I enter most new years like Derek Olson — the Onion’s fictional local man whose “plan to straighten out entire life during weeklong vacation” yielded “mixed results” — and so far, 2018 has been no different.
Other than paying off my credit card, most boxes on my lengthy year-end 2017 checklist remain unchecked. Finally roll all my old 401(k)s into one IRA? Ha. Start strategically booking hotels and flights far in advance, so I’m not scrambling (and overpaying) to get to friends’ weddings? Hilarious! Kondo-ing my home at last, and donating all the stuff that doesn’t spark joy? Sigh.
Every January, these neglected to-dos join the loftier, challenging “evergreen” goals for the year — being a more thoughtful, generous person at home and at work; feeling happier and practicing optimism; finally eating better and exercising with any sort of regularity — and suddenly I’m staring down a monster list of New Year’s resolutions. It will feel motivating for a few weeks, then a little sad... then just disappear into a pile of papers or iPhone notes until next December rolls around.
Yes, I know: Empirical research shows paring down my list to smaller, more specific, achievable goals would give me a better shot at success. But I have trouble shaking the hope that if I tried hard enough, I could do it.
I could eat better and save money at the same time. I could volunteer, learn yoga, stop procrastinating, start budgeting, work smarter so I free up more time for loved ones, and still get the associated financial and career benefits of being disciplined and optimistic and better rested. And yet it never works out. I go to the gym twice, life gets in the way of the rest, and I feel like a failure.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. According to new research published by the American Psychological Association, between 1989 and 2016, measures of college students’ irrational self-directed perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism increased significantly. This suggests younger generations are increasingly placing unrealistic standards on both themselves and others, a surefire recipe for frustration and disappointment.
Or maybe it’s just me. Either way, 2018 needs to be the year I finally chill out and lower my expectations, right?
Yet one 2017 study finds a case for seeking a middle ground. Specifically, the research suggests that if you set a high bar but build in some stated wiggle room or “slack,” you’re actually more likely to meet that tougher goal than when you set a lower bar with no wiggle room.
Want to start saving an extra $100 a month, but think $75 is more realistic? Instead of explicitly setting the goal at $75, keep it at $100 — but permit yourself to “borrow” back $25 on any month that you really need the money, say for an unexpected expense.
With that inspiration in mind, here are 18 tough but simple — and flexible — resolutions I plan to commit to. Feel free to borrow or make them your own.
1. Have one serving of fruits or vegetables at each meal
Eating better — more plants, fewer processed meats — can quite literally pay off, by forestalling health care troubles (and costs) and directing your budget toward wallet-friendly fruits and veggies. Yet I adore bacon and steak and foie gras donuts. And while I know eating less meat would be better for my health and pocketbook, as well as for the environment, trying to cut something out entirely would likely set me up for failure.
So instead of trying to ax the “bad” stuff, I’ll take the advice of my Out of Office colleague Kate Bratskeir, and focus on including the good: at least one plant-based food in every meal — which I’ll eat first so there’s less room in my stomach for everything else.
2. Check your credit report
Whether your credit is good or bad, given last year’s Equifax data breach, it’s more important than ever to check for credit-score-busting errors or signs of identity theft on your credit report — which you can get for free annually.
Since there are three separate bureaus, you can actually stagger your reports so you can see one every four months: Just set up a calendar alert to remind you. Needless to say, I haven’t done this in awhile, so by “you” I mean “me.”
3. Learn one new skill this year
Through physical classes or tools online, I hope to learn something new in 2018, like coding or knife skills or dance — something useful but (most importantly) enjoyable. Taking on a fun, creative side hobby is both an emotional outlet and a potential career investment, as any entrepreneur who has turned a side gig into their full-time pursuit can attest.
4. Make a budget — to back into monthly spending limits
I’ve edited many stories this past year about how to make a budget and calculate with greater precision how much you should be allocating for specific monthly expenses. What I haven’t done is my own math — for my own budget.
5. Travel to one new city, state and country
If, like me, you have serious wanderlust, don’t keep shrugging it off. Not only does there seem to be a correlation between using given vacation time and getting salary bumps, there’s also intrinsic value in experiencing new cultures and meeting new people outside of your comfort zone.
In 2018, my “new city” will likely be Austin, Texas, for a bachelorette party. But I’m open to suggestions on the new country — and the more unexpected, the better. As Pico Iyer writes, travel, at its best, “whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head.”
6. Schedule concrete time with family and loved ones
Not only do I hope to stop going whole weeks and months without seeing or (at least talking to) family members, but I also want to improve the quality of the time I’m spending with them. My father passed away in 2016, and this has given new weight to my relationships with my mom, brother, and other family, making it feel even more important that we make our time together count. And while it’s easy to see my live-in boyfriend, it’s also easy to go weeks on end without spending true quality time together — at least beyond coming home from work, flopping onto the couch, ordering takeout and watching Netflix.
One solution? Wharton management professor Adam Grant has given couples the surprising advice to schedule a weekly meeting — separate from date night — to hash out chores and other issues that would normally require frequent nagging reminders. Similarly, one could apply this principle to any relationship: Blocking out time for more serious conversations that then free up the rest of your time (and emotional bandwidth) for doing fun and meaningful activities — and creating happy memories together.
7. Practice the skills of good listeners
At Payoff, we’ve covered the importance of learning active listening skills, like muting the thoughts in your head when others are speaking and tuning into body language. But can I honestly say I consciously do this whenever I listen to someone speaking? No — but it’s time for that to change.
