This is the best new year resolution you can make

New year resolutions should be about multiplying your strengths, while making a note of your weaknesses

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Soon many of us will be tempted to make new year resolutions. Perhaps you’ve been egged on by someone who successfully managed to keep theirs. Or perhaps that reflection time you got over the Christmas break has made you renew old resolutions with more, well, resolve. Or maybe it’s just that you need those resolutions because you don’t want to appear lazy.

Rationally speaking, any given time of the year should be a good time to make resolutions. But the new year tempts us to believe that it is instead the best time for resolution-making. It’s marked by celebrations with friends and family, who often have advice on which resolutions work and which don’t. Some even have tips on how to make sure you stick to them.

We should all strive to make good resolutions. But most new year resolutions we make are just terrible. Here are the most positive results I could find in the scientific literature on new year resolutions: a 1989 study in the journal Addictive Behaviours showed that

77% participants kept their primary resolutions for one week. 55% for one month. 40% for six months. These success rates were probably elevated because of volunteer composition, self-reporting and study’s demand characteristics.

Even without the caveat, the research says that nearly half of all participants were not even able to stick to their primary (ie the most important) resolution after a month.

Psychologists find that the most common reason we cannot stick to our new year resolutions is because we choose resolutions that are radically different from our current lifestyle. For instance, the most common resolutions are to exercise every day or, in case of smokers, to stop smoking altogether.

At the heart of keeping resolutions is the art of self-control that decades of study have shown is a limited resource. The sort of new year resolutions we choose tend to require a lot of self-control, which means they are also the easiest to give up.

And, even if we leave science aside, I contend that nothing more than your own personal history of sticking to new year resolutions is needed to convince you why this year’s resolutions should be different. So what’s the alternative?

The better thing to do is to resolve to multiply what you are already good at. In any given year, however good or bad it has been, there will always be things that you did that worked quite well and vice versa. The good bits may have come to you naturally, or maybe you had to work really hard to get to them. Either way, to better what you’re already good at is easier and requires less self-control to achieve. It may also bring in more positive results than you think.

When we make resolutions, we solely focus on our weak points. That is of course what we think will bring us the most gain. If we were able to stick to our resolutions, working on the weaknesses would indeed bring huge gains. But because our resolutions fail so easily, it is better to choose the low-hanging fruit for now.

This is not to say that you should not aim to make fundamental positive changes to your lifestyle. You should but you would be more successful if you choose to do that later on in the year. All the articles coming your way about new year resolutions would be better used then!

Ten books in one month

100 books

I hadn’t heard about Aaron Swartz before his demise on January 11th. He was a brilliant chap: master computer programmer, co-founder of Reddit, activist for open data and much more. He was also just 26 years old.

After the news of his suicide, the web exploded with eulogies. Much was said about bullying by US prosecutors, openness of data and difficulties of dealing with depression, all of which contributed in someway to his suicide. But what stood out for me came mostly through Aaron’s own words. (His blog Raw Thought is a treasure trove and a great way of learning about him.)

One thing in particular stuck with me: his ability to read more than 100 books every year. (He dropped out of high school and that’s how he taught himself.) I want to do this. And I know managing that with a full-time job and my other writing work is going to be a hard thing to do. So I’ve decided to start by setting a goal of reading 10 books in the next 4 weeks. (This is a little more than the 2 books per week needed to make up 100 books per year.)

At first glance this seems like a difficult task given that previously I averaged about 1 or 2 books per month. But some simple calculations show that this is not a ridiculous aim. At an average size of 300 pages (70,000 words), I’m aiming to read 25,000 words per day. This means at an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, I will need just over two hours of reading time. Allowing for sometime for note-taking and breaks will make it 2.5-3 hours every day.

If I cut out watching TV and I read only the most essential things online, I should be able to do this. If I can do 10 books before February 24th and manage the rest of my life properly, I’ll extend this challenge to 100 books before January 27th, 2014.

