Resolution keystone habits and foundational hacks

It’s New Year’s Resolution time. Yes, they don’t work for a lot of people, but that’s generally a problem with execution rather than intent. This is what worked for me in 2019 and the keystone habits and strategies that made the past year better.

Sure, I get it. New Year’s is just a date and you can pick any Day 0 date and start to change, but there is something a little easier about picking Jan 1 (or the day after Chinese New Year, as I’ve done some years to hack a slow January return to reality.).

Speaking with people this year though, I feel are missing the point of New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not about if you succeed, but if you gain. It’s examining your life and figuring out what you want to improve from your perspective. Some do doom themselves to failure with ridiculously ambitious goals (a error in strategy, not execution imho), but a little dash of reality on realistic ones is a powerful force for making your life incrementally better over time.

You can better maximize your chances of achieving your NYRs. This is what has worked for me:

  1. Think more about what you want to be
  2. Systems and habits over goals
  3. Focus on experiences and relationships rather than things
  4. Have a specific time and place and fallback set aside to do your goal
  5. Tracking
  6. Forgive Yourself

1. Focus on want you want to be

Resolutions should be more holistic than say “lose 10 kilos.” What is it about that goal that is important to you? Think of this more from the perspective of what you want to become. Is it just you want to look better? Feel better? Want to be healthier? Or want to be in the gym more for your health and longevity? Getting down to the nub of what that thing is, is way more important than the particular goal. Think of goals as signpost along the way to figuring out if you’ve managed to progress on a Resolution rather than the end result itself.

So, if you want to run a 10k, what you’re actually probably saying is that you want to become a runner (with all that entails in your mind: health, freedom, looking better, more energy…). You become a runner by running. Whether you actually hit that 10k or not is almost immaterial. What you need to do is start running. Regularly. Running a 10k and then never running again, from my perspective, would be an utter failure of the process. What you want to be able to say in 2021 is “I"m a runner” or “I run” when people ask you what you do for exercise or why you bought that new pair of fancy training shoes.

This sounds like a silly mind hack, but I find it makes all the difference because it shifts you from focusing on the goal, to focusing on identity change. Why this seems to work, I’m not entirely sure, but it has made a fundamental difference in the Resolutions and goals I’ve set myself in the past year.

Think here about the specific things you can do daily/weekly that will “lead” to you achieving that goal. What are the “Lead” activities/metrics that will contribute to your “Lag” measurement of having run a 10km race (besides, say… the actual completion… but more so, to you actually being able to legitimately claim “I’m a runner”.).

2. Systems and Habits over Goals

In line with the first suggestion above: goals fade; habits accumulate. Research is legion on this at this point (and I’d recommend reads of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and more practically, Clear’s Atomic Habits, but the fact of the matter is you will make more lasting, enduring progress if you put in place a system or habit towards a goal.

What does that look like? Personally, last year, I wanted to add running back into my workout routines after a long time of not running at all. It was hard and ego-deflating at the start. I started off slow with a 15 minute run at the start of each workout at a (very) unambitious speed and then every week either ratcheted up my time 1 minute or increased my running speed 0.1 kmh. By the end of the year this had me running ~5k in the first half hour of my workouts as a warmup, consistently, 3 times a week (my original “goal” was to be able to run a 5k, but I switched it around to a running habit after reflecting on why I’d failed in other years.).

3. Focus on Experiences and Relationships instead of Things

All happiness research shows accumulating things is a short term sugar-rush fix. They make you feel good for a short amount of time once you’ve got them, but after that the “hedonic treadmill” kicks in, newer upgraded things eclipse what you have, or the shine wears off. Modern consumerism is predicated on there always being more shiny. Reject it. These days, I try to make purchases much less frequently, more deliberately (avoiding impulse purchases is hard), and go for product quality and longevity rather than price nowadays (surprisingly this has worked much better than I ever thought it would but I am still catching myself all the time just wanting to buy things once in a while for strangely impulsive and non-justifiable reasons - #protip: Whenever you get the urge to buy something discretionary, write it down in a “To Buy” list that gets it out of your head. Review that list once a month or week to then determine if you really need it. This has worked amazingly for me and its scary how much I delete off that list.).

