How NOT to Suck at New Year’s Resolutions


This post is a guest post by Matt Gartland. Matt, a good friend of mine, spends his life pushing people to live boldly and shatter low expectations. He’s launching his blog today – including his inspiring mission to chronicle 10,000 Random Acts of Greatness – to worldwide fanfare. He’s so amazing, he even created a welcome page *just* for Man Vs. Debt readers!

New Year’s day… January 1st… A moment of magic.

You’ve felt this magic before. It lights you up like your still ornamented Christmas tree. The emotions, in fact, may feel like Christmas morning. These are positive emotions to be sure – for hopes, dreams, and enchantments are very necessary turn-keys in the engine of your potential.

They leave you alive with ideas for new year conquests of improved health, strengthened relationships, world travel, and countless other adventures.

Alas, this magic can (and often does) backfire with deflating consequences.

This “dark magic” is the empty contact-high that many befall from the flip of the calendar. Lofty new lifestyle designs are drawn with no infrastructure to support them. Why then are we shocked and horrified when our goals and dreams crumble to ash?

We shouldn’t be. The truth was obvious from the beginning…

…we suck at forging New Year’s resolutions.

So let’s stop the sucking.

The antidote to this dark magic, though simple, is not easy magic.

This bold potion requires equal parts deep introspection and inside-out thinking with a dash of craziness mixed in.

If you’re not a brave witch or wizard then you may wish to abandon this brew right now. But if you’re bent on making 2011 a year of transformation and remembrance, then I suggest you settle in for some wicked, non-Ministry-approved lessons in the defense against the dark arts!

Wands at the ready!

The Fallacy of January 1 and The Art of (Un)resolutions

The fabled January 1 mystique is dark magic for a deceptively simple reason – it’s a lie!

There is no earthly reason why you should wait for the clock to strike midnight on January 1st before crafting resolutions to improve your wellbeing. Those that do wait for 1/1 forfeit 364 days (8,736 hours; 524,160 minutes) of life-changing potential. Does that sound like a smart choice to you?

Sure, these other days may be spent engaged in last year’s resolutions. And if such resolutions were architected thoughtfully, then this assumption might be true. But it’s a risky assumption to make. Why? Because by-and-large we’ve become a consumeristic society addicted to the fallacy of over-night successes and the allure of instant gratifications. That’s a deadly spell that will curse any resolution, well-intentioned or not, quickly bringing it to its knees.

In truth, the best day to begin fresh life change is today! Such is the art of (un)resolutions.

(Un)resolutions are exactly what you think they are – the antithesis of conventional resolutions…

  • Resolutions are New Year’s day centric – (un)resolutions are everyday centric
  • Resolutions are driven by external rewards – (un)resolutions are inspired by intrinsic motivations
  • Resolutions focus on “what” – (un)resolutions concentrate on “why”
  • Resolutions are rooted in “quick-win” hype – (un)resolutions are baked in long-term effectiveness

Here’s your choice: 1) Subsist in our age of distraction by lumbering through the year with shallow resolutions that ultimately fail. Or, 2) stop sucking at resolutions and start creating lifestyle goals in the art of (un)resolutions.

Good choice! Now it’s time to delve deep into the charms of (un)resolutions!

Motivations: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic

What motivates you most to do your best work and achieve your goals?

It’s a tricky question. Many, including most conventional behavioral scientists, will answer “rewards and punishments.” That’s the safe answer of course. This belief in rewards and punishments is what Daniel Pink calls “Motivation 2.0”. According to Pink, it goes something like this…

“The Motivation 2.0 operating system has endured for a very long time. Indeed, it is so deeply embedded in our lives that most of us scarcely recognize that it exists. For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve configured our organizations and constructed our lives our its bedrock assumption: The way to improve performance, increase productivity, and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad.”

Here’s the funny part. Motivation 2.0 is the popular answer by far. It’s also wrong.

A focus on rewards and punishments is a belief in the extrinsic. This is precisely the formula most apply when crafting conventional New Year’s resolutions – e.g. if I lose 10 pounds I’ll reward myself with a new clothes shopping spree. But as Pink masterfully illustrates in DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, these extrinsic factors actually decrease one’s motivation for the goal at-hand…

“Rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work.”

In sum, Motivation 2.0 is outdated, unstable, and unreliable at best. So, if you desire to attain your New Year’s (un)resolutions, then you must upgrade to Motivation 3.0 – your third (inner) drive programmed in the language of intrinsic motivations…

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” – Pink, DRIVE

I’m a classic case-study of this extrinsic vs intrinsic paradox.

I was bewitched by the dark arts of Motivation 2.0 in my earlier years. I searched far-and-wide for (and spent a pretty penny on) physique-boosting wonder products. The lust that drove this mindless quest was the greater social acclaim and attraction (extrinsic rewards) that would elevate my self-esteem.

