Resolutions, Plans and Systems

Traditionally, the new year is when we all make public proclamations of how we’re going to be better humans: this year, we will read more, run more, listen more, eat healthier, and generally be our best selves.

It’s even more traditional to abandon these resolutions about mid-January, so last year, I decided to try something a bit different. First, I was going to try a new thing each month and stick with it for the month. If it worked, I’d continue it. Second, I wasn’t going to talk about it, for the reasons alluded to here *.


So, what happened last year? What worked, what didn’t?

January: Lifting. ✘

I wanted to get back to the steady cadence of lifting weights I had in Vietnam, with a concrete goal of getting back to 350lb squats.

Illness, sleep deprivation and generally being responsible for Arthur in the mornings foiled this, and my current 3x5 squat sets are about 285 lb. He’s now pretty happy to play in the pen down in my basement gym, so this one might get another go this year.

February: Keto. ✔

My February resolution was to lose my gut and to keep it off in a sustainable way. My weight has varied enormously over the last twenty years - from 96kg (after finishing a 1000km bicycle ride through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) to 145kg (in Vietnam, where I was lifting heavy weights regularly but also drinking beer and eating delicious food perhaps a little more regularly than necessary). In 2016, I had a son, who turned out to be both enormous and possessed of approximately three Tasmanian devils’ worth of energy: the idea of being a puffing Fat Dad to such a whirlwind was too horrible to be contemplated.

After a bit of research, I ended up deciding my experiment was going to be with the ketogenic diet. I’ve done paleo before and had some moderate success, but it always buckled under work or life stress. Keto had some very appealing properties: unlimited bacon and butter, for one thing, but also, clearcut boundaries. For some perverse reason, it’s easier for me to regard certain foods as not-food than it is to consume them in a moderate, rationed fashion.

At the beginning of the year, I was 135kg. The software I was using to track it is sadly gone with an old phone, along with the data, but I had lost about 5kg in the first month, and I felt a lot better, so I adopted it as a regular habit. Today I’m orbiting around 120, give or take a kilo, and am more or less comfortable there - I don’t have a sixpack, but my shoulders are wider than my waist. Good enough. (The fact that I appear to be stable is cause for at least as much celebration as the original weight loss - I needed an approach that would work even under stress.)

As an aside, the transition back to carbohydrate-heavy foods for cheat days turned out to be so unpleasant that I cut them out entirely. I’ll occasionally indulge in a beer on a very special occasion, but I always know I’ll pay for it later.

March: No internet arguments. ✔

This one needs to be unpacked a little bit - the intent wasn’t to conduct my online life as a Kumbaya circle. I had noticed, however, that I had been allowing myself to engage emotionally in online arguments (not discussions) with strangers who were not interested in improving their understanding - whether it was Trump supporters who thought I didn’t have the right to comment on gun control until I’d served a tour of duty in the US armed forces, or Clojure enthusiasts who’d downloaded GHC one time then decided that Haskell’s syntax was icky, I was wasting time and emotional energy engaging with people who were not interested in improving their understanding, and didn’t have any intention of changing their mind if their arguments turned out to be wrong. My time is better invested in my wife, my son, and my friends (both online and off).

This worked, mostly. Every now and then I slipped and let an intemperate comment fly, or misread someone as wanting a discussion of policy when they really just wanted a cheer squad, but I didn’t get sucked into the spiraling, angry threads I used to disappear into. Removing Reddit and Hacker News from regular reading helped there too.

April: language learning. ✘

This one was a flop. I started learning Mandarin with Memrise, an excellent tool that helped me get my Vietnamese to haltingly conversational (provided my interlocutor was happy to talk about the weather and how beautiful Da Nang was.) The intent was to try to replace time spent on Twitter, Facebook, online chess and various mobile games (curse you, Polytopia, why must you be so fascinatingly tactical?) with something useful that could be done in isolated pockets of time.

I’m not exactly sure why this failed to become a habit. It’s possible that without the anticipated payoff of actually going to China and being able to talk to locals, it just wasn’t exciting enough to overcome the difficulty of learning all the characters. If I was going to try this again, I think I’d focus on conversational Mandarin and stick to the pinyin script, and perhaps book a trip up front to act as a forcing function.

June: Harmonica. Partial credit.

I wanted something musical I could do with Arthur. The goal was to practice 10 minutes a day, and to be able to play three recognisable songs.

I didn’t come close to the practice requirements past that first month (and I’m pretty sure I annoyed my in-laws by wandering off and practicing while on holiday), and I didn’t get 3 songs, but I can do a pretty reasonable ABC song and improvise something that sounds less squawkily mournful than my initial attempts. Arthur has also started squeaking away on it which is honestly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

July: expand career skills. ✘

Unambiguous failure. I started an online course on deep learning, but failed to budget enough time to make progress. Can’t see how this one’s going to work in the future without completely ignoring my family in the evenings, either.

Rest of year

Past July, I didn’t start any new experiments, though I managed to maintain some of those I had started.


So, 2017 was a bit of a mixed bag, but I’m basically happy with it. A healthier diet and emotional equanimity have done wonders for my state of mind, my relationships, and my general happiness with the world, and the failures have helped me scope out my current surrounding terrain for self-improvement. The things that worked seem to have worked because contravening them was clear: it’s pretty obvious when you’re biting down on a slice of pizza or a bad-faith political argument, but less immediately obvious that you’re playing a mobile game rather than pulling out the harmonica or practicing your flash cards.

As you might expect, I’m not going to tell you the content of this year’s goals, but the overriding theme will be to have systems in place to make it as obvious as possible in the moment that I’m contravening my stated goals. I’ll also be trying to make them about processes rather than results: with the best will in the world, I may never lift 500 lb, but I can make sure I lift three times a week.

If you got this far, thanks for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful 2018.

* as ever, it’s more complicated than that