If you do focus on things as a goal, focus on stuff for other people or things that somehow extend your capabilities or potential in some way. I actually bought very little for myself in 2019 and when I did buy, the things I felt best about were buying gifts or experiences for other people. Virtually everything I bought for myself were replacements for the broken and unrepairable or unalterable (yes, I am still using the same 2016 12" Macbook my friends all tease me about though it definitely needs replacement now.).

Capabilities extension is more about giving you the ability to do something you could not do before but enhances experiences, learning, or relationships. For me, this generally comes down to revolving around what I like or want to do. For example, buying an underwater camera allowed me to take photos underwater (which I cannot do with my phone.), or… in a more extreme case, letting me DNA sequence with a portable DNA lab because I am trying to learn more about bioinformatics and the genome (yeah, I know I’m strange.). Make sure if you’re justifying things this way that they are actually additive capabilities and not substitutes which add no real value. For example, getting a new car to replace a perfectly good old one or a new iPhone is not additive (and rarely needed except when you hit the consumer good’s planned obsolescence cycle.).

Also, if you do get something new, can you toss anything? Or, better yet, give older stuff away (which is what I try to do.)? I was surprised how good it felt most of the year when I did have to buy things to then get rid of a thing that I had. Case in point with clothing, I dropped weight enough in the past year that I had to buy new pairs of pants (smaller sizes of the ones I had that were not tailor-alterable.), so gave the old ones to charity since they were still in excellent shape. Also, an older laptop I had lying around fallow I gave to someone else who had their laptop die on them. Same thing with a rice cooker that was sitting in my kitchen collecting dust. I felt like a good friend, but also felt better knowing they were getting used, people saved money, and re-purposing was kinder on the environment than people buying new.

4. Set a Specific Time and Place for Goals (and Fallback)

You need to be deliberate about the time you set aside to work towards your goals. Just expecting them to happen magically in-between BAU (Business As Usual) and the chaos of everyday life is a prescription for failure. The New falls off your plate as soon as you get too busy, something unforeseen happens, or you break the routines that you depended on supporting them.

As much as possible, make these a routine that has a similar place and time so you can transform it into a habit and your brain starts to think something is very wrong if you don’t do it. Write in the mornings at your desk, gym right after work across from the office, read for an hour at lunch at the cafe… all these help ingrain and associate the systems you’re trying to develop (as well as chalk up successes.).

The second hack to this is to make sure you have a fallback for these things when they don’t happen, a sort of “If This Then That” contingency when (not if) life gets in the way of your system. For example, if for some reason I can’t make it to the gym every other day to toss iron around, I make sure I fit in some yoga at home to make sure I’m at least squeezing some exercise in (partial to Yoga with Tim on YouTube. YMMV. When I’m travelling, I’ll even watch that on my laptop in the hotel room and just make sure my hotel room has enough room to put a towel down or to do practice.).

Especially with my work-travel schedule, having a fallback when on the road let me stick to (or at least shore up) the goal and making sure I was chalking up success ticks.

5. Tracking

While it sounds a bit OCD, I almost guarantee you will surprise yourself at the difference it makes. Your brain is deceptively sneaky at convincing you its done things it might want to do in greater frequency than is actually true. Having a habit tracker where you actually record when you do work towards your goals keeps you honest, provides an unambiguous track or when and what you did, and also will help you diagnose if there are specific problems with you heading towards your goal when you need to account for shortfalls.

There’s a heap of great ones for your mobile phone (Productive, Way of Life) though I personally find I prefer one with a longer, viewable time horizon and a more portable future-proof file format. Whatever you use, use something. I find the best ones are ones which provide a consistency graph (also known as a Seinfeld graph) of “don’t break the chain” ticks per day. While i don’t recommend it for most people, the one I use is a minimalist open source, command line tracker known as habitctl, written in Rust, which I’ve enhanced from Blinry’s original version to support a few key features I needed.