8. Switch to a better credit card or bank
Yet another do as I say, not as I do: Payoff has periodically hunted down examples of some of the best bank accounts for earning interest (aka free money on top of your savings) and the best rewards credit cards around. It has been a few years since I’ve changed up my mix to take advantage of the best deals around; 2018 would be a good one for a change.
9. Exercise three days a week — but allow for two cheat days
I motivate myself to go to the gym by downloading a movie onto a tablet and watching it while on the Stairmaster. This, I recently learned, actually has a name: “temptation bundling,” or pairing guilty pleasures with less fun activities you know you should do. It works great — assuming I put in the time to download the movie and put on workout clothes and walk to the gym.
To incentivize myself, I’m building a little “slack” into my goals: Ideally I’ll go three times a week, but if life gets in the way, I get a pass if I go at least once.
10. Read 10 books (or at least five)
I’m technically in the middle of two or three books, which sounds impressive — until I admit I haven’t actually finished a book since 2016.
It’s time for that to change.
A mix of non-fiction and fiction sounds right for me: Some research suggests reading fiction can help you better understand and empathize with others. Even those who are skeptical of that research acknowledge that in general, reading comes with mental health benefits and can help relax you.
That said, there’s a case for also reading stuff that makes you anything but relaxed — like the news — because it gives you perspective, spurs you to action or simply reminds you to feel gratitude for the blessings you normally forget about. That’s the emotion I felt after reading this account, from Mic’s Kelly Kasulis, of spending a day with a North Korean defector, who endured pigeon torture in prison and worse.
11. Check on retirement savings progress
We’ve written a story. But do I, personally, have the right amount of money saved up, given my age group? Time to find out.
12. Sleep more and “snooze” less
While I might not be able to turn myself into an early riser, I can take steps to improve my sleep, like by banishing the snooze button and keeping my phone’s night shift toggled on, to avoid looking at sleep-destroying blue light.
13. Enjoy meditative activities weekly
A coworker has suggested I try out the Calm app to aid meditation, and I just might. Though I’ve struggled to make meditation work in the past, reading research about its benefits has been encouraging. One study suggests you can actually separate out the mechanisms that improve focus, like concentrating on your breathing, from the ones that improve emotional control (say, by picturing each of your thoughts as a bubble you release).
But until I can really master the closed-eyes-sitting-still type of meditation, I would also like to include more meditative activities — like painting and drawing — into my weekly schedule.
14. Finally purge clutter
In 2017, I interviewed organization guru Marie Kondo about how her tidying method has broad applications (and implications) for your personal finances and overall success. Just as you can remove the clutter from your home, you can remove it from your career and the rest of your life: Here’s how.
15. Take control of distractions
Expecting to work without interruption has gotten harder in the age of push alerts, instant messaging and multiple inboxes. Yet, while most of that is detrimental to productivity, there are benefits to certain types of multitasking — specifically task switching. That’s because it can help give you cognitive relief from a draining single task, and thus make you better at creative work.
Of course, there’s a difference between being in control of your workflow — and building in the right number of breaks — and getting bombarded with distractions. For me, it’s finally time to turn off my phone’s push alerts.
16. Tackle those overdue resolutions
One of my favorite random internet reads this past year was a piece about how “unbeautiful” real self-care is.
The writer’s argument is that true self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is actually stuff like “making a spreadsheet of your debt and enforcing a morning routine ... and no longer just running from your problems and calling the distraction a solution ... It often means looking your failures and disappointments square in the eye and re-strategizing. It is not satiating your immediate desires ... It is choosing new.” This spoke to me, given the many overdue tasks that I, indeed, want to run away from.
Now, understanding what might fit into this category is hard, because it is very personal. For you it might be finally paying down a credit card balance, quitting a job — or something else. For me, one goal in particular is embarrassingly overdue, and I’m ready to stop running: getting a driver’s license.
17. Give back — and maximize impact
I used to volunteer, but don’t have enough time anymore, which makes me feel guilty and terrible. This year, I want to take some advice from Ron Lieber at the New York Times and share any unexpected money windfalls I get with less fortunate people. Before I do so, I’ll review our story on how to vet charities and maximize your financial impact.
18. Find meaning in life’s worst moments
There’s no shortage of research (or graduation speeches) exhorting the importance of finding purpose and meaning in your life. But, to be honest, I’ve never found this advice to be helpful. There are many purposes driving me in my life — strong relationships, work I can feel proud of, travel for pleasure — but knowing that doesn’t help me juggle or prioritize these competing desires, nor does it cushion me from disappointment when my best-laid plans fail.
Still, I have found one notion of “meaning” that offers a real breakthrough. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl has argued that there are three essential motivations or means by which you can give your life meaning: There are actions, like doing work or creating art, and experiences, like enjoying nature or culture or human relationships.
But the third path to meaning, he says, is one that people are forced to take, because circumstances dictate they can’t enjoy experiences or work as normal — and that’s through suffering. The crucial test of a person, Frankl argues, is whether they can “squeeze out” meaning from the very worst moments of life.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Counterintuitively, the best way to find meaning might be to feel grateful for the worst parts of life. For me, that means stopping myself and remembering my father’s best qualities (and how lucky I was to have the time I did with him) whenever my grief over his death takes hold. It is turning those positive feelings into positive actions, and paying my luck forward, as he always did.
But on a day-to-day basis, this notion of meaning also means, for example, simply reacting with less annoyance when a stranger bumps into me on the train. This conscious choice of how to feel and react in each moment is the way I most hope to be better — at work and in life — in 2018 and beyond.
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