With help of friends on Twitter and Facebook and my own reading list, I’ve compiled a list of 10 books that I am planning to read in the next four weeks:

  1. Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma
  2. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
  3. Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin
  4. The End of Science by John Horgan
  5. Genome by Matt Ridley
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  8. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  10. Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

If I find the book not worth my time, I will replace it with another one and update the list here. Although I doubt that this list of 10 will need any replacing. I will post a review of the book once I’ve read it (here and on Amazon). If you are keen to support me in this endeavour, you can buy me one of the books above. At present I only first 5 of them. Here is my Amazon wish list. (PS: email me if you need my address).

The #100bookschallenge starts now.

PS: I’m taking the average word count of a book as 70,000 because I am planning to read more non-fiction than fiction. Image from here.

The power of the survival instinct

I recently wrote a story in The Economist about the influence of our genes on our political leanings. It turns out that genes do have something to do with them, and not just a little. Sometimes genes take 60% of the blame, more than any other environmental factor.

On some thought, it doesn’t seem all that surprising. Genes play an important role in the most basic of our instincts: survival and procreation. These instincts, then, manifest into some behavioural traits. For example: Immigration concerns threats from out-group members. Welfare issues deal with the question of resource-sharing. Sexual freedom matters to issues of finding mates and raising children.

This behavioural manifestation has important implications to our search for sources of motivation. Consider fear, for example. When our survival is threatened in any shape or form, our first reaction to it is fear. For a man at war, fear is an ally. It helps get his mind and body ready for action (or reaction). It is also an ally to cavemen hunting in jungles. They need to kill their prey and avoid becoming one. Fear helps to keep them on their toes.

For the modern man, though, fear, in many cases, is not just useless but harmful. The fear of failure is the single biggest reason why people fail. And yet, I spot a missed opportunity. The survival instinct is a great source of motivation, if not the greatest. If manipulated, it can be tapped to our advantage.

Simpler said than done, of course. But there is a way. Whenever we put ourselves on the line by making a decision or starting a venture or promising to deliver, it involves going against our natural instinct. Having met the basic need for survival of food, clothing and shelter, doing anything more means doing more than is necessary. At such a point, in essence, we are deciding to take a risk. That is the first step forward. But with that risk comes the fear of failure that causes anxiety. If we give in to the fear and anxiety, we take two steps backward.

If we can separate fear and anxiety from the nominal risk that we are about to take, then we’ve got a way to bend this once-useful manifestation of our survival instinct back in our favour. After taking the plunge, the fear of not being able to deliver could be channeled into a motivation for action. So that separation of risk and fear, once achieved, can mean access to an infinite source of motivation.

The opportunity cascade

We look at opportunities and feel many things. One common reaction is excitement with fear. The joy of feeling something new combined with the fear of the unknown.

To be able to make use of the opportunity we need to overcome the fear and embrace the excitement. One way to do that would be to look at an opportunity not as a single occurrence but a beginning. Kevin Kelly calls it an opportunity cascade. One door will open many doors, which will open many more doors.

As for overcoming the fear, we already know that there is a way.

It’s not just about wanting

The desire to want is not enough to make someone do what is needed to get it. This is to say: desire ≠ motivation (to do).

We tend to want a lot more than we can actually get. I feel the solution lies in deeply caring about what you want. If you care enough, you will do enough and make it happen.

You want to learn something, care about learning it. You want to achieve something, care about achieving it. You want to give something, care about giving it.

There are far too many distractions around us. If you don’t care, you won’t do. 

Do what works and not what’s satisfying

Most of us avoid doing what works, instead we rely on self-made plans which gives us pseudo-satisfaction of working. Looking at patterns of success, Cal Newport of Study Hacks concludes that 

It’s significantly more pleasant to pursue a goal with a plan entirely of our own construction, than to use a plan based on a systematic study of what actually works. The former allows us to pseudo-strive, experiencing the fulfillment of busyness and complex planning while avoiding any of the uncomfortable, deliberate, often harsh difficulties that populate plans of the latter type.

Gladwell’s recommended 10,000 hours will not make people remarkable unless they put in deliberate efforts to become better.