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Also, I find a habit tracker a sneakily useful motivator as a side benefit. Not breaking the chain in your continuity graph often makes sure you don’t want to feel bad when you would fall off the wagon and need to restart (see next section).

6. Forgive Yourself

A system gives you more success moving towards goals, but life happens and things do go off the rails. Illness, life, injuries, family, simple fatigue, and the various slings and arrows of misfortuine will militate against you moving towards your goals. Shit happens. If it’s not a simple get back on the horse thing, the key thing is to rapidly diagnose what went wrong, figure out a day to restart, note how much progress you’ve made to put things in perspective, and get back at it again.

Most importantly though, do not beat yourself up too much over it. Go gentle on yourself. As long as you are making progress, whatever you’re doing will look amazing in a year (for example, besides business trips the biggest fitness setback I had this past year was a very painful gym neck injury which took me out of working out and making progress - rather than sustaining gains - for nearly two months. :-/ ).

Keystone Habits - What Worked

I’m a big, evidence-backed believer in small foundational habits: what you do to make it easier to do other things. It’s surprising how they contribute to success once they’re locked in. These were the ones that I noticed the biggest bump for in 2019. Picking any single one of these will make your life fundamentally better if you make it stick for 2020.

  1. Sleep 7h+ and bed by midnight
  2. Changing my eating
  3. Bowling nights
  4. Reading at lunch
  5. Regular exercise
  6. Weekly goal review for course correction

1. Sleep 7h and Bed by midnight

Sleep is important. I do not know why in the bottom half of the 20th century sleep deprivation became a badge of honour. Considering I was one of those insane people cruising in between a suicidal four to six hours a night, bumping up my sleep to seven hours a night, and forcing myself into bed at midnight (rather than just pushing through the Witching hour) was revelatory.

You need both things to have this habit work the best, as going to bed too late but getting the 7 hours makes you feel rested but messes up your day. I don’t know how I was sleepwalking through my days prior to 2019. This made me feel calmer, healthier, and I am sure was one of the main contributors to my weight going down over 2019 when it had stubbornly refused to come down despite many (more) hours in the gym in previous years.

2. Changing my Eating

I started pursuing a more loose Flexitarian approach about mid-2019 and whenever I deviated from it regretted it. I need to thank Michael Pollen’s In Defence of Food for no-nonsense, actionable, and followable advice that made me think a lot more about what and how I was consuming and pushed me to reduce meat and processed foods in my diet. I don’t even think I was that bad before, but I’ve noticed a big difference in how I feel by simplifying and focusing on plants.

For 2019 this was keeping myself to one serving of meat at max today. I feel in 2020 I’m going to double down on this a bit more and try to experiment more with meatless days and see what the results are. Strangely, I felt cutting back meat would be detrimental to my workouts and fitness goals but that has been false and if anything I feel like I have more energy than previously (though also, imagine that could be sleeping more too.).

3. Bowling Nights

This is my jokey term for my TIL (Today I Learned) nights. Basically, on Monday nights, I head out from work and hack/learn the entire evening. Originally, this was in response to me feeling my programming and data science skills were getting rusty with disuse (and out of date), so I would work on specific learning objectives or projects or courses I’d set for myself.

Now though, I also use this to work on larger learning projects. This has felt like nothing but win and had made me feel like I’m a creator and builder again instead of just “a manager” and part of the open source community where I’m contributing to projects and throwing down pull requests on repos. It’s also allowed to pick up new languages like Rust, Go, Typescript, and Crystal.

If you are trying to learn new new things and time-stretched, I highly recommend this once a week approach as something you can do for yourself that will make you feel like you’re not drifting backwards intellectually or professionally.

4. Reading at lunch

This was actually one of the harder goals to stick to even though I managed to use it to slam through 43 serious books in 2019. Reading = learning. Much like bowling nights, this is a keystone habit. It’s hard to set aside time in the evenings or on weekends, but trying to do it during the week was brutal at first.

