Rethinking New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

“This year,” says your friend (who’s never run a 5K), “I’m going to do a marathon.”

“Yeah? How are you going to do that?” you inquire, trying to sound polite and curious rather than incredulous.

“Well, I haven’t figured that out yet…but I’m looking at maybe Chicago or Boston…”

Every year at the beginning of January or end of December, otherwise smart people set big goals and try to achieve them with hope and willpower and not much else.

January is always a big month for gyms. And then, come February, the crowds taper off as only 4% of those new members continue.

In fact, the gym business is built around this. Gym owners target about an 18% utilization rate. That’s not 18% using the gym at once. That’s 18% using the gym with any consistency at all. In other words, 82% of gym members literally don’t use the gym membership they pay $50 or $100 for every month.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Researchers know what causes people to adopt new habits and grow new skills. We just don’t do those things.

In this short article, I’m going to give you some ways you can make 2018 different.

I’m going to show you how you can actually achieve the change you want in your life and work.

We’ll talk about how to plan for success and then the steps you need to take to make the change happen.

Resolutions Aren’t Really the Problem

It’s easy to look at people’s dismal success rate with New Year’s Resolutions and to give up on the whole enterprise. But resolutions aren’t really the problem. It’s how we do them.

There’s something very human about using natural cadences to reflect and improve. The beginning of the year is a great time to reflect on the previous year and take steps to make the next year better. This dynamic is one of the things we like about Scrum—the sprint provides a similar cadence for reflection and improvement.

The problem is how people approach New Year’s Resolutions. They tend to choose or articulate their goals poorly and rarely create a plan that’s likely to achieve the goal.

Let’s look at how to fix that for 2018.

Choosing a Good Goal

Most people choose goals that are way too big and way too vague.

I’m going to become a better Product Owner,” is too vague.

I’m going to run a marathon,” when you’ve never run a 5K, is too big.

I’m going to become the best leader my people have ever worked for,” is both.

Choose a goal where you’ll be able to recognize the difference. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What would it look like if I were a better Product Owner?
  • What would I do more of? Less of?
  • What would I find easy that I find difficult or impossible today?
  • What habit would I stop that’s hurting my Product Ownership today?

I love the advice Jon Acuff gives in his excellent book Finish: Once you’ve chosen a goal, cut it in half. Seriously. We choose goals that are too big, and then our perfectionism tells us to give up because we can’t get it perfect. Instead, choose a goal you can achieve, and when you achieve it, you’re very likely to keep going and to achieve, or even surpass, your original goal. But if you can’t even get halfway there, you’re certainly not going to get the full goal.

Creating an Effective Plan

Once you have a good goal, you need a plan that’s actually going to help you achieve it. The right approach depends on whether your goal is adopting a new habit or growing a skill.

Adopting a New Habit

A habit has 3 parts: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward.

The trigger, the thing that makes you do the behavior. For a time, I had a habit of eating potato chips while cooking dinner. When I stopped to think about it, this habit made no sense at all—I was eating an unhealthy food as I cooked a healthy meal for my family—but it was a sticky habit. I’d go to the pantry to get my apron to start making dinner, and I’d come out with the apron…and a bag of barbecue chips.

The trigger for this habit? Going to the pantry to start dinner prep.

The behavior? Eating chips.

The reward? A tasty, salty, fatty chip leading to a dopamine hit in my brain.

To change a habit, we need to either make the trigger go away or replace the behavior with a different, but also rewarding, behavior.

In the case of the chips, I wasn’t likely to eliminate the trigger. My family still needed to eat dinner. So, I targeted the behavior. I started buying almonds instead of chips and replaced the behavior of setting an open bag of chips on the counter with the new behavior of grabbing a handful of almonds. After a few weeks, I no longer missed the chips.

Sometimes you can eliminate the trigger.

A few years ago, a family member wanted to quit smoking. She recognized that being at home, with other smokers and with ready access to cigarettes, triggered her choosing to smoke (of course, addiction and related cravings were part of the trigger, too). So, she chose to time quitting when she was coming to visit us for a week. No one smokes in our house and no cigarettes are available nearby, which made it easier for her to begin breaking the habit.

Let’s take this into a work context.

Suppose your team has a habit of over-committing in sprint planning. Sprint after sprint, you end up taking on more work than you can complete.

First, we need a good goal.

“Stop overcommitting” is too big and vague.

How about, “Finish what we planned in most sprints and respond mid-sprint (by splitting and/or dropping something) when a story turns out to be bigger than we expected.”

Now, we can look at the overcommitting habit. What triggers this? Maybe it’s some stakeholder expressing how important certain features are. That trigger’s not likely to go away. Stakeholders will still want things, and will likely to continue wanting more than you can deliver.

So, you need to substitute a new behavior.

You could choose to respond with something like, “Yes, I can see why that’s important. Our capacity is X, so let’s figure out what we can slice or drop to make that happen.” Instead of the behavior of just saying, “yes,” you’ve substituted a new behavior of starting a conversation about tradeoffs.

Growing a New Skill

Want to grow a skill?

The key here is practice. Good practice.

The best kind isolates a skill (or, specifically, the integration of one or more skills) and provides repetition with feedback. You can do this by yourself if you design the practice well, but it’s easiest with a coach.

The important thing is actually practicing.

Not just reading about the skill or deciding to be better at it, but deliberately taking time to practice, evaluating the result, and repeating. Let’s look at an example…

Suppose you want to get better at splitting features and stories. You observe that your backlog items tend to be tasks or components, and you’d like them to be increments of value, but you don’t know how to make that happen reliably. The ineffective way to approach this would be to simply declare, “We’re going to work in good stories from now on.” Maybe you’d read some of the story splitting articles. But you wouldn’t really have developed the skill.

Again, we need to start with a good goal.

“We’re going to work in good stories from now on,” is too big.

Let’s cut it in half and make it a little more concrete: “Three sprints from now, half the backlog items we take into a sprint will be what we consider good small user stories.”

Now, we can make a plan to get there that goes beyond hope and willpower.

We could schedule a few practice sessions over the next few weeks. Intentionally select typical stories or features to work with, and then spend time trying to split them in different ways, evaluating the result and trying to figure out which patterns work when in your context. I’ve laid out a recommended structure for these practice sessions here.

Make 2018 Different

Don’t go into 2018 making the same New Year’s resolution mistakes as everyone else. Define good goals and then create a sustainable plan to achieve them.

Update, October 2020: Richard’s latest story splitting resources are available at Humanizing Work.

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