The result? My external health did improve (though not thanks to the snake-oil crap). And my internal health rooted (including IBS challenges, medical complications and mental health).

A paradox indeed!

I escaped my self-inflicted darkness via a commitment to internal health and happiness (intrinsic motivators). This (un)resolution took time – seven years in fact because I dug my ditch so deep. But I prevailed. And I have Motivation 3.0 to thank for it. The bonus? I’ve never been in better physical or mental health in all my life 🙂

The Moral: when creating your (un)resolutions, build them upon the interests and challenges that ignite a ranging inferno of passion within.

It’s about the satisfaction you gain from the creative task itself. Specifically, target pursuits that foster autonomy, mastery, and purpose – which are the three key ingredients in your intrinsic motivation potion.

Alas, proper motivation alone is insufficient for attaining the (un)resolution results you want. In fact, you must bypass wants completely and tunnel into whys.

Why vs What: The Golden Circle of Success

Simon Sinek has discovered life’s secret to success. And he’s telling…

Sinek’s breakthrough, which he calls “probably the world’s simplest idea”, converges human brain biology with behavioral science. The result is the Golden Circle.

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle

The Golden Circle works like this…

The what, how, and why circles map precisely with the very different layers of the human mind. The outer layer is responsible for our rational thought and language. The inner layers are responsible for our emotional intelligence and decision making.

Conventional thought, action, and conversation flow from the outside-in…from what, to how, to why. In other words, from the easiest and most obvious (whats) to the most nebulous (whys). Unfortunately, this is unoriginal, uninspiring, and unremarkably average because it emphasizes features, widgets, and data.

Now flip the formula.

When you think, act, and communicate from the inside-out…from why, to how, to what…you’re conveying beliefs and establishing shared values. This is unconventional, highly memorable, and incredibly inspiring. Why? Because if fosters trust and loyalty at a deeply-seeded emotional level.

Said differently, this approach talks to the parts of the brain that drive human behavior.

Such stroking of your emotional mind is paramount to creating meaningful (un)resolutions that have a chance for success.

Mainstream New Year’s resolutions are all about the wants – e.g. I want to get fit, I want to get out of debt, I want to travel the world. These examples are quite pathetic. Marginally better ones are more specific – e.g. I want to lose 10 pounds, I want to eliminate all my credit card debt, I want to visit Amsterdam. But such goals are still fatally flawed because they don’t convey any emotional catalyst.

The magic happens when you begin to weave in emotions – or as Sinek would say, “what you believe.”

I tried this experiment last year with my family. I love my family. And by-and-large they’re astute enough to make their own meaningful developments. But I had begun to sense a rut of non-adventure over recent years. So I posed this challenge, “pursue zen in 2010”.

It was cute. It was memorable. And it worked!

Note that my challenge wasn’t specific at all. But it was entirely emotionally-driven…to attain more moments of zen. My family members were left to themselves to devise their own specific (un)resolutions. But they all had to support this “why.” If an idea didn’t somehow lead to this outcome then it was nixed.

Mind you, not every (un)resolution was achieved. And some family members faired better than others. Such is life. But the challenge got them out of their rut. Meaningful zen-like progress was made. And their lives are the better for it.

Want to explore the world of why deeper? Then please watch Simon Sinek’s provocative TED Talk (below). It’s worth every minute!

The Moral: the what of your (un)resolutions are important, but not nearly as vital as why you want them.

The smart witch or wizard will include both in their (un)resolution brews. Just be mindful of your actions. After all, as Simon says, “What you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.”

Alas again, because your not-sucky (un)resolutions are still missing an important ingredient. And you do desire to achieve world domination, right?!

Effectiveness vs Efficiency: The Path to World Domination

Chris Guillebeau needs no introduction around these parts 🙂 But if you do fancy a refresher about this lovable non-conformist, I suggest you glance at The Essential Power of Like-Minded People, The Art of Non-Conformity Book, and How NOT to Suck at Blogging.

Moving on…

Chris believes that efficiency is overrated. He’s one who’d know because traveling to every country in the world (all 192 of them) is no picnic. From “fun” airline logistics, passport snafus, travel visa mishaps, political unrest, the occasional Guillebeau mistake (blasphemy I know!), and other lovely details – international travel of the most epic proportions can be a royal b*tch.

In fact, as Chris exclaims…

“Visiting every country in the world is getting difficult. I’ve almost completely ran out of ‘easy’ countries. These days I spend as much time arranging visas as I do planning the actual trip. It takes time, energy, and money: even with my best travel hacking strategies, I expect the overall cost to increase in the final two years of the project.”

