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Making Resolutions Almost Always Fails; Try This Instead

The problem with resolutions is that they focus on everything wrong with your life. For a new approach, focus on optimizing what’s right.

Making Resolutions Almost Always Fails; Try This Instead
[Photo: Flickr user Mark Mrwizard]

Let’s face it: New Year’s resolutions hardly ever work. As the year comes to an end, we begin to panic about how little we’ve accomplished over the last 12 months and feverishly use that energy to create lists of things we will do better. But when the anxiety fades, our resolve often goes with it–one study showed, in fact, that only 8% of people who make their resolutions keep them. The bad habits return, and the cycle of broken resolutions continues, year after year.

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Is there a better way? “Yes, there definitely is,” says Spencer Greenberg, chairman of investment firm Rebellion Research and founder of Clearer Thinking, an organization that creates free tools to help people make better decisions. Rather than coming up with New Year’s resolutions, a smarter approach would be to train yourself to always be on the lookout for ways to make your life better, then act on that instinct. “’Optimize Everything’ is my motto,” he tells me, with a smile.

Spencer Greenberg

It sounds obvious, but Greenberg says most people prefer not to approach the world this way because it sounds like being overly critical of yourself–and what’s the fun in that? “The trick to optimizing everything is to begin with an optimistic mindset,” he tells me. “This isn’t about focusing on what is wrong with your life, but constantly thinking about how you can make everything better.” This is consistent with recent psychological research which finds that seeing your flaws with self-compassion not only fosters better self-esteem, but also helps you more effectively accomplish your goals.

Another reason people can be hesitant about adopting the Optimize Everything mindset is that it often means rethinking comfortable routines. When you are optimizing, you are training yourself to pay attention to your everyday processes, even things that you have been doing for years that appear to be working just fine. “It is the antithesis to business as usual, which is often just inertia disguised as tradition,” says Greenberg. “Once you start, it begins to feel like a game. It’s addictive to be on the lookout for ways you can improve your life–whether it is your productivity at work, your romantic relationships, your hobbies–then watch yourself get better at the task the next time around.”

Greenberg tells me that you can literally optimize everything. For instance, if you wake up saying, “That sunset last night was amazing!” you could then proceed to ask, “I wonder if it would be even more beautiful if next time we watch it from an even higher peak?” You could then look at maps in search of an even more amazing lookout point. At your job, if there are tasks that you find tiresome and tedious, you could search for plugins and apps to automate it; Greenberg says won’t be long before you start listing all the other tasks you can automate and calculating how many hours it saves you a week. “It is an attitude that trains you to see the potential in everything,” he says.

Are you not that jazzed about the upcoming holidays because it will involve spending a lot of time with certain relatives whose company you don’t particularly enjoy? You can optimize their visit by coming up with a list of your favorite (very long) holiday movies and suggesting you all watch them together. “That way you can still spend plenty of time together, but you’ll have a lot more fun doing it!” says Greenberg.

Optimization works well in romantic relationships, too. It can be a good practice to take time with your partner–at a moment when you are both feeling close and content– to discuss how to make things go more smoothly. Does one of you prefer to sleep in while the other gets up early? Rather than seeing this as a source of conflict or frustration, you can consciously use the time when the other is asleep to do tasks that you can only do alone, maximizing the time you are both awake to do things together. Do you love seafood, while your partner hates it? Perhaps you can request to go to seafood restaurants when you are out with your colleagues from work. “When you approach it in the right way, optimization can be a very loving thing to do,” says Greenberg. “You’re communicating that you are willing to put effort into being the best partner you can possibly be.”

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For Greenberg, this idea naturally emerged from his fascination with mathematics. (He’s currently finishing a math PhD from NYU, in addition to all his other projects; I can only assume that optimizing everything produces more hours in your day.) “The mathematical theory of optimization, very simply put, says that there is a best answer from an available set of alternatives,” he says. “To me, that translates into everyday life because it means there is always an opportunity to seek out the very best approach to doing anything in life.” Greenberg noticed that his mind automatically searched for ways to make every experience better than the last. Over the years, he’s spent time honing this mental habit, thinking about how it works best. He has a couple of tips for ensuring that it remains a positive experience:

Optimizing Is Not Diminishing the Positive

Optimize Everything should feel empowering and fun: the minute it begins to feel like a drag, you know that something is amiss. It should never be about nitpicking or downplaying the good things in your life. It should never make you feel bad about yourself or serve as an excuse to complain. Instead, the mindset should be about celebrating the ways your life is thriving and creating more opportunities to succeed. “It is really an attitude towards life,” Greenberg says. “It should allow you to better recognize the positive in your life and seek it out.”

Don’t Optimize in the Moment

Optimizing works best after the fact, not while you’re experiencing something wonderful, or you’ll miss the moment. “If you ruin the moment by having thoughts about optimizing, then you’re not truly optimizing at all; you’re merely thinking about optimizing,” Greenberg says. In other words, don’t optimize while you’re enjoying that beautiful sunset; optimize at a later moment, when you’re reliving the sunset in your mind or planning your next hike. Don’t optimize your relationship when you’re out at a fabulous date on Friday night; optimize when you’re both at home later that weekend, just hanging out.

While Optimize Everything is a mindset, it is a tool that is best kept in the back of your mind that can be brought to the fore at the appropriate time.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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