time, energy, and willpower, so its crucial that you understand the costs of making changes to your life, as well as what changes you should be making in the first place. Taking the time to understand these costs can help you determine not only how much a change will affect your life, but also whether a New Year’s resolution is actually worth making.

During my second year of University, I decided to subscribe to The New York Times (Sunday delivery). Every Sunday morning, before my roommates woke up, I would wake up early, press a fresh cup of coffee, and sit down with the paper, skimming the week’s articles.

This continued for a couple of months, until May, when my roommates went home for the summer. That’s when I realized something: I didn’t actually enjoy reading The New York Times.

In my head, I liked the idea of being a guy that reads The New York Times every Sunday (even though I live in Canada), so I subscribed. It’s hard to admit: I mainly read the paper so people could see me reading it. I unsubscribed shortly after I realized this, and haven’t much read much of the paper’s articles, even online, since. (Actually, maybe the story’s a little funny looking back.)

In a similar fashion, I think people like the idea of becoming a more productive person. They, like me, want to be known as “that guy” or “that girl” who wakes up at 5:30 every morning to run, meditate, read, and eat a huge, healthy breakfast before most of the world even wakes up.

The problem, of course, is you can’t become a better person overnight. You don’t just get to become better because you decide to–you have to work at becoming better; pushing on the outer boundaries of your potential until they budge. If you could simply decide to be more productive, you would already be as fit, rich, and focused as George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. You also wouldn’t have a reason to read this book, and I wouldn’t have a reason to write it.

New Year’s resolutions often involve taking on more stuff, but when you take on more commitments or make changes to your life, you can actually make yourself less productive, because there are some hidden costs associated with those changes, like how much time, willpower, and motivation they can eat up.

3 huge, hidden costs of making New Year’s resolutions

1. New Year’s resolutions eat up time

On an average day, the average person: works for 8.8 hours, sleeps for 7.6 hours, eats for 1.1, does stuff around the house for 1.1, invests 1.2 hours into their relationships and caring for others, and spends 1.7 hours doing “Other”.1 Here’s what a typical person’s day looks like, compared to a typical day of mine since I’ve started A Year of Productivity:

Note: The “average” stat above is for someone who is employed, 25-54 years old, and has kids. I don’t have kids.

For the project, I have added more elements to my life, in an effort to become more productive. Adding these extra elements has a massive cost: time. I love working out and receiving all of the benefits of working out, but on an average day I’m at the gym for 1.5 hours, which is a considerable chunk of my spare time. After I take time to meditate (30 minutes), invest in my relationships with my family, friends, and girlfriend (1.5 hours), I have a grand total of 30 minutes left over. And, usually because it takes time and emotional labor to switch between the elements of my day, I don’t have any extra time at all.

That’s okay, because I love what I do, and I love the challenge of turning myself into a better person. But it does show how important it is to make resolutions for the right reasons. New Year’s resolutions eat up time; maybe a lot more than you think.

If you already have in your mind a New Year’s resolution you want to make, now is a great time to stop and think about:

  • Whether you like the idea of making the resolution more than you would enjoy the results of that resolution
  • How much time the resolution will cost, compared to how much time you have, and how much time you’re willing to dedicate to it

2. New Year’s resolutions suck up your willpower

Studies show that the how much willpower you have is not a character trait. Willpower is a depletable resource, and chances are you will expend quite a bit of it when you’re keeping your New Year’s resolutions.

You start every day with a fresh tank of willpower, but over the course of a day, as you restrain yourself from picking at your co-worker’s candy jar and force yourself to hit the gym in the morning, your willpower reserve depletes.

Forming new habits can suck up a lot of willpower. I can personally feel my willpower reserve steadily draining as the day wears on, especially on days where I have to really force myself to wake up super early, and then drag my butt to the gym.

Depleting your willpower reserve is incredibly costly if you don’t expend your willpower on the right things, for the right reasons, and I think draining your willpower is a cost of making New Year’s resolutions that a lot of people overlook. (As we’ll talk about later on, this is also a great reason to make smaller New Year’s resolutions.)

3. Results are often invisible at first, which is discouraging

Your brain is wired to respond to cues in your environment, because it has grown to expect rewards for certain behaviours. That’s why you (without thinking) tap on the ‘Email” icon on your phone when you see new messages come in, or automatically start walking toward the laundry room after your dryer buzzer sounds.

Having clear, specific rewards for your behaviour is the key to making new habits stick (we’ll talk about forming habits later on in my interview with Charles Duhigg), but with a lot of resolutions, like working out and meditating more, you might not notice results at first.

Especially when you adopt behaviours that are more beneficial in the medium-to-long term, not having clear rewards can be discouraging and can make adopting a new habit a lot more difficult.

A good way to make new habits stick: reward yourself after completing something that doesn’t have noticeable, immediate benefits. For example, drink a glass of chocolate milk after you work out, or drink a cup of tea after you meditate. This helps solidify the cue-routine-reward habit sequence in your head, which will make things much easier the next time around.

Being mindful of how much time, willpower, and motivation your New Year’s resolutions will cost you is something that not many people do, simply because it’s a lot more fun to fantasize about having a six-pack than it is to think about what you will need to do to get there. But doing so will help you become more realistic about how keeping New Year’s resolutions will impact your life, so you can anticipate the costs of keeping your resolutions, without being discouraged by them later on.

If your New Year’s resolutions make it through this first filter and you’ve determined that they won’t cost you too much time, willpower, or motivation, I think it’s then important to take a step back and look at how your resolutions fit into your life from an elevated perspective.

  1. Source: The American Time Use Survey

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