Make Plans, Not Resolutions

In a scene in the spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the One-Armed Bounty Hunter finds Tuco Ramirez in a vulnerable position: In a bubble bath. Pointing his gun at Tuco, he begins a speech: He’s been looking for Tuco for eight months, and now he’s finally got him where he wants him, and … Tuco pulls his gun from beneath the bubbles and shoots the One-Armed Bounty Hunter five times. He stands up in the bathtub and says,

“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

Every December, we take stock of what we did last year, writing another chapter in our autobiography. A few days later, sometimes after pounding way too much champagne, we gear up for another trip around the sun by deciding how we want to improve ourselves in the next year. Sometimes we throw out pretty vague statements that don’t require us to be accountable to ourselves: I’m going to be a better husband this year. I’m going to lose weight. I’m going to run more.

Every year on his birthday at the end of January, my friend Alan commits to something big for the year. He doesn’t hold up a glass of whiskey and announce to his friends that he’s going to read 52 books, or go to the gym more often. He puts his money where his mouth is and plans something, with a deposit, or plane tickets. The first year, he called Frank Sanders at Devils Tower Climbing and made an appointment to climb the tower with Frank. Then he went and bought a pair of climbing shoes and a pass to a bouldering gym so he could try to figure out how to climb a little bit before they started up the tower in four months. Another year, he put down a $500 deposit on a Grand Teton climb to raise money for a nonprofit. Next year, the Matterhorn. The next year, a trip to the Bugaboos. And so on.

Supposedly, if you write down a goal, you’re more likely to achieve it. Is that true if you “write it down” in a Facebook status or a tweet?

I don’t know, has anyone ever reminded you of something you said on Facebook? “Hey Bob, didn’t you say six months ago that you were going to climb more/Mt. Rainier/5.12 this year — how’s that going?” Right. Somewhere in a billion viral videos, Oatmeal cartoons, George Takei posts, and vacation photo albums, we forgot about your New Year’s resolution. Did you?

Maybe the question is: Do we really want to do anything, or do we just want to tell people about it?

Business psychologist Peter Shallard says telling people about your next big idea robs you of motivation. You tell people, you reap the rewards of the idea, and then you don’t execute.

So are we dreaming, or are we making plans? There’s a big difference between broadcasting something about someday riding the Kokopelli Trail and sending one close friend a rough itinerary and asking, What are you doing the weekend of April 20th?

I have a handful of people in my life I share some ideas with, and I am careful which ideas, because there is no lag time between me sharing the idea, and that person asking me “When are we doing this?”

In 2009, The Dirtbag Diaries published an episode called The Year of Big Ideas. Fitz interviewed Rangi Smart, a high school math teacher who found a 20-foot constructed jump on one of his favorite mountain bike trails and decided he was going to take a shot at it. He told his wife, then a few friends, and no one shared his stoke. You’re an adult, they said, you’re providing for a family, et cetera. So he finally told the only people he knew would hold him accountable, to back up his talk: His 9th- and 10th-grade students.

“Once I told my classes — I got 160 students — and I started making verbal commitments to them,” Rangi said, “Then it was over. I had to do it.”

Rangi told his students because he wanted them to make him feel like he had to hit the jump, not because he wanted them to think he was a rad mountain biker. Then he went out on his own and stuck the landing — barely.

Me, I got a few plans for 2013. What are they? Hey, if you have to shoot, shoot.


More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.

18 replies on “Make Plans, Not Resolutions

  • Rick O

    There was also a dude on that Year of Big Ideas podcast who said he wanted to start a website called “semi-rad.” I wonder what happened to that guy?

  • Kat

    I agree and I don’t. With a do-this-thing plan (rather than a resolution), you can set it in motion with a single action (purchase of a plane ticket, etc.) and let it roll from there. With a more amorphous goal/resolution that requires regular, tedious care and feeding without major milestones or one-click, make-it-happen moments, letting other people know and asking them to prod you occasionally could help keep someone on track.

    For example, I want to do a weeklong charity road ride this summer (one I’ve been saying I will do for years). Once I click the “register” button on the website, that’s it; there’s no going back. I’ll have to start fundraising and training right away, but I won’t feel the need to tell the world.

    But … I also want to go a full year without buying any new stuff for myself (partly inspired by your post about a friend who did the same – thank you). That’s going to require regular discipline. There will be no defining, congratulatory moments. If I succeed, the “celebration” on Jan. 1, 2014 will be quiet and unimpressive and not have great photos or great stories to go along with to “prove” I did what I set out to do. That is why I’m telling as many people as I can, so that they can rib me, remind me, harass me and tempt me. Breaking a bad habit requires some extra support, methinks.

    But we shall see, eh?

  • Alison

    I read an interview of Kelly McGonigal about her book the WillPower Instinct. She said instead of making a New Years resolution we should pledge to NOT change something in our lives.

    She went on to explain, “Most people make a fundamental mistake when thinking about their future choices. We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.

    I’ll skip the gym today, but I’m sure I’ll go tomorrow. I’ll put this on my credit card today, but no more shopping for a month. I don’t want to get started on the project now, but I’ll tackle it first thing in the morning. The more people have faith in their futures selves, the more likely they are to indulge today. In fact, just knowing you’ll have the chance to choose again tomorrow increases the chance you’ll choose habit or vice today

    Force yourself to view every individual choice as a commitment to all future choices. So instead of asking, “Do I want to eat this candy bar now?” (while lying to yourself that you won’t eat another candy bar all week), ask yourself, “Do I want the consequences of eating a candy bar every afternoon for the next year?” When tempted to procrastinate, don’t ask yourself “Would I rather do this today or tomorrow?” Instead, ask “Do I want the consequences of always putting this off until tomorrow?”

    I can attest that thinking in this anti-view has definitely motived me to “run more”!

  • Aaron F

    I pledge to gain weight, raise my cholesterol, raise my blood preasure, start smoking cigarattes, hit “the hard stuff”, watch WAY more TV, litter in the national parks more (screw ’em, my tax dollars ~ I helped pay for it), start a forest fire, dump some old paint down the storm sewer, and visit Texas once a month. YES!!!

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