CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions

Champagne bw

I used to be addicted with goal-setting. What a nerdy thing to admit, but it’s true.  When a new opportunity or project arose, I automatically brainstormed action items, targeted dates, and a strategic plan. For things as big as applying into graduate school or preparing for a half-marathon to little things like seeing my family at least every other week. I created little plans to even see people! Every New Year’s Eve, I faithfully recorded a journal entry of my reflections of the past year and my resolutions for the upcoming one. After a certain time period, especially after the cozy structure of graduate school, I noticed that life planning mostly did not work (remember that time when I decided to leave teaching while I was still in graduate school for teaching?). In the midst of my wedding planning, I saw the distinction between predictable goals and plans (e.g. ordering a cake, setting my budget, and going to the gym 3x a week) and the unpredictable ones (e.g. wanting the in-laws to get along, receiving all rsvp cards in time, and cutting traditional aspects without offending family members). Setting unpredictable goals (which sounds like an oxymoron) is not only stressful, it’s also an illusion. Setting a goal for something that you cannot control, such as how other people will behave, is not truly a goal.  Dear Sugar has said that you cannot make people love you or behave as you want them to.  It’s a hope or aspiration, but to treat it as a “goal” will only lead to disappointment and a false sense of control.

Still, I love the feeling of having accomplished a goal that I worked hard for.  I like having something gleaming in the distance to strive for.  And yes, I like feeling in control.  To my dismay, recent experiences and modern research has shown me that I better seek another approach to goal-setting and life-planning.  Is there a balanced approach to setting long-term goals–perhaps one that gives us something to aim for, but is also forgiving if we change our minds or if life throws us a detour?

Lately, I have been trading in big goals for creating daily (or weekly) habits to follow.  If there is truth in the saying “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”, then the best way to achieve the life I want is perhaps in starting smaller.  Last December, I was emotionally drained, and I felt too disillusioned to set any grand resolutions. Instead, I focused intensely on setting two new habits for myself –going to the gym 3x a week and eating a healthy breakfast each morning. Since popular research says that it takes 28 days to form a habit, I used a monthly worksheet to keep track of my progress.  Every time I accomplished the task, I drew an X under the tally marked “Working Out” or “Breakfast”. It was slow and gradual progress, and there were several days when I did not complete the tasks.  The beauty of forming habits, which is similar to how Gretchen Rubin approaches daily resolutions in The Happiness Project, is that every day is a new day to commit, even if you failed to meet them yesterday or the day before.  If I had approached this task as my old self, the one determined to set grand goals, deadlines, and big resolutions, then I may have labeled my mishaps as failures, get discouraged, and give up.  I believe this is the approach that many people take, which is why traditional resolutions never seem to work.

There is a huge difference between the approach of maintaining resolutions through sheer willpower and the approach of building habits every day. After several weeks, I became more consistent, and after two months, I no longer needed the tally sheet to log my work-outs or breakfasts. It naturally folded into my daily and weekly routine, and it no longer became a battle to haul myself to the gym or time-consuming to make a healthy breakfast. Of course, there are still days when I feel too lazy to lace up my sneakers or tempted to skip the smoothie in favor of a blueberry bagel with a honey walnut schmear.  Most of the time, I am able to say no.  Once in awhile, I cave in.  And then I start over again the next day.  Habits don’t erase my impulsive urges, but they make overcoming them a lot easier.


In honor of the new year and upcoming Lunar New Year (Happy 2014 and Year of the Horse!), I am launching my CONTEXT e-magazine project.  My first Flipboard compilation is devoted to celebrating and building new beginnings: CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions.  These digital pages contain diverse perspectives that address the benefits and challenges of goal-setting, why New Year’s resolutions are so difficult to keep, how to start a happiness project using resolutions, the upsides to thinking negatively, the power of habit to change our lives, and other intelligent ideas to try on for the new year. Whether you are obsessed with goal-setting or simply at a loss for how to start implementing changes, this issue offers new approaches and accessible strategies for just beginning.  Happy new year, and happy reading!

Issue: CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions

Contents Overview:

Start Here” via The Happiness Project. Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” chronicles her one-year journey of creating a happier, fulfilling life. She develops resolutions centered around a monthly theme (i.e. Energy, Family), and daily tracks her process using a Resolutions Chart. Even if you did not read the book, you can download the Resolutions Chart and develop your own happiness project from her website.

Level Up” by Vienna Teng (song).  Talented pianist and musician Vienna Teng sings this song of hope and inspiration for us to “come out and level up” in our lives in her latest album AIMS.  A great theme song to start off a new beginning, wherever you begin.  The music video for “Level Up” was funded as a Kickstarter campaign.

How to Change Your Life:  A User’s Guide” via ZenHabits.  Leo Babauta, blogger of ZenHabits, writes about a simple, powerful way to making life changes: making daily changes.  Instead of creating a goal, action steps, or a plan, Babauta suggests seven steps on how to implement small, daily changes to meet your aspirations.  Take any lofty goal, such as traveling or saving money, and scale it down.  He suggests, “Think about what you could do every day that would make the change happen, or at least get you closer to the goal.”

