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Don’t set new year resolutions because they don’t work

December 25th, 2009 · No Comments

Don’t set new year resolutions. For most people, it’s a waste of time.

New year resolutions is like the annual planning processes in some companies. You set a number of grand goals. You’re gong-ho about the goals for a few weeks. Then, you get distracted and stop working toward the goals.

Try something new and different this year.

Set 13 small, tangible goals for 2010. For the first thirteen weeks in 2009, focus on one goal exclusively each week. So, by the end of thirteenth week, you will have worked toward each of the 13 goals.

Then, iterate over the 13 goals again, again, and again. There’re 52 weeks in a year, so you’ll be able to iterate your 13 goals 4 times.

I didn’t invent this method. I learn it from Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the founding fathers of the United States, an accomplished author, a politician, a scientist, an inventor, a civic activist, a diplomat, and an entrepreneur. And He had no formal education beyond the age of 10 years.

To give you the background on this method, below is the relevant chapter from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (This book is in the public domain now, so I won’t get myself into trouble by post the excerpt.)

From Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of
arriving at moral perfection.  I wish'd to live without committing any
fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination,
custom, or company might lead me into.  As I knew, or thought I knew,
what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the
one and avoid the other.  But I soon found I had undertaken a task of
more difficulty than I bad imagined.  While my care was employ'd in
guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit
took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong
for reason.  I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative
conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not
sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must
be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have
any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.  For this
purpose I therefore contrived the following method.

In the various enumerations of the moral virtues I had met with in my
reading, I found the catalogue more or less numerous, as different
writers included more or fewer ideas under the same name.  Temperance,
for example, was by some confined to eating and drinking, while by
others it was extended to mean the moderating every other pleasure,
appetite, inclination, or passion, bodily or mental, even to our
avarice and ambition.  I propos'd to myself, for the sake of clearness,
to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annex'd to each, than a few
names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues
all that at that time occurr'd to me as necessary or desirable, and
annexed to each a short precept, which fully express'd the extent I
gave to its meaning.

These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1.  TEMPERANCE.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2.  SILENCE.  Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid
trifling conversation.

3.  ORDER.  Let all your things have their places; let each part of
your business have its time.

4.  RESOLUTION.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without
fail what you resolve.

5.  FRUGALITY.  Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself;
i.e., waste nothing.

6.  INDUSTRY.  Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful;
cut off all unnecessary actions.

7.  SINCERITY.  Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly,
and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8.  JUSTICE.  Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits
that are your duty.

9.  MODERATION.  Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as
you think they deserve.

10.  CLEANLINESS.  Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or

11.  TRANQUILLITY.  Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common
or unavoidable.

12.  CHASTITY.  Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to
dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or

13.  HUMILITY.  Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I
judg'd it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the
whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I
should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I
should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition
of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arrang'd
them with that view, as they stand above.  Temperance first, as it
tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so
necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard
maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and
the force of perpetual temptations.  This being acquir'd and
establish'd, Silence would be more easy; and my desire being to gain
knowledge at the same time that I improv'd in virtue, and considering
that in conversation it was obtain'd rather by the use of the ears than
of the tongue, and therefore wishing to break a habit I was getting
into of prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable
to trifling company, I gave Silence the second place.  This and the
next, Order, I expected would allow me more time for attending to my
project and my studies.  Resolution, once become habitual, would keep
me firm in my endeavors to obtain all the subsequent virtues; Frugality
and Industry freeing me from my remaining debt, and producing affluence
and independence, would make more easy the practice of Sincerity and
Justice, etc., etc.  Conceiving then, that, agreeably to the advice of
Pythagoras in his Golden Verses, daily examination would be necessary,
I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the
virtues.  I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns,
one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the
day.  I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the
beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on
which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black
spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed
respecting that virtue upon that day.

