The Importance of Problem Breakdown for New Year’s Resolutions

By Jon Miller Updated on January 14th, 2019

Endings and beginnings are both good times for reflection. Many people set goals for the new year around now. My habit is to carry over most resolutions or personal goals from year to year. A positive way to view this is that there is constancy and pursuit of long-term objectives. A more critical insight is that some of my goals and actions are large and blurry. How much of success or failure at each one was due to luck or chance? This question is easier to answer when the resolutions are hi-res.

What leads to success with New Year’s resolutions? Setting clear targets that we are deeply committed to achieving. Identifying causes of our shortcomings or dissatisfaction. Deciding what to do about it. Making our effort and progress visible and keeping them in sight. Persisting through tough times to see our resolutions through. Learning from what worked and what did not work in the past. Students of Lean may recognize that these good habits for achieving our New Year’s goals are the same ones for solving problems, at any other time of year.

There are benefits to treating New Year’s resolutions as an ongoing process throughout the year. When we squeeze our planning window around the holidays, we tend to set targets too quickly. We may set a goal such as “lose weight” in reaction to overeating during the holidays, rather than because of a deeply-held desire to be our healthiest for our self and for our loved ones. We may get started on the resolutions too quickly, over-estimating the time and energy available for this. We may find that the problem has deeper roots than we realized, requiring longer-term commitment and effort. These things may leave us unprepared to keep going when we stumble in February and beyond. Big accomplishments are the result of an accumulation of many small efforts. But unless we set up our action plan as a series of small steps, we are unlikely to succeed.

This process of reflection reminded me one of my favorite quotes, attributed to Mark Twain.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Actions are the building blocks for success. Unlike blocks of wood, actions and tasks are easy to subdivided into their smaller components. We can take this idea a further. Complex and overwhelming ones certainly, but even tasks that are simple and manageable should be broken down into smaller ones. A great way to make sure we get started is to break down a task to “just this side of ridiculously easy.” If we continue to procrastinate in the face of a task that is objectively small and manageable, we need to break it down further until it is so simple that we can’t help but succeed. Exercising 20 minutes daily too hard? How about breaking it down to standing up from the couch or desk chair every 30 min or so? Or lifting a finger at least once each day? Succeeding at that, we can take one step up the task ladder and and lift two fingers, etc. It is a matter of head and heart, not so much hands.

Breaking down tasks into smaller and smaller ones until we reach the point of no resistance is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to follow the other 7 steps shared with practical problem solving if we are to avoid jumping onto fads or giving up while experiencing more discomfort than success. However, problem breakdown may be the one thing that does the most to help us get started towards our goals, chip away at it every day, and see incremental progress. We shall see, in a year or so.

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