Commonly Broken New Year’s Resolutions” via Oprah.  Writer Corrie Pikul discovers that every year, about 40% of the population make and break new year resolutions.  She summarizes the top resolutions that people usually break and offers some suggestions on how to keep them well beyond the first few months of the year.  From losing weight, saving money, finding a new job, and improving relationships, Pikul shares research on what makes each resolution difficult and strategies for how to make each one stick.

The New Year” by Death Cab for Cutie (song).  A song from the Transatlantacism album that observes the superficiality of New Year celebrations and a nostalgic lament for a different sort of life.

Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta on Goals” video via ZenHabits. In this friendly debate, Leo Babauta, author and founder of ZenHabits, and Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour series (Work, Body, and Chef), share their philosophies on the pros and cons of goal-setting. At times in disagreement and often in alignment with each other, this conversation highlights two enlightening approaches on living a balanced and fulfilling life – with or without goals.

Set Smaller Goals: Impress Friends, Get Girls, Lose Weight” via I Will Teach You to be Rich.  Ramit Sethi, author and blogger, shares his blunt advice on how to make sustainable, behavioral changes.  For areas such as personal finance, fitness, or even studying, instead of making extreme changes, it is much more effective to stick to small, incremental changes.  While it initially feels good to go from one extreme to the other extreme (e.g. saving $0 to saving $500 a month), Sethi warns that “habits don’t change overnight, and if they do, chances are it won’t be sustainable.”

How to Master Your Creative Routine and the Pace of Productivity via BrainPickings.  Maria Popova of BrainPickings reviews a new book called “Manage Your Day-to-Day”, which covers how creative rituals and habits fuel inspiration.  The post also features visual inspirational quotes, such as Aristotle’s “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”   

The Key to Getting Motivated: Give Up” via 99U. Oliver Burkeman, author of “The Antidote: Happiness Advice for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, writes this counter-intuitive piece on why attempting to get motivated can be a bad idea. The problem with most motivational advice is that “it’s not about how to get things done, but about how to get in the mood for getting things done.” Burkeman offers practical, non-fluffy advice on giving up the need to be motivated while still moving forward. Hint: it doesn’t involve visualizing your goals or constantly repeating self-affirmations.

How to Set Unplannable Goals” via the Get-It-Done-Guy Podcast. Stever Robbins, the podcast host and a business life coach, distinguishes between goals that you can plan for (i.e. studying for a test, building a house) and goals that are “unplannable” (i.e. becoming a successful artist, getting a high-paying job). Using anecdotes, Robbins advocates for following an aspiration as the guiding compass for determining next steps instead of setting linear goals with unpredictable outcomes. For example, aspire to become an actor, and utilize various means to follow this aspiration –auditioning, networking, and taking classes.

How Ursula Nordstrom, Beloved Patron Saint of Childhood, Did New Year’s Resolutions” via BrainPickings.  Maria Popova, blogger and curator of BrainPickings, shares a glimpse into Ursula Nordstrom’s musings on resolutions.  Nordstrom, a children’s book editor of beloved authors such as Maurice Sendak and E.B. White, vowed in 1957 to be more loving in spite of the uncertainty and chaos of life.

Save Me From Myself” via Freakonomics Radio. Host Steven Dubner, who co-authored Freakonomics with his economist friend Steven Levitt, explores the effectiveness of commitment devices–ranging from quitting gambling or stopping bad habits cold-turkey to extreme dieting and even committing to prosecuting sexual assault offenders. How high do the stakes need to be in order for us to stick with a commitment? Can our present selves predict and outsmart our future selves? In typical Freakonomics fashion, the answers and rationale are usually more entertaining than conventional wisdom.

Habits:  How They Form and How to Break Them” via NPR.  Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit”, discusses the science of habits behind his book in this Fresh Air interview.  He explains the “habit loop”, which is a cycle of 1) a cue or trigger, 2) the behavior, and 3) the reward.  In this informative interview, he shares why vacations are the best times to change a habit, how companies use habits to sell us products, and the importance of understanding the “habit loop” in order to form and break habits.

Happiness: Should You Have Goals or Resolutions?” via The Happiness Project.  Gretchen Rubin believes that there is a differences between a goal and a resolution.  Namely, “you achieve a goal.  You keep a resolution.”  Goals, like learning a language or running a marathon, are specific and achievable.  Resolutions, like eating healthier or being nicer, are something to strive for every day.  There is no end outcome.  While there are times that are more appropriate to set goals, Rubin prefers the challenge of keeping resolutions every day.  She states, “Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but every day is a clean slate and a fresh opportunity.”

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  • Nam Nguyen

    I’m so incredibly excited and proud of you, P! I cannot wait to see what this new adventure has in store for you. And for the record, I’ve always loved the goal-setting/lists side of you 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Nam. Coming from one of my valued mentors and role models, that really means a lot to me. Happy food-ventures to you in the new year!