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Emily Withrow here, filling in for Jenni this week. I’m usually in the Quartz Bot Studio writing and thinking about how we converse with machines, and working to create tools that will help us set and achieve meaningful goals—a personal obsession of mine, especially at the outset of a new year.
This obsession runs deep. Of all the power my siblings held over me, one tactic had the power to reduce me from a little-engine-that-could to a sobbing mess: the reset button. Sometimes it was a literal button, erasing all the levels I’d beat on Super Mario Bros. Other times it was figurative. But it was always simple to operate: Find something I’d dedicated my time and attention to, then erase it. (Or ruin it so I might as well erase it.) The work I was doing changed over time, but the effect was the same: total panic as I saw my brothers hover their fingers just so. The fear of losing something irreplaceable. Time, maybe, or a totally unique tower of building blocks.
Those building blocks are more complicated now. Between work, friends, and family, I often lose count of how many blocks I have, and how they’re supposed to fit together without toppling over. Sometimes I want to knock down the tower myself, to at least control the fall. So I’ve been doing just that, slowly. Throwing some blocks away. Delegating some. And slowly, my relationship to destruction has changed. Now, it feels radical and refreshing to start over, from scratch—whether that means hitting the literal reset button at work that returns my system to its default state, or letting go of something meaningful when it’s time.
A collective reset
I love the idea of New Years resolutions, of a cultural moment where we take stock of the year behind us and make plans for the future. In that imagined future, we will change! We will be better. We will not eat the entire box of cookies. Actually accomplishing those goals, though, proves problematic.
Charles Duhigg’s life-changing 2012 book The Power of Habit details why and how habits form, and why they’re so difficult to break. We create habits in one of the most primitive parts of our brain—the automated service department that is the basal ganglia—and then perform in an automatic loop of cue, anticipation, behavior, reward. If you want to leave old habits behind, it’s essential reading.
One tack is to write better resolutions by setting SMART goals. This means making them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Our initial attempts at goal-setting often lack the focus that makes them doable. The number one resolution Americans choose is to “lose weight,” for example, but how? A SMART approach might instead be to resolve to jog three times per week, for eight weeks, or to bring healthy lunches to work instead of eating out for the month of January.
I’ve been using the SMART goals framework at work for years now, and while I don’t meet every goal, I often have a better understanding of where things went wrong, having taken the time to plan ahead, envision each step, and evaluate how it will work into my schedule. You can find more details on the SMART approach in this excellent guide from the New York Times, and join us for a goal-setting conversation on Facebook Messenger on January 1. Just start a chat there with us now, and we’ll ping you on New Years Day.
Resolutions as reflections
We’re not just reflecting on our own lives when writing resolutions; we’re reflecting the culture we live in. This week I spoke with Ann Burnett, a communications professor at North Dakota State University who studies, among other things, holiday letters. She says when we write holiday letters and resolutions, we’re putting forward images of our most ideal selves—they’re markers of our societal values.
The value she sees most prevalently today? Busyness. She says we brag about busyness like a status symbol, which leaves us even less likely to take time to unwind. “Pressure to be busy tends to run over ideas like mindfulness,” she says. She suggests paying attention to how you communicate about time. If you catch yourself lamenting how busy you are, try to reframe: “I have a full life,” for example, or “I’m working on exciting projects.” This can help remind you that often, busyness is a choice, which can open you up to making room for relaxation. Who knows? Maybe with a bit of progress, our 2018 holiday cards will contain proud appreciations of pleasantly paced days and unscheduled evenings.
Benjamin Franklin, lifestyle guru
Lin-Manuel Miranda paired up with The Decemberists to record a new song praising the accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin, but somehow omitted one of my favorite Franklin facts: Franklin was the O.G. bullet journaler. In his autobiography, he detailed 13 virtues that comprise a good life, and created charts to track his daily performance on each one. (Below, charting temperance, from Franklin’s autobiography.) He also asked an intentional question to start and end the day: What good will I do today?
This year, I’m taking a page from Franklin: I resolve to approach my days with intention and reason. I’m certainly guilty of what Ann Burnett calls “wrestling with time,” occasionally trying to bend it to my will. So this year, I’m trying to be more measured. More realistic about what’s doable. I will say no. I will let some things go. I will reclaim my time. And when I need to, I will press the reset button.
Have a great weekend—and a Happy New Year!
PS: The Last Word
One of the favorite new traditions in my house is my partner’s ridiculously elaborate holiday cocktail menu. Each year, he creates one with a different theme and ridiculous drink names full of literary references, jokes, and—let’s be honest—nonsense. We print them out, decorate them, and distribute them to guests who visit throughout the season. The menu varies, but always ends with a Last Word: equal parts green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, gin, and lime juice, shaken over ice, strained into a glass, and garnished with a lime twist or stack of maraschino cherries. What better way to send off the year?