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Every January, Make Two Lists

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I’m always looking for alternatives to standard New Year’s resolutions. They’re just too simple to work unless you get lucky. You gather your resolve around one behavioral aspiration, apply it to that festive but fleeting moment when the calendar changes over, and hope there are no momentum-killing setbacks too early on.

I’m trying something different this year. I started it in December but I could see myself doing this on New Year’s Day every year. It could be done alongside traditional resolutions, or instead of them.

Here’s the basic idea. Instead of trying to change overnight on January 1st, you use the whole year to do less of certain things that you know are a net problem for you, and more of certain other things that you know are a net benefit. You’re not attempting to eliminate, or guarantee, any behaviors on your part. You’re only trying to move in the right direction, consistently, with a small handful of habits.

I know that sounds vague, and it is, until you name these behaviors explicitly by sitting down with a cup of coffee and making two lists.

List A consists of a few things you want to spend more of your life on, this year, than you have been recently. (ex. having friends over for coffee; tracking expenses in a spreadsheet)

List B consists of a few things you want to spend less of your life on, this year, than you have been recently. (ex. doom-scrolling news sites; eating peanut butter out of the jar)

I say “spend your life on” rather than “spend time on” or “doing” because we generally don’t regard our day-to-day behaviors as things we’re choosing to spend our lives on. Actions like watching another science video on YouTube, or texting your friend to tell him you’re staying in tonight, don’t seem to carry the weight of more obviously life-defining choices like what city to live in or what career to pursue, but they can define our lives just as much. Scrolling through AskReddit threads for twenty-five minutes, if that’s a somewhat normal event in your life, does not come with a sense that you’re deciding what your life should be used for — but that is what you’re doing. How we direct our moment-to-moment energies is how we spend our days, and how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

The things on List A are things you sometimes do that you know are a good use of your life. They’re rewarding, and you seldom regret doing them, but you don’t make them happen often enough.

Maybe for you these are things like sending thank you notes, playing rummy, visiting Jane and Walter, stretching before bed, asking for help, cooking mise en place, going downtown on Saturdays, or maintaining a budget in YNAB.

Seldom regrettable

The things on List B are things you often do that you know are not a good use of your life. They’re probably also rewarding in some way, but often they come with regrets or downsides, and usually don’t have lasting benefits. Whatever they are, you know they’re not worth sacrificing much of your life for — watching TV shows that are okay but not great, adding a sugary muffin to your coffee order, jumping on to the computer as soon as you get home, embellishing your anecdotes, leaving the dishes till bedtime, hate-scrolling comment sections, and so on.

The lists are deliberately non-exhaustive. Each list should have no more than six or eight items, otherwise you won’t attend to them all. You’re just choosing a few areas in which to make headway, not trying to fix your whole life. If you have too many, select the ones that would do the most for you.

Questionable

Also, the more granular and specific the list items are, the better. You want small projects, not epic wars. “Eating junk” is not something you’ll actually stop doing. “Getting drive-thru on the way home from the gym” could be.

Neither No-No’s Nor Must-Do’s

These are not resolutions in the usual sense. You’re not making a binding list of no-no’s and must-do’s. You’re committing to a more conscious choice-making process around certain behaviors, which you know have an effect on your well-being, for twelve months. With the A-things, you push yourself, gently but consistently, to establish them as a more normal part of your life than they were last year. With the B-things you’re gently refraining, saying “not today” to them most of the time, or at least more of the time, making them less normal and reflexive for you than they were last year.

Just writing these items down doesn’t guarantee any particular behavior on your part. But it does stop them from going so easily under the radar. It makes you more likely to recognize, at relevant moments, that there’s always a choice whether to make an A-thing happen — which you know you’ll be glad you did — or to burn off a bit more life doing a B-thing.

A-list material: hot baths

This sort of resolution is gentler and more forgiving than the traditional kind, but it carries a stronger sense of identity with it. The kind of person you want to be is easy to remember when you look at your list. The lists help you move in a direction you know is better, yet your aspirations for the year aren’t torpedoed the moment you eat some junk or bail on some plans. Whatever happens, you just keep making the A-things happen more often, and the B-things less often, than inertia alone would dictate.

Then you see where you’re at in December, and make two new lists.

A Matter of Individuals

No one else can tell you what should be on the lists. You need to have seen, through first-hand experience, which activities are worth consciously investing your life in, and which diversions are worth phasing out. Neither list has anything to do with what others think is right or good.

A-list material: invite people to parks

That means your lists will be specific to your unique life, with all of its familiar patterns and snags. On my List A, I have “Opening a book at lunch hour,” and on List B I have “Doing half-assed dumbbell workouts at home on a scheduled gym day.” I know the little idiosyncratic ways these choices affect my well-being, but others could only guess why I think they’re worth writing down.

Put the lists somewhere you can easily consult them. They’re so short you should be able to rattle them off by heart after a week or two anyway. Look at them every time you can’t remember what’s on them.

Quintessential B-lister

I also look at my lists when I feel like the day isn’t going well. When I don’t know what to do, I see if I can do something on List A, or make it easy to do later. Or think up an alternative to a B-thing I might be drifting towards.

I’m also noticing that it’s harder to do a given thing on list B without hesitation, having specifically identified it as something I don’t want to spend my life on. Even if I’m still tempted by the thought of spending a few minutes on the B-thing in question, I’m averse to the thought of spending any amount of my life on it, and it’s easier to remember that there’s really no difference.