And keep in mind that visiting every country in the world isn’t his only endeavor. He’s founded a booming lifestyle business, publishes new articles on his blog like clockwork, is a newly crowned published author, leads an animated small army that numbers in the tens of thousands, and is married. Crikey is right!

So why does he do it? Because he loves the effect, which is to say, the adventure!

As Chris puts it…

“Don’t worry about trying to live the most efficient life or become the most optimal human. Instead, embrace life as a meaningful adventure. Pursue adventure and passion instead of efficiency.”

Your New Year’s (un)resolutions should have the same orientation.

Sure, a whole bushel of little, easy goals that are quickly accomplished may give your ego a contact-high. But really, where’s the fun in that?

Moreover, if you aspire to make impressive improvements in your life – whether it be health, relationship, career, or travel related – then these little ego trips won’t carry you to where you want to go. They just don’t generate enough momentum.

Don’t be wasteful of your resources. That’s not the point.

Splashes of efficiency here and there are fine. Plus, efficiency is well-tailored for linear, non-creative tasks that have a pesky knack of needing done. But for those larger-than-life (un)resolutions that are audacious pursuits of big dreams, opt for the effective road.

I’ve decided to plunge into the deep-end of lifestyle effectiveness with my own legacy projectRandom Acts of Greatness. My crusade is to chronicle 10,000 Random Acts of Greatness in 5 years from people like you.

A Random Act of Greatness is any little, magical moment that leaves a positive and everlasting imprint upon the lives of others.

I’d be grateful if you’d share a little story to help the cause!

My quest won’t be easy. I have no guarantee for success whatsoever. And you’d better believe that it won’t be efficient. But it’s a mighty adventure that I’m glad to embark on. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll achieve my own flavor of world domination along the way! 🙂

The Moral: be effective without being wasteful. Simplify down to the endeavors that matter most to you. Odds are these should be audacious pursuits that captivate your imagination and unleash the best you. Such ventures won’t be efficient. But they’ll be crazy fun!

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts

“Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one’s sights and pushing towards the horizon.” – Daniel Pink, DRIVE

Your magic brew of (un)resolutions is now complete. And if you haven’t guessed already, the whole of your potion is greater and more rewarding than the sum of the contributing parts. Let’s review why…

Motivation is essential to achieving any worthwhile endeavor. Intrinsic motivation is the purest and most stimulating form. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This “third drive” fuses with all manner of your character, including your courage to be effective in pursuit of “why” goals.

Indeed, motivation is interlaced with effectiveness and the notion of why. For one thing, you have little hope of achieving mastery (a core element of Motivation 3.0) of any task or talent without a concentrated focus on why you desire such mastery.

But that’s not all. With this focus intact, you still require the gritty effort time and time again to become effective.

Daniel Pink applies the metaphor of a three-legged stool to the trinity of components within your inner, third drive. So it is with this trinity of (un)resolution ingredients – motivation, why, and effectiveness. Short or weak in any leg and your stool will stumble and likely fall.

Don’t stumble. Don’t be weak. And don’t suck. You no longer have any excuse not to.

Now go forth and do great things!


Matt Gartland is an anti-hero avenging injustices of creativity. His legacy project is to chronicle 10,000 Random Acts of Greatness in 5 years. And he shares bold ideas for confidently living above low expectations on his Modern Audacity blog. Learn more about Matt’s audacious pursuits to spark change!


26 thoughts on “How NOT to Suck at New Year’s Resolutions”

  1. Wow – equal parts goal setting and Harry Potter references?! I might just be in love with you… 🙂

    This year, I set 27 personal New Years Resolutions across 9 separate categories, and 16 business goals across 6 categories. Some of them, I think, meet the criteria for passion you describe above. Others, not as much (I’ve already blown my resolution not to incur any more library fines… Oh well!). I’m definitely excited to see where the year takes me!

    Great post 🙂

    1. Hot stuff Sarah 🙂 You truly can’t go wrong with some practical Harry Potter magic advice, right? Glad you’re a fan too!

      Don’t sweat the library fines. There are much bigger goals to tackle. And if library fines are the height of your goal-troubles, I’d say that’s bloody brilliant 🙂


      1. Haha, yes – I do actually have some larger goals besides eliminating library fines. But seriously, I’ve given them so much damn money that they should probably rename a branch after me…

        Also, I wasn’t seriously considering the Verizon iPhone until I just saw that they have an app that turns your phone into a magic wand. I think I might have a problem!

        1. At least you’re ingesting a torrent of new, creative ideas from all your reading. Find the silver lining, right?! 🙂

          And yeah, the HP wand app is like nerd-gold. Seriously, how could we *not* get it!


  2. Wow WOw wow Matt,

    I’m luvin it !
    Seriously, this is such an epic post, and that is EXACTLY the kind of goal setting I do for myself. Simon Sinek’s Why talk literally changed the way I look at business and life, and it has made my blogging journey so much more fulfilling !