Form of the pages.

           |              TEMPERANCE.      |
           |       EAT NOT TO DULNESS;     |
           |     DRINK NOT TO ELEVATION.   |
           |   | S.| M.| T.| W.| T.| F.| S.|
           | T.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
           | S.| * | * |   | * |   | * |   |
           | O.| **| * | * |   | * | * | * |
           | R.|   |   | * |   |   | * |   |
           | F.|   | * |   |   | * |   |   |
           | I.|   |   | * |   |   |   |   |
           | S.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
           | J.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
           | M.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
           | C.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
           | T.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
           | C.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |
           | H.|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |

I determined to give a week's strict attention to each of the virtues
successively.  Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid
every the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues
to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the
day.  Thus, if in the first week I could keep my first line, marked T,
clear of spots, I suppos'd the habit of that virtue so much
strengthen'd and its opposite weaken'd, that I might venture extending
my attention to include the next, and for the following week keep both
lines clear of spots.  Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro' a
course compleat in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year.  And
like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate
all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his
strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having
accomplish'd the first, proceeds to a second, so I should have, I
hoped, the encouraging pleasure of seeing on my pages the progress I
made in virtue, by clearing successively my lines of their spots, till
in the end, by a number of courses, I should be happy in viewing a
clean book, after a thirteen weeks' daily examination.

This my little book had for its motto these lines from Addison's Cato:

          "Here will I hold.  If there's a power above us
          (And that there is all nature cries aloud
          Thro' all her works), He must delight in virtue;
          And that which he delights in must be happy."

Another from Cicero,

          "O vitae Philosophia dux! O virtutum indagatrix
          expultrixque vitiorum! Unus dies, bene et ex praeceptis
          tuis actus, peccanti immortalitati est anteponendus."

Another from the Proverbs of Solomon, speaking of wisdom or virtue:

          "Length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand
          riches and honour.  Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
          and all her paths are peace." iii. 16, 17.

And conceiving God to be the fountain of wisdom, I thought it right and
necessary to solicit his assistance for obtaining it; to this end I
formed the following little prayer, which was prefix'd to my tables of
examination, for daily use.

"O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide! increase in me
that wisdom which discovers my truest interest! strengthen my
resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates.  Accept my kind
offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for thy
continual favors to me."

I used also sometimes a little prayer which I took from Thomson's
Poems, viz.:

          "Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme!
          O teach me what is good; teach me Thyself!
          Save me from folly, vanity, and vice,
          From every low pursuit; and fill my soul
          With knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure;
          Sacred, substantial, never-fading bliss!"

The precept of Order requiring that every part of my business should
have its allotted time, one page in my little book contain'd the
following scheme of employment for the twenty-four hours of a natural

       THE MORNING.            {  5 } Rise, wash, and address
                               {    } Powerful Goodness!  Contrive
  Question.  What good  shall  {  6 } day's business, and take the
  I do this day?               {    } resolution of the day; prosecute
                               {  7 } the present study, and
                               {    } breakfast.
                                  8 }
                                  9 } Work.
                                 10 }
                                 11 }

       NOON.                   { 12 } Read, or overlook my
                               {  1 } accounts, and dine.
                                  2 }
                                  3 } Work.
                                  4 }
                                  5 }

       EVENING.                {  6 } Put things in their places.
                               {  7 } Supper.  Music or diversion,
  Question.  What good have    {  8 } or conversation.  Examination
  I done to-day?               {  9 } of the day.
                               { 10 }
                               { 11 }
                               { 12 }

       NIGHT.                  {  1 } Sleep.
                               {  2 }
                               {  3 }
                               {  4 }

I enter'd upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and
continu'd it with occasional intermissions for some time.  I was
surpris'd to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined;
but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.  To avoid the
trouble of renewing now and then my little book, which, by scraping out
the marks on the paper of old faults to make room for new ones in a new
course, became full of holes, I transferr'd my tables and precepts to
the ivory leaves of a memorandum book, on which the lines were drawn
with red ink, that made a durable stain, and on those lines I mark'd my
faults with a black-lead pencil, which marks I could easily wipe out
with a wet sponge.  After a while I went thro' one course only in a
year, and afterward only one in several years, till at length I omitted
them entirely, being employ'd in voyages and business abroad, with a
multiplicity of affairs that interfered; but I always carried my little
book with me.

