The Power of Being Generic

A Tip for New Year Resolutions

It’s the beginning of year 2021. If you have some new year resolutions and you’re a casual person like me, I’m sharing one tip worked really well for me, in the hope it can help you to stick with your resolutions a little bit longer.

Being generic with your plans.

Being generic means having a sense of big directions (the motion towards your goals) rather than specific objectives. E.g. “To read more books about a topic” or simply “to read more books” is a big direction while “to read 2 books each month” is a specific objective. “To lose some weight” is a direction while “to lose 50 lbs” is a specific objective.

For many years I believed in setting specific, measurable objectives for personal habits/resolutions. After all, the idea is promoted a lot in business world, such as setting SMART goals. But one day I realized that unless my personal goal is specific by nature, being specific is actually counterproductive - it has a major problem.

Before we start (moving towards our goal), we usually don’t know what plan works the best for us. Setting specific objectives prematurely tends to anchor misleading expectations, and thus causes negative feelings when the specifics aren’t met.

Life is eventful and full of uncertainty. A seemingly viable plan this week could turn to be unrealistic in the next month. There are two common problems:

  • Over-committing. This could be due to incorrect estimation of one’s ability, capacity or willpower, or it could be caused by unforeseeable life events.

  • What worked for others doesn’t necessarily work for me. E.g. To read more, some people are more productive reading a short period everyday while others could prefer reading full days over the weekends. Just think whether we will resonate with a routine doesn’t always tell the truth; we have to experience it to tell.

I once set a resolution to read 1 hour everyday. But in the very next week my workload turned heavy and I didn’t have time to read anything over the weekdays. I felt so defeated regarding my reading “progress” and started to consider myself not the type of person that reads. I didn’t even think about reading for a little bit over the weekends when I actually had time.

Being specific draws our attention to the specifics (reading 1h everyday) rather than the big direction (read more books). The corollary is that such a plan would be disruption-prone. But, you see, a disrupted plan itself is not that harmful. It’s the negative feeling caused by the disruption that’s really destructive - it’s the catalyst for a vicious circle.

  1. The more you’re off the track (from the specifics you set)

  2. The more unforgiving you become about the “mistakes”; the unforgivingness might (unconsciously) come from a sense of shame, anger or disappointment

  3. The more likely you’re going to deny your identity being the type of person that is capable of achieving your goal

  4. The more likely you choose to give up and become further off-track

Being generic helps to break the circle. Because there is no specific objective to hit, we wouldn’t be distracted by the specifics, and thus not feel as strongly off-track when we miss the mark in the near term. More importantly it eases the negative feelings about ourselves and lowers the emotional barrier for us to refocus on the motion towards the goals. If the current schedule or routine stopped working, then find another. If it’s just a pause of the plan, then resume it later.

The essential logic behind is to make it easy to recover from setbacks and refocus on actions. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, our mind tends to agree with our actions. Our action forges our identity, and our identity reinforces our action. That’s the virtuous circle that backs any sustainable behavior.

But there is a catch. We still need to somehow measure the progress to make sure we’re not simply procrastinating or staying in place.

Measure incremental, instead of absolute, progress.

Did I read more this month than last month? Did I exercise more than last week? Such incremental progress might look trivial, but it augments our confidence via action which reinforces our belief in certain identity, e.g. I am the type of person that can read.

Hopefully at one point we will reach a desired activeness level. But will it last? Likely. If you entered the virtuous circle for long enough, the belief in your identity probably has been forged, and you have probably found a routine that worked for you. At this point, it’s pretty much autopilot mode to carry out the desired activity.

OK. There is another catch. To form the habits to reach your goals, it definitely takes more than just being generic. I highly recommend the book Atomic Habits. The author provides tons of practical advices about forming habits. “Make it easy” is one of the four principles in the book. Being generic is my insight to how to make it a little bit easier.

Hope you stick with your new year resolutions, and have a great new year!