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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

7 Tools for your New Year's Resolution

It's New Year's Day, so it's time for all that "new me" stuff that tends to fall by the wayside before February 1st.  Personally, I have never really done the New Year's resolution thing.  I am constantly working toward goals, but they seldom line up with the calendar year.

To be successful in your goals, it mostly comes down to a whole lot of "wanting it."  That said, having the right tools can make it a little easier.  So with that in mind, here's a list of my favorite tools for pursuing challenging goals.

1.  A good goal.  

Look!  A metaphor!

Aw, you thought I was going to recommend a bunch of things you could go out and buy, and here I am leading with an abstract concept.  Sorry dude, none of this is going to be easy.  If it were easy, we'd all be 10th dan Olympic athlete rock stars with multiple PhDs.  If that's you, congratulations.  You can stop reading now.  You obviously have a good grasp of setting and achieving goals.  If instead you're scarfing down microwave ramen while watching cat videos and trying to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your evening studying, training, or playing video games (don't laugh, we've all been there) then this is for you.

Some goals fail before you even get started.  Want to get better at stuff?  That's not specific enough to work toward.  Aiming to get better at sparring?  How will you know when you get there if you can't measure it?  Hoping to flying side kick the moon out of the sky?  That's not achievable.  Want to run a 4-minute mile because the bragging rights would be cool?  Like I said earlier, most of achieving goals is a matter of really wanting it, so pick something relevant to what it most important to you.  Want to win a national championship someday?  If you can put it off until later, you probably will, so you need a deadline. 

There's a popular mnemonic to help you remember this:  SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).  Setting a SMART goal helps set you up for success.  There's more on this topic in this episode of Iain Abernethy's podcast.

2.  Glucose.  

Willpower magnified by a power of a hundred billion or so.

Glucose is basically what powers your body.  Doing just about anything requires glucose.  Anything that requires effort will deplete your glucose a little bit, even just exercising your willpower.  Actually, this is a bit of an oversimplification, and more research is needed (you can read more about the science of willpower here) but for our purposes we can just consider willpower to be made out of glucose.  So getting out of bed, climbing into a really cold shower, saying no to the free cookies in the break room, being nice to that coworker who ignored your advice and "fixed" a bug by breaking every other similar feature in the project and then acted surprised when it did exactly what you said it would, getting your butt to class when you're really not in the mood, etc., all expends glucose. 

Some people refer to this concept as "spoons."  The idea is that you have a finite number of spoonfuls of energy, which you spend throughout the day.  I prefer to call them magic points or mana, because in my nerd brain, spending mana sounds way cooler than using spoons.  But whether you call it glucose, spoons, willpower, or mana, the important thing to remember is that you don't have an infinite supply.  When you run out (and you will!) you are done.  Your willpower is gone, and you'll snap at the obnoxious coworker, or you won't say no to the cookie, or you'll go to bed instead of to class, until you get your energy back.

You can make your goals easier to achieve by managing your glucose.  Don't waste it on things that won't help you achieve your goal.  That's also why it's so important to work on only one goal at a time.  If you want to ace your upcoming belt test, but you also want to publish a novel, pick the one you want to work on, and let the other wait.  This might hurt!  Setting aside something else that is important to you is just another really hard thing you'll need to do to achieve your goal.  Because trying to split your glucose between the two is a good way to fail at both.  Ace your belt test.  The novel will be there right where you left it, when you have the spoons it deserves.

The other thing you can do is replenish your glucose.  You do this by eating.

But what if you have the very common goal of losing weight?  If you run out of glucose by willing yourself to avoid calories, and you can only replenish that glucose by saying yes to calories, what do you do?  This is why dieting is hard.  So, acknowledge that it's going to be hard.  It's extremely important to not waste the glucose you have, because if you're dieting, your glucose will often be in short supply.  Don't use it to force yourself to practice guitar or clean the garage.  That can happen after the weight comes off.  Second, you can manage how and when you replenish your glucose.  Eating a healthy snack right before you know you'll need to expend willpower can help.

3.  Tracking software.

If your goal is to look unnaturally organized...