My scheme of ORDER gave me the most trouble; and I found that, tho' it
might be practicable where a man's business was such as to leave him
the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for
instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who
must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their
own hours.  Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc.,
I found extreamly difficult to acquire.  I had not been early
accustomed to it, and, having an exceeding good memory, I was not so
sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method.  This article,
therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed
me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such
frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and
content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man
who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbour, desired to have the
whole of its surface as bright as the edge.  The smith consented to
grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turn'd, while
the smith press'd the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the
stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing.  The man came every
now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length
would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding.  "No," said the
smith, "turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it
is only speckled." "Yes," said the man, "but I think I like a speckled
ax best." And I believe this may have been the case with many, who,
having, for want of some such means as I employ'd, found the difficulty
of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and
virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded that "a speckled ax
was best"; for something, that pretended to be reason, was every now
and then suggesting to me that such extream nicety as I exacted of
myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known,
would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended
with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent
man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in

In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I
am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it.
But, on the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so
ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the
endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been
if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by
imitating the engraved copies, tho' they never reach the wish'd-for
excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and
is tolerable while it continues fair and legible.

It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little
artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor ow'd the constant
felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written.
What reverses may attend the remainder is in the hand of Providence;
but, if they arrive, the reflection on past happiness enjoy'd ought to
help his bearing them with more resignation.  To Temperance he ascribes
his long-continued health, and what is still left to him of a good
constitution; to Industry and Frugality, the early easiness of his
circumstances and acquisition of his fortune, with all that knowledge
that enabled him to be a useful citizen, and obtained for him some
degree of reputation among the learned; to Sincerity and Justice, the
confidence of his country, and the honorable employs it conferred upon
him; and to the joint influence of the whole mass of the virtues, even
in the imperfect state he was able to acquire them, all that evenness
of temper, and that cheerfulness in conversation, which makes his
company still sought for, and agreeable even to his younger
acquaintance.  I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may
follow the example and reap the benefit.

It will be remark'd that, tho' my scheme was not wholly without
religion, there was in it no mark of any of the distinguishing tenets
of any particular sect.  I had purposely avoided them; for, being fully
persuaded of the utility and excellency of my method, and that it might
be serviceable to people in all religions, and intending some time or
other to publish it, I would not have any thing in it that should
prejudice any one, of any sect, against it.  I purposed writing a
little comment on each virtue, in which I would have shown the
advantages of possessing it, and the mischiefs attending its opposite
vice; and I should have called my book THE ART OF VIRTUE,[7] because it
would have shown the means and manner of obtaining virtue, which would
have distinguished it from the mere exhortation to be good, that does
not instruct and indicate the means, but is like the apostle's man of
verbal charity, who only without showing to the naked and hungry how or
where they might get clothes or victuals, exhorted them to be fed and
clothed.--James ii.  15, 16.

     [7] Nothing so likely to make a man's fortune as virtue.
         --[Marg. note.]

But it so happened that my intention of writing and publishing this
comment was never fulfilled.  I did, indeed, from time to time, put
down short hints of the sentiments, reasonings, etc., to be made use of
in it, some of which I have still by me; but the necessary close
attention to private business in the earlier part of thy life, and
public business since, have occasioned my postponing it; for, it being
connected in my mind with a great and extensive project, that required
the whole man to execute, and which an unforeseen succession of employs
prevented my attending to, it has hitherto remain'd unfinish'd.

In this piece it was my design to explain and enforce this doctrine,
that vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but
forbidden because they are hurtful, the nature of man alone considered;
that it was, therefore, every one's interest to be virtuous who wish'd
to be happy even in this world; and I should, from this circumstance
(there being always in the world a number of rich merchants, nobility,
states, and princes, who have need of honest instruments for the
management of their affairs, and such being so rare), have endeavored
to convince young persons that no qualities were so likely to make a
poor man's fortune as those of probity and integrity.

My list of virtues contain'd at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend
having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my
pride show'd itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content
with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing,
and rather insolent, of which he convinc'd me by mentioning several
instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of
this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list,
giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue,
but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.  I made it a
rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others,
and all positive assertion of my own.  I even forbid myself, agreeably
to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in
the language that imported a fix'd opinion, such as certainly,
undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I
apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me
at present.  When another asserted something that I thought an error, I
deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of
showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering
I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion
would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me
some difference, etc.  I soon found the advantage of this change in my
manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly.  The
modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier
reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was
found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to
give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural
inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that
perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical
expression escape me.  And to this habit (after my character of
integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight
with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or
alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I
became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject
to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language,
and yet I generally carried my points.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard
to subdue as pride.  Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down,
stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and
will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it,
perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I
had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.

[Thus far written at Passy, 1784.]

Tags: Learning and Growing

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