Hacking New Year’s Resolutions

book jacket for Hacking Life, showing a tomato timer.

People have been making new year resolutions for millennia. Romans recommitted themselves to their community and gods in the month of Janus, the god of gateways, of beginnings and ends. Of course, people have been failing at their resolutions–often within months—for just as long. If you are the sort of person who makes new year resolutions, and the sort who falls short, life hackers have honed the past few decades of research on motivation into a regime of remarkable efficacy.

In Hacking Life: Systematized Living and its Discontents (available in April), I dedicate two chapters to those who hack their productivity. This includes Nick Winter, author of The Motivation Hacker. Winter is the “founder/hacker” behind Skritter, an app for learning Chinese characters, and CodeCombat, a platform that gamifies learning to code.

Winter’s self-published book is a lab report of self-experimentation and a tutorial on how to maximize motivation “to absurd levels.” Winter’s goal was to write his book in three months while attempting seventeen other “missions.” Among other things, he wanted to learn to skateboard, try skydiving, learn three thousand new Chinese characters, go on ten romantic dates with his girlfriend, hang out with a hundred people, run a four-hour marathon, and “increase happiness from 6.3 to 7.3 out of 10.” Most importantly, he had to finish developing Skritter.

By way of popular psychology books, including Piers Steel’s The Procrastination Equation, and online fora, including Less Wrong, Winter and other life hackers develop systems to maximize their chance of success. They apply elements of psychology, game-theory, and video game design to things like flossing their teeth and remaining productive.

Specifically, motivation hackers build habits by creating cycles of cues followed by easy routines and consequent rewards. A post-it note next to the bathroom mirror can prompt flossing, and by using a mint flavored floss one is rewarded with a clean feeling mouth—toothpaste makers have long taken advantage of this.

Hackers use “gamification,” including top scores, leader-boards, and achievement levels, to piggy-back on obsessive and competitive behavior. A spreadsheet of hours on task and words written, with an running average and personal bests, can help an author complete a manuscript.

They make public and irreversible commitments using apps like Beeminder and StickK, which forfeit users’ money when goals are missed. Winter committed to a $7,290 penalty for failing to skydive, which lessened his anxiety about jumping.

Finally, hackers know how to specify goals. Goals should be small and incremental and build into “success spirals.” They should be “SMART”: specific, measurable, agreed-upon, realistic, and time-bound. They should be focused on effort rather than outcome so as to insulate against external contingencies. And goals should be specified within the frame of a larger “stretch” mission to counter complacency with trivial goals.

Following this regime might help you finally achieve an oft-abandoned resolution. However, this says nothing of whether your goal is actually a good one, such as Winter’s and others’ goal to work a “maniac,” hundred-plus hour, workweek.

Joseph M. Reagle Jr. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. He is author of Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents (April 2019).