A New New Year Resolution

This post will be shortish but hopefully sweet. I came across the first new year resolution that I could actually back and I wanted to share it. Ready? Here it is. “Do less, fail more.”

I cannot take credit for this idea – it landed in my inbox this morning, courtesy of my life coaching course creator, Martha Beck. No, it wasn’t a joke. It is beautifully ironic because following this instruction is likely to deliver greater results than the stock-standard “do more, more perfectly” resolution. And it might be a resolution that I can actually keep beyond January 8.

How is this possible?

We have eyes bigger than our stomachs when it comes to our plans. Dreaming big is all well and good, but not if you feel like you have to hack off giant chunks each day and be done by February. You struggle for a bit but eventually it shuts you down. The way around this is to craft small and easy steps which can be completed on any day. Build momentum. Do more on any day if you wish. But don’t set yourself up to give up. Aim to do less.

Then there is the failure piece. In my first post I talked about how a willingness to fail supports learning, but to drive the point home, I refer you to a big-time failure – Albert Einstein. His many errors are detailed by Carlo Rovelli in an article collected in his book, “There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness“. These errors included publishing numerous mistakes across many fields and frequently changing his mind, sometimes presenting a theory, then arguing against it, then adopting it again.

The author is not being unkind. He instead underscores the key role that failure had in the development of one of the world’s greatest scientific minds. This is because the many failures reflected Einstein’s courage to experiment with ideas and to revise his own opinions. And we don’t remember Einstein for his failures. Comforting stuff if you are thinking about trading in perfectionism for a willingness to try.

The list of addition

The backwards approach seems to work for new year resolutions, so perhaps we can do the same with our “to-do” lists. It popped into my head this morning that we could create a “list of addition” instead. Here is how it works.

Step one

Start with the premise that you are complete. There are very few things that you absolutely need to do in this moment. And the strictly necessary things are usually quite simple. Like breathing.

Are you yelling at me right now? Of course there are things that must be done! If I don’t write thank-you cards I’lll be disowned from the family! If I don’t obey my boss I’ll get fired! If I don’t wear pink on Wednesdays I’ll be thrown out of the group!

This might sound like life-coach word trickery, but technically you don’t need to do any of those things. It is just that you don’t care for the consequences. And fair enough, they sound horrible. The point is that these are choices dressed up as things you have to do. They are in fact trade-offs. You work in that horrible job in exchange for the measly benefits and to avoid the hassle of finding a new one.

Why should we care about the language we use? Why does it matter if we say “I choose to” as opposed to “I have to”?

There are three benefits I can see. The first being that it just feels better. Try saying both out loud and see if there is a difference. If it feels better then you will do things better, with more energy. Second, it keeps you focused on the objective. Put another way, you are more likely to remember why you are doing that thing rather than feeling resentful about the task. Finally, if you are crystal clear about it being a choice, it opens you up to the possibility of making other choices or using your creativity to improve the experience of your selected choice.

Step Two

Once you have accessed this feeling state of completeness, you can tackle the day’s tasks. But this time, don’t write a list of things that you have to do. Go out and start doing things. Or not. And then add to the list each time that you complete something. The list will start empty and will be gradually filled. It might be modest, but it definitely won’t be stressful because everything on it will be done. This list will make you feel good, not bad.

Don’t worry, you won’t forget the important things. But if you are worried about forgetting some administrative tasks, you could play with adding a sub-list called something like “basic contributions to functional living”.

Play. Keep it light. Don’t like step two? Just do step one. Most importantly, don’t allow to-do lists to add heaviness above and beyond any heaviness attached to the tasks themselves.

I will leave you with a nice little quote from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (translation by Stephen Mitchell), “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” Let that twist your mind like a pretzel. Happy New Year everyone.

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