New Year, New Me — Nonsense

It’s that time of year when your social media feeds are inundated with New Year’s resolutions from friends, family, and even some companies. These resolutions are typically grand sweeping changes that will transform their life or correct some failure from the year before. According to U.S. News & World Report, the failure rate for New Year’s resolutions is about 80 percent, and most lose their resolve by mid-February.

So if there is such an overwhelming chance that we are going to fail why do we do it every year? There are a couple reasons, first and foremost, change is hard. Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, published a paper on how long it actually takes to form a habit. In Lally’s study, it took people 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. That means, your resolution to walk everyday could take most of the year before it becomes instinctual.

Secondly we are pretty gullible and believe the lies we tell ourselves; “This year is going to be different” or “There is no task I can’t tackle”. We tend to inherently trust people we are close to or hold in high esteem, so when this message is coming from our internal voice we just put it in the trust bucket and move on. This is not always a bad thing, if you don’t believe in yourself no one else will. This ability to lie to ourselves also helps us accomplish new things or push past our comfort zones, but in the case of New Year’s resolutions it really bites us when combined with the next reason.

Lastly humans are horrible at estimation in general and it becomes glaringly apparent when setting these types of goals. We create a goal that is so large on the first day of the year, that we almost assuredly doom ourselves to failure. Big goals lead to big failures, aim small miss small is a phrase used in competitive shooting and it works here as well.

So, what can we do about it, should we stop trying to be and/or do better? Absolutely not! What we need to do is structure our goals in a more achievable way, and break down big things into individual tasks with their own goal lines. Next celebrate those little victories that are moving you along the path towards the big goal. If you have worked in software development in the last 10 years you should be familiar with Agile and Scrum. Those principles can be applied to our everyday lives, we can think of our resolution in terms of a road map and breakdown the milestones we need to hit in order to deliver. Then create “sprints” that will be used to monitor that progress.

Roger Penske is a pretty astute businessman, as well as a very successful auto racing owner. In his annual meeting with his NASCAR teams he asked them to commit to something that seems fairly trivial. He asked them to commit to being 1% better everyday. 1% does not feel like something that can impact real change, but when you break it down it is pretty profound. There are roughly 260 work days in a calendar year, not accounting for holidays and PTO, if you commit to the challenge of advancing 1% everyday by the end of the year you will have improved 260% (simple math I know). If you expand that over an entire team, then you are talking about impacting real change for an organization.

The trick here, is that early on optimizations are easy to find. The first few months the team will have no issue finding improvements. The next few months they may even coast as their improvements build on each other and create even more little wins, but then we start getting into Q3 and Q4. We have come a long way but now that 1% is harder to find or takes more work to achieve. This is where your team is most vulnerable to falling off the wagon and losing all the gains of the previous months. As a leader, your team needs you to step up and challenge them to stay accountable, to themselves and each other. In your one-on-ones ask them about their 1% successes and failures, work with them on exploring new areas for optimization. Make sure that you are doing your part to celebrate the wins and that you are communicating with others so that the team gets the recognition it deserves.

Keep in mind that unless your team is under-performing in a big way, a 260% increase is highly unlikely, there are going to be several days where the needle doesn’t move, and that is OK. The most important part to take away from this is that we are trying to build the habit of improvement in our team members. This is not an overnight process, from earlier we know it can take up to 254 days before a habit becomes part of us. Change is hard, but as leaders we need to encourage our team to keep at it until the improvement mindset becomes part of who they are.