When a goal is important to you, you probably don't need to be told to track it.  You probably think about it all the time.  Give those thoughts a place.  If you're a pen-and-paper sort of person, you can try a training diary.  If you read that sentence and adjusted your glasses while saying, "That's not very efficient because it's not searchable or customizable and will not automatically calculate my progress," I'm sure you'll have no trouble setting up an elaborate spreadsheet.  (Weight loss spreadsheet people, try The Hacker's Diet.)  If you've got money to throw around, you might find a wearable fitness tracker that helps with your specific goal.  Or there's my personal favorite, which is goal tracking games like Habitica or SuperBetter.  Or even better, use some combination of trackers to suit your specific needs.  What you use doesn't really matter so much as just having a place to track your progress.  See that it's working (or that it's NOT working, so you can adjust your plan) and keep yourself motivated.

4.  Video games.

Eat my fire attack, monster.

Hear that?  That's the sound of a thousand martial artist rolling their eyes.  But bear with me.  Video games are something I enjoy, and your thing might be something else.  But if I just threw 8 quadrillion roundhouse kicks, you can bet that Dracula is about to get pwned.  After your 8 quadrillionth roundhouse kick, maybe you treat yourself to a good movie, or maybe you mosh to smooth jazz.  Whatever.  You do you.  But reward yourself.  And dieters?  Reward yourself early and often.  'Cause let me tell you, when the fate of the Koprulu Sector lies in the balance, and I'm building up my zerg army, and my base just got cannon rushed, I guarantee you I have no idea how hungry I am.

5.  Accountability buddy.

This picture both delights and terrifies me.

Having someone to keep you accountable can be huge.  Maybe your instructor does that for you, or maybe you've got a great training partner, friend, or significant other.  It's more fun when your accountability buddy is working toward a similar goal, but really it just has to be someone who is invested in your success.  Having access to that encouragement, having someone to vent to when the going gets rough, and knowing that someone else will notice when you persevere or slip up, all makes you more likely to succeed. 

That's one very good reason to line up your goals with the calendar year.  It's usually easier to find accountability buddies when so many people are enthusiastic about their New Year's resolutions.

6.  Plans.

Tear this ship apart until you've found those plans!

I don't have a whole lot in common with Darth Vader, but we both want those plans.  Schedule time to do the things that will set you up for success.  Try something like this:  Sunday at 4 PM is time to create a meal plan and grocery list to stick to my diet.  That 15 minutes immediately after class is when I'll work on my flexibility.  The first thing every morning will be forms practice.  Whatever your goal is, having the time to do it is essential.

7.  Luck.

I roll twenties!

Like I mentioned before, achieving your goals mostly comes down to wanting it badly enough to do the hard work of making it happen.  But it's dishonest to pretend that luck doesn't enter into the equation at all.  Even though it's borderline heresy to some, the truth is, there's just too much randomness in the world for life to be a perfect meritocracy, where your success or failure in your goals comes down exclusively to the work you put into them. 

Some extreme examples:  Your goal is to save a certain amount of money from each paycheck, and you win the lottery.  Now you don't have to live frugally to achieve your savings goals.  Let's say you're trying to increase the number of push ups you can do by the end of the month, but the flu takes you out of training for two weeks.  Or you're training for the Olympics when you lose a leg in a car accident.  In those cases, it's really easy to see that your goals need to be readjusted.  But smaller factors can add up and impact your goal, too.

If you've chosen a good goal that is an appropriate challenge level for you, a little luck one way or the other could be the difference between success and failure.  Not so?  That's either because you've chosen a goal that is so easy that you will only be challenged when your luck is bad, or a goal that is so hard that you have no real chance unless your luck is very good.  If you are really challenging yourself, really pushing the limits of your physical or mental strength, luck will get to push you around a little bit. 

The key is to be honest with yourself about your effort and progress, whether you succeed or fail.  There's a fine line between making excuses and knowing when bad luck did you in.  And there's an equally fine line between false pride and knowing when good luck gave you a boost.  If you're completely honest with yourself, you can make the most of whatever hand your were dealt, and go into your next goal with more insight.  "I added 5 reps per set last month even though I had the flu, so I should be able to improve even more this month," or "Having a training partner every day last week made it really easy to get to the gym, but my schedule is back to normal this week so I should plan accordingly," are realistic assessments of luck that set you up for success.

Best wishes to everyone in the new year, and best of luck to everyone in your goals for 2019!