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Photos by Mollie Sivaram, Samsung UK, Amit Lahav, Bruce Mars, Jarritos Mexican Soda, Solen Feyissa

{ 20 Comments }

Louise January 5, 2023 at 10:57 am

I like this progress not perfection approach and it’s been working well for me since December too. I’ve tracked a few habits over the years but decided that this is the year to stop doing that too. (I was on the verge of adding even more tracking – yikes!) I’m very much enjoying living a non-quantified life, gently doing more of what I’d like to spend my life on and less of what I don’t. And here’s the thing, our bodies, minds, and souls keep all the track necessary of steps taken, laps swum, books read, music appreciated, friends phoned, sunsets appreciated. Unless it’s motivating for a very short time, we don’t need to outwardly quantify these activities, just do them and reap the rewards and satisfaction. There is no ultimate external point of “enough”, only the experience of doing and the outcomes from having done.

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David Cain January 5, 2023 at 2:52 pm

Interesting… I have found tracking alone often is enough to make a difference, if only because it does provide an additional incentive to do the thing, because then you get to tally it in your tracking scheme. Once the natural reward of the thing is enough to motivate you to continue, then it might not be as useful.

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Tara January 5, 2023 at 1:49 pm

This is awesome, definitely doing this! So much better than the pass/fail resolutions.

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Nicola January 5, 2023 at 2:16 pm

This approach reminds me a lot of James Clear’s “Atomic Habits”, but on a more relaxed scale. I can see this being much more effective than the typical resolution.

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David Cain January 5, 2023 at 2:54 pm

I thought Atomic Habits was a great book, but I don’t think I implemented any of it because there was too much there. I do better with single heuristics I think.

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kid January 5, 2023 at 5:18 pm

Thank you for this. Getting older I’m becoming more and more allergic to anything that smells of OCD. Simple tactics that are not too fixed have a lot more appeal (and chance of succes , although unfortunately not always…).

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Amy January 6, 2023 at 1:54 am

I loved this – thanks for simplifying a method on how we can better ourselves little by little. I made my list and I hope in December 2023, I can look back and see the net difference in my life (adding a few more good habits into my life, and eliminating a few bad habits).

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Tim January 6, 2023 at 4:39 am

Thanks.

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Jessica January 6, 2023 at 2:18 pm

Thanks for sharing this. I love this idea, and will give it a try.

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Koso January 8, 2023 at 4:24 am

Last November, I think, I wrote a very short list of things I’d like to make a habit of. Having read your article, I went back to that list and made it my list A, and added a few more items to it.
I tried to make a list B, and found out to my joy that I didn’t have a lot of habits I consider bad. Eating junk is one, and that has been curtailed mightily since I started using an expenses tracking app and realised just how little money I had.

Procrastination is another. I’ve found that doing tasks immediately they turn up helps me prevent that, so I’ve put that on list A and hope to god I do it.

The only other serious one is addiction to my phone in an unproductive way, and I tried to write it down on my list B in a specific way that would make it easier to work on, but I couldn’t. Then I realised that if I did more of the things on my list A, I’d have less time to casually spend on my phone.
So, looking forward to some gentle, steady change for the better.

Thank you very much for the article.

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David Cain January 8, 2023 at 1:02 pm

That’s a good point. You can’t do List B stuff while you’re doing List A stuff, and focusing on A-list stuff might be all the self-guidance you need to reduce the other stuff.

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Sherel January 24, 2023 at 6:02 am

I was thinking of this in a simplistic way as I read the article. Choices. When you choose to do something you know is good for you and contributes positively to your life, you have less time to do the less desirable thing like falling down the Facebook rabbit-hole. Conversely, if we choose to read a good book way past our usual bedtimes, we are swapping valuable, life-enhancing sleep for a bit (albeit a very compelling bit) of entertainment. We all know this because we experience it every day — we just choose not to look at it. Thanks for helping us look at and consider these things, David! Loved revisiting some of my favorite posts on the Field Trip!

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Gunnar Pedersen January 9, 2023 at 2:22 am

Thank you David!
I really like these simpler reminders, so I’m putting my A- and B-list next to my cupboard list – which has a thing or two in common with the A-list.
Looking forward to The Field Trip, I saw the first mail has come.

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ثبت شرکت January 9, 2023 at 4:01 am

This is awesome, definitely doing this!

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Asel January 9, 2023 at 12:39 pm

Thanks! Loved the idea!!! Happy new A-list Year!))

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Manisha Singh January 10, 2023 at 6:19 am

I love this idea.

Since the last few years, I have been creating focus areas for the year instead of having a list of resolutions. This has also worked well for me. Usually, the focus areas are only 2-3 broad categories like ‘Improved financial awareness and spending more time in the water’.

I like the idea of including things to spend less of my life on.

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Lori January 16, 2023 at 10:19 am

I love this idea! Reading your post about paying for everything twice has really had an impact on me, and I think this goes hand in hand with it. The things on my A list are some of those things that I want to do (ie meal planning) so that I actually benefit from those things that I already paid for. Thank you for giving me more to think about!

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Alan January 19, 2023 at 4:39 am

I love this idea! I was looking through a bunch of old diaries form the last few years. At the beginning of each one was a list of “resolutions” and each year had a very similar list – learn a language, eat better, exercise more etc. I wrote a vision of what I would be in 5 years time – bilingual, healthy and slim !! So, 2 lists with specific actions on them is well worth a try. Thank you

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بازی انفجار January 24, 2023 at 9:19 am

Thank you
I look forward to the field trip, I have seen the first harvest.

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آموزش بازی انفجار January 24, 2023 at 9:23 am

I saw an old diary for the past few years.it is worth seeing a certain procedure. thank you

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