Why resolutions? The power of a mental fresh start

To me, New Year’s resolutions have always felt a little strange. At the turn of the year (which, essentially, is an arbitrary day) you write out several self-improvement goals and attempt - as much as you can - to adhere to them.

Generally, this does not conjure up thoughts of success. Instead of a Rocky montage of running through the snow and pumping fists, New Year’s resolution’s look more like a gym that is unusually crowded for three weeks in January and then empty for the following 11 months. Why then, you might ask, am I creating a resolutions post at all?

As kitschy as New Year’s can be, it is born of good intentions. Who doesn’t want to improve? Even those who habitually fail to honor their resolutions usually still make it to the proverbial gym for three weeks in January. Better than nothing, right? Most importantly, though, I think New Year’s resolutions are notoriously unsuccessful because there is a tendency to focus solely on results (the what), with little consideration of how to achieve them and why they are worth the effort in the first place.

Why do you want the things you want?

New Year’s resolutions don’t typically elicit explanation. “Well of course you want to spend more time [reading / at the gym / socializing / learning]!” Yet, perhaps this is part of the problem with resolutions in the first place. What if we had “New Year’s justifications?”. Instead of etching a few commandments in stone and straining to follow them in the new year, what if we focused on why we want these new things? Said a different way, what kind of person has the habits you desire, and why do you want to be like them? What is their attitude towards work and relationships? How do they define success?

True to the theme of this section, you might be asking why this is important. “What does it matter my reasons for wanting X, Y, and Z? I know what I want.” Fair enough, but everything worth doing requires effort, and your inner motivation - your why - will largely determine if you keep true to your goals for more than three weeks in January. Old habits are hard to break and acquiring new ones is often just as difficult. With many resolutions, you endeavor to do both at once. If “I said I would,” is all that binds you to your New Year’s mission, there is a good chance you are going to fail. Few are so determined that they can operate this way.

Instead, a more sound approach is anchoring these new behaviors to a piece of your identity - a personal mission or mantra. The distinction seems subtle, but may have dramatic effects. For one, you have reframed your goals as something you would pursue regardless of what others think. The pursuit of external approval (or avoidance of disapproval) can be an exceptionally strong force. However, this is neither a healthy nor sustainable means of motivation. By thinking critically about a new habit and what it says about your identity protects you from external influences and losing motivation. Internalizing these ideas is not just a mental task, though. To truly adopt a new habit, you must play a bit of a game with ourself. In most things in life, we are triggered or primed to do something. In the morning, your first reaction may be to hit the snooze. After work, you might plop down on the couch. Building truly lasting habits is not about brute force, but rewiring your natural tendencies. To do this, you need to think about what you want to rewire, and why. There is substantial research about this rewiring tactic already, far more than I could discuss here. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit.

Misguided goals ➜ myopic effort: Considering the “how” of your resolutions

When I was in middle school, I was a passionate but not particularly talented member of the school’s soccer team. Over winter break, I remember telling my parents that my New Year’s resolution was to score more goals. In our basement, with a foam soccer ball and a small goal, I started to practice scoring and extended this habit into winter training. When spring season began, I was a much better shooter than before. However, to my surpise I rarely got the chance to showcase this skill; by season end I had scored only one more goal than the year before. In retrospect, its clear why I failed: scoring goals involves so much more than kicking a ball into a net. Being in the right position, understanding the field, reading the opponents defense, setting up your teammates for assists, … - these should also have been practiced. In a sense, scoring goals is a symptom of a larger condition: being a well-rounded, dynamic player within a team. Had I been more thoughtful about how to approach my New Year’s resolutions, maybe I would be playing soccer right now instead of writing code :).

I don’t play much soccer any more. The allure of scoring goals in front of a crowd of a dozen parents has worn off for me. Yet, the lesson I learned still remains. For me and for many, it is easy to state what you might want from the new year. Making more money, finding a better job, developing closer friendships, and other generalities are both common and intuitive choices. Though it may take more thought, determining your why for these goals may be straightforward as well. However, a much more difficult exercise is going beyond the “what” and why of your resolutions to understand how you might change yourself over time to achieve them.

Don’t just think about results: Resolutions are nothing without behaviors

At their core, resolutions are just goals, metaphorical destinations we wish to find ourselves in the future. For example, my professional resolutions include:

  1. Contribute to an accepted research publication at a top conference in my field
  2. Find and cultivate a valuable, unique research topic
  3. Become a faster, more effective software engineer
  4. Improve my ability to digest mathematical concepts

Listing these was easy for me - it took roughly 30 seconds. However, explicitly listing why each of these is important to me and worth the effort took was not as simple. My best attempt at concise responses is shown below.

  1. A top-tier publication garners recognition for my work that will allow me to graduate with a PhD. More importantly, it will verify that I understand how to conduct research and have demonstrably contributed to the world’s knowledge of Machine Learning.
  2. A unique and valuable research topic ensures that I can infuse my personal passion into my work. When perfect, this allows me to exercise my curiosity and creativity in an manner that is both beneficial for society and, relatively speaking, free from the stress of competition.
  3. Software engineering is the medium by which my ideas can be demonstrated, verified, and distributed to others. The better I am at this, the faster I can test research theories and the more marketable I will be in industry.
  4. Arguably, the text of research papers exists solely to qualify and elaborate on the information in the figures, charts, and equations therein. Math is the most explicit way to explain an idea that can then be distributed across domains, cultures, and languages. Fluency in this language is one of the most transferrable skills anyone could want.

Not so easy to be concise after all. The reasons why we want something are rarely as simple as we initially think. Finally, the how of my resolutions is listed below - the behaviors. This, by far, was the toughest part of this post to write. For the how of New Year’s resolutions to be useful at all, they must be practical, attainable, and clearly represent a path towards long-term improvement. That is quite a lot to ask of a few sentences!

  1. Collaborate with other students who are already operating at a high level in their research. Take conscious note of how they think about publishing and experimentation muliple times a week, if possible.
  2. Gain a deep understanding of the research landscape by reading as many conference publications as I can. Moreover, review these articles to ensure you understand the significance and technical concepts.
  3. Unless something arises directly in my research, do at least one coding challenge per day. Think about it theoretically first, then attempt to seamless implement it with a language of your choosing. Make note of all mistakes, and test yourself by entering competitions once a month.
  4. Isolate the math concepts I continually struggle to understand in research papers and seek out tutorials or textbooks. If at all possible, do not consider a paper finished until you understand all the equations. Work hard to digest coursework beyond the scope of assignments by extending the questions on your own.

When you compare my list of goals and corresponding behaviors, what differences do you notice? The goals are written simply. In comparison to the why and the how, they appear almost elegant, single phrases instead of multiple directives strung together. This is because a goal, even if simply stated, is not simply achieved. The path to your goals is never completely clear and likely changing with time. Lists of behaviors that will push you in the right direction, like the ones I outlined above, are essentially a rough gradient on which you can generally descend towards them. By leveraging your behavior gradient - an understanding of your current habits and what/why you wish to change - your chances of taking your resolutions past the third week of January drastically improve. Good luck, and happy new year!

Coming Up: What a PhD has taught me about efficiency

True to my resolutions, the next post will discuss what I have learned about efficiency as a PhD student. Much of my work up to now has involved optimizing intelligent agents to make decisions in uncertain environments with incomplete information. As expected, this difficult, messy process has no single correct approach. What I was more surprised by, however, was how this thoughtful, tailored optimization could translate to life in general.