I'm setting all my 2020 goals now. On November 23rd, the Saturday before Thanksgiving week. All to avoid a pitfall I've repeated every New Year's reflection cycle.
At risk of sounding like an Uncle Scrooge, I think New Year's is one of the grossest displays of human tendencies. We spend an exorbitant sum on carbon-emitting flights to gather en masse, booze up a storm, smooch strangers, and then make 12 month promises to ourselves that we keep... for about 5 weeks.
I'm particularly interested in our (and my) inability to follow through on New Year's Resolutions, so I decided to investigate.
We know the oft-cited illustration of this: the "mad New Year's rush-to-join-a-gym-and-get-in-shape-and-give-up-by-Valentine's-Day". I couldn't actually corroborate the claim that some vast majority of January joiners quit by February (month-month retention figures are pretty protected by fitness chains) but I did find this survey that revealed 80% of those who drop out of the gym do so within five months. And that's probably a gross underestimate not counting:
- Quitters who were too embarrassed to admit this to a survey
- Quitters who didn't actually cancel their membership because it probably made them feel better that they were still paying to be in shape (I do the same with self-help books I buy and then let rot on a shelf; "at least I paid for the knowledge, that counts right?")
I'm just as guilty of not following through with New Year's resolutions
7.5 hours of sleep is a keystone habit I've tried to implement year after year. And year after year, I start off pretty strong but some combination of mindless Youtube and late night snacking creeps back into my evenings and sabotages my resolution.
Dropping my Fitbit data onto a time series (as I am a Quantified Self nerd) shows the following trend:
Sleep is not the only thing that failed. The New Year's resolution I made to identify and prioritize my #1 task daily (called my frog, s/o to Brian Tracy) COMPLETELY died by March 28th.
So why do I think making New Year's Resolutions on Thanksgiving will work?
Everyone pays attention to the Gym membership engagement decline between January and March — the cliff that habits "fall off of" after the initial dopamine rush wears off.
But what If I told you that the gradual decline between October through December is far more interesting (and way more actionable)?
What's happening here?
Think about the last time you set out (at any point, not just New Year's) to avoid sugar. Odds are, unless you're chowing on Cinnamon Toast Crunch, you were probably pretty great for most of the AM. Then, through some erosion of willpower or social pressure, maybe you caved. (aka you finally succumbed to candy bowl sitting in the office all day or dessert was offered after dinner).
And the rationale that is SUPER easy to make in this moment is "I did pretty good the whole day, this one's almost over, and I'll be better tomorrow"
Except then, tomorrow comes, we repeat the same rationalizing BS, and you end up just eating sugar every single day.
The slightly more macro version of this is, maybe you actually manage to avoid sugar Monday through Friday, but then the weekend totally destroys you with social outings and the "promise of starting over next week".
So to connect with the above diagram, gymgoers that survived the Jan-March bloodbath let their regularity decline because when laziness (or the massively immobilizing food comas of the Holiday season) inevitably strikes, they don't feel as bad slipping on the habit since January's right around the corner. Or gymgoers who were CONSIDERING jumping into a new health routine are waiting for the same cycle.
Let's call this the "sunset effect" — the idea that when some time period is coming to a close, we let our commitments slip because we're thinking ahead to the periodic reset.
Bringing it all together—why should we set New Year's goals a whole month early?
- You get to "fail" a little bit without ACTUALLY failing on a whole New Year's resolution.
Tim Ferriss outlines a strategy in his TED Talk called a goal premortem, where you fast-forward to a future scenario in which you've failed, and you diagnose (hypothetically) what were the driving factors, environmental fault points, etc.
Starting in November lets you actually, not hypothetically, practice failing and correct course—maybe you didn't find an accountability buddy, maybe you didn't set up small, quantifiable wins that you could hit as milestones, maybe you didn't change environmental cues to support your new habit.
- You avoid the "sunset effect"
By actively committing to a New Year's-level refresh a whole month early, you reduce the chances of mindlessly slipping into Holiday callousness about your carb-consumption/Netflix binges/protecting poetry sessions/whatever else you're trying to improve with.
- You get to test whether or not a Resolution should be worth committing to for a whole 12 months in the first place
Failing with a goal is bad. Winning with a goal that you should have never set in the first place is arguably worse. No thoughtful or evidence-based explanation here, I'm just going to list some COMPLETELY inane goals I have set before that I thought were genius at the time:
- Any point in time I've tried to count water consumption. (It's way too costly on my attention to plug into an app and there's a bunch of research that some arbitrary amount, like 8 cups, is vast oversimplification and unnecessary).
- Dec 2015: # of times in a week I successfully stave off the craving for a Jack and the Box Late Night Munchie Meal (ok maybe this one isn't that trivial. These were destroying my life for a time).
- August 2017: Successfully counting to 1000 breaths in a concentration-meditation session.
- March 2018: <10 hours of total leisure time a week (Why did I ever think it was smart to cap leisure? Also, how did I plan on quantifying this?)
- May 2019: # times I swiffered my floor. (Was this one of those "make something really easy you can just scratch off to feel good to-do-list items?")
- Feb 2019: # of times that my MOM completes stretching exercises (I thought It would be great to hold myself accountable to helping the lady work on her health, but this just made me sad).
Hope some of this was helpful, or at least humorous in laughing at the ways that I've failed at goal setting/doing.
BTW, I'll be posting one thing I'm grateful for each week as a little Thanksgiving series. Stay tuned for that, or sign up for my newly launched newsletter if you'd like to have thoughts like this delivered to your inbox :)
*Come to think of it, people glutton out at Thanksgiving too. And Halloween. And 4th of July. My conclusion is that Holidays in general are super morally prehensible events
**I had to do a bit of extrapolation because my fitbit was replaced the second week in February.