The Vast Expanse of No Progress — how to attain your goals. / by Will Ringland

I’m going to do two things in this article.

  1. I’m going to get angry about ill-defined goals we set as a new year’s resolution.
  2. Then I’m going to tell you to do it anyway.
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I never liked resolutions which is funny when you consider how much I talk about resolve around here. It is the baggage around resolutions. We make grand plans to change All The Things that we do not like about ourselves all at the same time and run head long into the great new year and you will be better and you will succeed and and and...

We deprive ourselves of things or exhaust ourselves in exercise or drop money into the swear jar or what ever. It results in so much mental anguish that we drop everything by January 10th. And what do we do? Double back on the thing we were trying to stop doing or fall further from the thing we wanted to keep doing.

So here’s the first thing: New Year’s Resolutions suck because we don’t know how to achieve them Obvious example: I will lose weight this year. Great. How much weight? When will you get there? What are you going to do?

Uh....

Exactly! Now, do you even know what success is for a goal like that? Is 1 pound weight loss success? Technically, yes. Would you count it as a success? Hardly.

It isn’t the goals that are the problem

It also isn’t you. You can’t get anywhere you don’t know you’re going. It’s the lack of either specificity or a system to get you to that goal. If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will do. That’s true. But no path will actually get you there.

Here’s the second thing: I don’t have a problem with large, lofty goals. In fact, I think we should all have goals that will take time, even a lifetime, to achieve. What matters is what we do to approach these goals, even a little bit, every single day.

Here’s Franklin’s original process for building Virtue:

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

In my own Virtues, each precept is a short, specific note of acting that embodies the Virtue. Executing on these actions means my behavior is aligned with the Virtue I wish to build.

What the hell does this have to do with New Year’s resolutions?

Let’s take our favorite example of a resolution - Lose Weight. Let us assume we’re using the Virtues as Franklin originally chose, as I am, and see how they can be tailored in a year to get us to “Lose Weight.”

For many of us, weight loss is the essence of Moderation and Temperance. Consume less with a more sober demeanor and we’ll lose weight. How do we get from Virtue to New Year’s resolution?

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The first step to bridging The Vast Expanse of No Progress is something we have all already been doing - choosing Virtues that reflect our end goals. Here are my Virtues which generally serve the goal of losing and keeping my weight down.

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Franklin, my man, again:

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr'd to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express'd the extent I gave to its meaning.

And with each one, we define precepts, rules, that reflect the meaning of our Virtues. So, if Temperance for me is reducing my alcohol consumption to just weekends and/or well before bed (because, man does whisky wreck my sleep) I would choose precepts that reflect those. It becomes our intent, then, to follow these rules which bring us closer to our Virtuous ideal.

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But! This still does not address The Vast Expanse. It is excellent to have rules to live by and it is great to want to build these Virtues. We still need to pay attention to our successes and understand our failures. That is why we review every day and every week.

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Each daily review is designed to provide perspective on what actions we took that did that did or did not drive us towards our chosen Virtue. Spoke out of anger at a colleague? Mark “Tranquility” for the day. Had an extra drink after dinner? Mark “Temperance” for the day. And on and on and, each day, we build an understanding of our patterns.

From Vast Nothing to Daily Progress

This is the scaffolding that our Virtues provide. They are a system of success, something that can be applied to any of the goals we have, no matter how lofty. At the start I said I was going to say resolutions are terrible but you should make them anyway. And I did. But what I really mean, what the actual problem with resolutions is tat we don’t break them down to concrete, actionable things we can do every day.

Once we have something to actually do then we can, you know, do the thing. Do all the things.