We have made it to spring. Spring, in all its blooming optimism, also concludes the season of New Year’s resolutions as those promises, mostly unkept, fade into bitter memory.
To me, New Year’s resolutions represent a cruel, unsustainable notion. They suggest that an infinite well of personal capacity, untapped in our moral weakness, will fuel the habits we want in our lives. I suggest, instead, that we are generally trying as hard as we can — that to embrace a new habit, we must relinquish old habits to pay for it. The personal costs and benefits of the old and new habits must match, not only in quantity but in kind. I find that when a change is paid for in the sense of personal capacity, it can be surprisingly sustainable.
(Unsustainable) Change as a Moral Crusade
My interest in how to pay for change comes from a few places. At a personal level, I simply feel intimidated by people who seem to have strong willpower, because I don’t. I’ve spent much of my life substituting cleverness for willpower.
Professionally, I measure operations. I spend my days bringing some of the precision of finance — budgets and ledgers, every penny like every other — to the realm of service delivery, built of far less interchangeable human efforts.
Other times, I’m called when a large technology initiative goes sideways. Technology projects look suspiciously like New Year’s resolutions: the organization will buy some exciting new software, the software will make the organization more productive, and everyone will benefit.
Unfortunately, difficulties inevitably arise. Reality’s complexity is typically underestimated; the software’s capability is typically overestimated. Leaders I admire — good people who have often dedicated their lives to service — start to double down on the initiative. In doubling down, they eventually inflict callousness and cruelty upon their teams. These leaders often lose key personnel as well as the hearts and minds of many more, gutting the human capital needed to accomplish anything good at all.
I believe this tragedy reflects something inside people. I notice leaders tend to have an impressive track record of crushing personal obstacles through sheer will. For leaders, I fear that a lifetime of waging moral crusades against their own limitations can turn moral crusades into an instinct. When the chips are down, the instinct can spill out and start to crush entire teams.
(Sustainable) Change as Capacity Accounting
The assumption behind the New Year’s resolution seems to be that personal capacity is unlimited — that anything is possible if you try hard enough. New Year’s resolutions can be seductive in temporarily confirming this assumption before blowing up. Trying anything new is a pleasant placebo. You can borrow extra energy from the future — for a little while.
I suggest the opposite assumption: that personal capacity is fixed. And further, that there are categories of personal capacity that don’t substitute. For example, you can’t raise your capacity for empathy by doing less physical lifting. You can’t stop relaxing with your friends and solve world hunger in its place, even if you think both take four hours a week.
Personal capacity fluctuates, particularly with health, over a lifetime. But assuming it’s constant opens a kinder, more pragmatic route to change. The costs of a proposed new habit must simply match the costs of old habits to relinquish. For example, to embrace a new habit requiring significant project management, you need to jettison another habit requiring a similar amount of project management. Conversely, if you give up a habit with benefits — like rest or social connection — you must take up new habits that offer the same benefits.
Two Personal Examples
Here is one mundane example from my life of what not to do. When visiting my doctor, he told me to improve my blood pressure by cooking at home more.
Great. Now how will I pay for it? The fridge inventory, the grocery trips, the cooking time, the dishes? Unable to fund the planning and logistics, I borrowed some energy from the future and just tried harder. My diet improved briefly. The initiative imploded within weeks. After an especially overworked winter, I’m not sure I want to measure the restaurant food I eat in a typical week.
Here’s an example of what can work. In 2020, I read a book that suggested that everyone has a “tribe” of roughly 150 relationships. It suggested that networking is about nurturing these connections regularly. I developed and gave away an open-source spreadsheet to implement the book’s suggestions. If you are in my tribe, a 16-week period never passes without hearing from me.
When I mention this, people assume I have superhuman willpower. They are wrong. This change was sustainable partly for technical reasons — I crafted the most efficient possible algorithm to keep this promise.
But more profoundly, I figured out how to pay for the change. I quit Facebook.
Facebook’s main costs in my life were empathetic — caring about what was going on with other people. Its main benefits were social — feeling connected and listened to. My relationship algorithm comprises a tiny trickle of ongoing bookkeeping to record whom I talked to each day, then about one extra email or text a day to whomever is about to fall through the cracks.
In its personal costs and benefits, the relationship algorithm was a drop-in replacement for Facebook. Yet it represented a huge improvement — I replaced shallow, distracted connections with too many people with a smaller number of high-quality connections. Paid for, the change has had startling staying power. As I write this, I’ve kept my 16-week promise to my tribe of 170-odd people — without exception — for about three years.
Sustainable Change From the Inside Out
I gave up on New Year’s resolutions long ago. I find change too important to put on a schedule. If a morsel of capacity accounting will improve my world, I embrace it immediately. If the calendar runs out without one showing up, that’s okay.
Whether you make New Year’s resolutions or not, I encourage you to articulate how to pay for the habits you want. Your proposals will take deeper analysis (intellectual exertion which, itself, must be paid for). They will sound more convoluted. You’ll attempt fewer of them. Yet you may find that surprisingly large improvements start to take root for yourself and loved ones, not for mere weeks, but for years.
Then — when time comes to lead a big change on behalf of your organization — you’ll have the instincts to pleasantly surprise your team and customers alike.
This post was initially published by Engaging Local Government Leaders in its Morning Buzz series.