    The emotional aspect behind your goals is WAY more important than all the analytical and technical stuff. Knowing WHY you are doing is the fuel that will keep you going in dark and light times – not some logical facts that make sense.

    Thanx so much for an epic post, and GOOD LUCK with launching your new blog.
    You’re hitting 2011 like a blazing meteor !

    1. You’re the best Mars! Your metaphors are hands-down the best out there 🙂

      I’m thrilled Simon’s message resonated so strongly with you too. His TED Talk is truly epic – I hope I did it justice.

      Keep up that trailblazing ride of your own. High altitudes await you my friend!


  3. That TED talk was very stimulating and really made me think. While I agree that he gives the brain dead masses too much credit in that they wo0uld think that much before buying a product, there are enough people who would buy your product or service because they believe what you believe.

    1. Hi Gordie-

      Simon’s TED Talk is indeed special. I’m glad that you found it stimulating as well. We should never fail to challenge our own assumptions, many times from the inside-out!


  4. I’ve made my New Year’s Resolution list and I’ve been pushing towards making it happen ASAP. My 1st goal is set for Feb 1, 2011 as the date gets closer I’m getting more intense on working harder to make sure I attain it.

    I also loved the video about “WHY” people buy products and services from companies. This video is on time for me, I’m in the middle of making a sales presentation and I’m going to use some of the information and see what happens.

    1. Well done Steven on pushing hard on your (un)resolutions. Feb 1 is a rather audacious target, but if you have the drive you can do it. Go get it 🙂

      Glad too that you enjoyed Simon’s talk on “WHY,” especially given it’s fortuitous timing. Good luck on the sales presentation!


  5. Matt —

    Baker is one cool judge of talent. You are more than just another rah-rah voice. Adding the HOW and WHY makes you a voice of the future in blogdom. Keep being you!

    1. Hey Tom-

      It’s only 10a where I am as I write this, but your comment has already made my day!

      I give Baker all the credit; he is indeed an eagle eye for good stuff (IMHO of course).

      Thrilled to be seen as a “voice of the future in blogdom.” Please help keep me honest and challenge me too.

      All the best!

  6. No doubt, Matt. It’s all about the ‘why.’ If you can show people, customers, etc. why you do what you do, they will begin to understand you. And once they understand you, they will begin to trust you.

    Great read. 🙂

    1. Hey Marc-

      I’m honored by the comment. Thank you! I’ve been a fan of your (and Angel’s) work for quite a while. I so enjoy following your adventures 🙂

      The message of “WHY” remains front-and-center for sure. I do fear that it’s becoming a bit watered-down as many trumpet it without context. What’s popular isn’t necessary wrong, but the truth lies underneath the fanfare.

      All the best to you both!

  7. I am embarking on a journey I call the 2011 Change Project. It involves weekly, monthly & quarterly goals. After reading this post and watching the video (Don’t you just love TED videos?) I seriously considering reassessing every goal I have from the middle out to see if they really are worth achieving. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Hi Bill-

      Indeed, TED videos are nothing short of spectacular 🙂 Glad you enjoy them too.

      Best of luck with your 2011 Change Project. I like the premise a lot. This new paradigm of thinking really helps get “underneath the covers” of your desires – a vital component to figuring out your true self and proper life path.


  8. Wow Matt, what an amazingly detailed post.

    I don’t set my goals on January 1st. Not because I’m lazy, but because I really want to think about them. I like to reflect and draw inspiration from the goals of others and the things they have done to make sure that I’m challenging myself as much as I could be. And also, more importantly, I want to be sure that I can keep to my commitments and that I’m really passionate enough about it).

    I’ve just reviewed the progress on my goals for last year and I achieved most of them. So I’m very pleased about that. One of the things I realised though was that one of the goals was faulty. It wasn’t specific enough. “Increase passive income generation”. Well I did it, but I can hardly say whether it was successful or not as I’m not retired or sitting on the beach as I type this. But I did achieve some income. The goal this year is to build upon that and state that 10% of all my income in 2011 will be from online and passive income activities this will be done by…..

    Anyway, great article, thanks for sharing.


  9. Matt, amazing post. “There is no earthly reason why you should wait for the clock to strike midnight on January 1st before crafting resolutions to improve your well being.” That right there is my mantra.

  10. Thanks Matt for sharing. Readers would do well to heed to your wisdom of resolutions vs. (un)resolutions and how to apply them in the best light. I just finished a post on my own blog called,

    Forget Resolutions, Set Achievable Goals
    that exemplifies setting more meaningful goals over meaningless resolutions that many times get tossed out after a few weeks.

    Dwight Anthony
    Financially Elite Blog dot Com

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