Tracking your progress to make New Year’s Resolutions stick

Many people make New Year’s resolutions. Whether they are to lose weight, exercise more or learn a new skill, they often fail. In this post I want to show what pitfalls can be and suggest some good ways of making resolutions stick.

Problem: Not having clear actionable goals

If you’re not following through on your goals, that might simply be due to a lack of clarity about what they are. For example, “Learn X” is a bad goal because it doesn’t state what exactly you’ll do to learn X, which methods you use, how long you’ll practice or when and where. Swap unclear goals like these with something very concrete and plan when you’ll do it. Is it supposed to become a habit part of your pre-existing daily routine (recommened) or do you see it like an appointment? Then put it in your calender (on auto-repeat so it gets scheduled every week).

(You can read some more about this here.)

Problem: Not being able to consistently follow through

It’s easy to stick with a New Year’s resolution for the first week while you’re still motivated. You might even be so motivated that you go overboard with it. This is not good. You need this first week of motivation to establish a minimalistic, reasonable habit. The most important thing for progress, in the end, is that your habit is sustainable. Like also mentioned in the blog post linked above, a problem often is that we make these things too complicated or complex which ruins their sustainability. So rather do less than you could to keep it fun. The best way to form a habit is getting satisfaction from it. That means you need a little success and sense of accomplishment every time you do it. If you rely on extrinsic motivation, the habit won’t stick. You need to enjoy the activity itself or make it in a way that you can learn to enjoy it. So if your goal is to become better at programming, for instance, I recommended in this post that you do little 5-10 minute programming drills at sites like Hackerrank. This is fun, short enough to be sustainable and keeps you motivated. You could even incorporate this into an existing routine, such as before you begin to work.

Problem: I’m doing my resolution but it doesn’t seem to be working?

Here, the solution can be twofold – either the habit you came up with doesn’t contribute to developing the skill you wanted to develop (easily possible and very common because most skills you can practice don’t transfer well) or you’re not doing the habit nearly as often as you think you are.

I have known many people who wanted to get fit in the new year over the years and most of them were completely delusional about their new habit. Yes, they had established it (which is good!). Yes, they worked out hard during the first week. Yes, some physiological adapation had occured. But that also means that you need a training progression. If you do the same thing over and over again without new challenges, there will be no more training effect in no time.

Either that, or you’re really not doing you practice as often as you should. Developing complex skills requires time, of course. In getting better at programming, for instance, your progress might not be as visible as in muscle adaptation (which is really quick, starting to show major change even after only two weeks). But this slower progression has the inherent danger that your motivation slackens and you really don’t practice as much anymore as you think you do.

Working towards progress needs planning – that’s why you need a trainer and a training plan if you want to work towards a marathon. Why should it be any different when acquiring a computer-related skills? Yet here, people often skip the planning part and wonder why the results aren’t great, especially if you’re trying to learn on the job or beside working full time. Especially in the latter situation I have seen many cases of people (including myself) being quite delusional about how much time and effort they’re actually putting in.

But what I’m really getting at with this: You need a way to track progress. You need to track time spent on learning the skill, methods used and which ones yielded measurable progress. You need weekly and monthly progress review for the last and a plan for the following month. Track time spent using journals. Find a way of measuring progress objectively. That way, if you’re not progressing, you know  you have to change the approach. But more often than not, this sort of journaling will give you a feel about how much time you really spent and you might not like it.

Methods like “Learn anything in 20h” are popular but when you do the math, to learn any of those (limited size) skills in a reasonable amount of time, you need to spend 45-60 minutes per day every day! How much progress can you really make if you invest one hour per week, half of it is spent trying to figure out stuff you forgot in the meantime? It’s better than not doing anything, of course, but maybe think about whether you can free up some more time if you’re serious about your project.

Make it an opportunity to cut back on digital time wasters like social media or much too frequent phone checking and wasting time online. A 10 minute daily session is always better than a one-hour session once per week. It gives you less time to go into detail but keeps you going. Missing a day won’t hurt as much as missing one or two whole weeks (!). Which tends to happen rather a lot in the once -per-week approach. And you cut time re-learning stuff you forgot.

So, I hope this helped someone.


the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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