I actually had to go so far at one point to leave the office every day and go to a restaurant where I bought lunch and sat down to read, despite the fact that my office provides lunches for people (Not only did this end up also make me feel more energized by making sure I broke up my day into a morning and an afternoon and took a break - rather than one, long unbroken, break-less day, but also provided ample benefits to the company where I was reading management books or getting exposure to ideas which ended up benefitting our working environment - though I’m not sure they see it that way.).

Another small hack here is to keep a running reading list you add to and groom so you always have a next book ready. Also, switch to a Kindle and carry it with you everywhere. Means you can keep a queue of books at the ready and it was amazing how often I slammed through material in downtime in airports, planes, or waiting for people to show up for meetings.

5. Regular exercise

This is one whose adherence I have to admit vacillated between excellent and meh all year though its benefits were undeniable and I notice it terribly when I am not getting three times a week in. While working out every weekday proved to be too much to stick to and, to be honest, left me not having sufficient recovery time between workouts, getting down to 3-4 times per week seemed to be a sweet spot of something I could stick to, showed sustainable, demonstrable benefit, and left me feeling better physically and mentally. The trick here was the routine of heading out from work as soon as 6pm hit (and having two alarms set so people in meetings got the point that I had to go and was late, since we have a poor company meeting culture) and heading right to the gym across the road from my work.

This was one of the harder habits to stick to, so removing all friction points, such as making sure gym clothes were in my bag the night before (or I was using a gym with provided clothing), and the aforementioned alarms, as well as starting to move dinner appointments to 8pm rather than any earlier, all ended up making this work in the end. By far the biggest challenge I have though in keeping this one is being on the road and traveling. While I’ve now managed to find a more regular, decent hotel with better food options and a halfway good gym, when this habit goes off the rails, it’s generally because of work trips. Need to still work on that in 2020.

6. Weekly Goals review

Beside the habit tracking, I started getting into the habit of trying to assess my progress towards goals during the year by seeing how I was dong on my habits and then assessing against longer term goals (I used Day One for this rather than my emacs org-journal).

Strangely, while this could feel a bit depressing at times (I’d give myself a letter grade on the week), it never failed to make me realize where I was and what I had to work on better and it only took between 30-60 minutes to reflect, re-orient, and prioritize for the coming week(s).

Most of all, I feel it kept me honest with myself so when things did start to veer off track I could get them back on the rails.

For 2020, I think I want to add in a monthly and quarterly review to keep checking progress. It’s too easy weekly to lose the forest for the trees on longer term goals.

What Didn’t Go So Well

2019 was a challenging year for me due to some strange externalities, but systems and habits as an anchor made me feel good about what I accomplished versus where I started in January.

What didn’t go so well was that I often crushed short-term goals but made less progress on longer term things I want, which I’m realizing was largely about not prioritizing key things for myself and not working back from where I wanted to be with my systems to build paths towards the longer term. In a sentence, I spent more time inculcating the habits than considering where I wanted the habits to take me. Short term looked great, but longer term I felt I made poor progress (from my perspective) towards longer term plans.

Addressing this at the start of this year was about doing some hard thinking and prioritizing ruthlessly based on where I wanted to be at the end of the year. Effectively, laying out what I thought was important longer term and working backwards. Maybe I’m being hard on myself because all the habits I worked on in 2019 have direct applicability to 2020 and beyond, it just feels like they were more directionless than they should have been in 2019 (my take at the end of 2019 was that I had an amazing decade but a crap, if successful, last year.).

You might want to think about the same, though I think longer term planning is probably a future post.


That’s what worked for me in 2019, but hopefully what has come through is that keystone habits and regular maintenance ends up paying huge incremental benefits over time. Optimize for those and start them if you don’t have them.

You may want to do what I (inadvertently) ended up doing in 2019 and focusing on habit and systems keystones rather than progress on longer term plans. I’d also advise layering in keystone habits gradually over months rather than trying to do everything at once to maximize the chances of success.

I hope sharing this gives you some ideas or hacks to take away and increase your chances of sticking to your goals in 2020 (and the new decade!). If it did, I’d love to hear from you or if you had any of your own hacks or advice that might help me out as well. You can hit me up on twitter with a mention of @awws. Would love to hear from you.