How to Make Rational Resolutions


Procrastination. (Photo credit: Tysh)

It’s New Year’s Day, probably the most popular time of the year for setting goals. But if you’re like a lot of people, your list may include the same goals you set for yourself last year, and the year before, and the year before that. Or, even worse, you may have just given up.

This year could be different with the help of “goal factoring.”

Goal factoring is a method of defining better plans. The method has its roots in behavioral economics and the notion that smart people very often make irrational decisions. It is one of the techniques taught in workshops conducted by the Center for Applied Rationality that uses approaches based on science to help participants reach their goals. I came across the method by reading the article, More Rational Resolutions (online version of The Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2013).

In the classes, students learn:

…how thinking about one’s future self as a different person can help goal-setting and why building up an “emotional library” of associations can reduce procrastination.

According to this approach, the key to setting goals that we can achieve is to take emotions into consideration when making decisions.

The article shares these three exercises which are used at the Center for Applied Rationality’s workshops to help people be more rational with their decisions

Goal Factoring

Determine whether an action is the most effective way to achieve a goal. For example, going to the gym every morning may not be a realistic way to manage stress if you’re not a morning person.


Use emotions to evaluate how likely you are to succeed at a goal. Imagine that, six months from now, you have not achieved your goal. The level of surprise you feel at this outcome is a good predictor of whether you will actually succeed.

Structured Procrastination

Acknowledge procrastination as somewhat inevitable and procrastinate by doing something else productive. For example, procrastinate on starting an assignment by going on a walk or cleaning the house.

Why I Think This Could Work

In thinking about my own situation — when I achieve goals and when I don’t — I can see how all of this could work.

Lets start with the idea of thinking about one’s future self as a different person. That’s what I did as a child and imagined myself going to college and getting a job. I knew exactly what university I would attend. Once I got there, I imagined myself working at the company I wanted to work at (this took some trial and error). I achieved both goals. Ever since then, I have achieved the goals in which I really have thought about my future self as a different person. Not the child, or the student, or the the person working for company X, Y or Z.

Now when I don’t reach my goals, I fail to visualize. It’s like I’m on a raft afloat in the open sea. I just flounder from here to there with no real vision except for some foggy goal and to tell you the truth, I’m really not surprised when I don’t meet it.

So for me, this idea of thinking about my future self as a different person is key.

I also do something productive when I find myself procrastinating. For me, it seems as if when I procrastinate it’s because I need to let something simmer. And when I come back to it, I dive right in and get it done. So, I’ve learned to do something else that’s productive during this period. You’ll hear writers talk about  how ideas come to them when they take a break and clean, garden, or take a walk.

Regarding what action is best for you to achieve your goal, I remember a time when I was trying to spend a certain number of hours a day doing cardio, weights, yoga, you name it and it just didn’t work. When this happened I would get depressed and not do anything. You aren’t going to achieve a goal that way.

I discovered, however, that I didn’t need to put all of those hours in to achieve the results I want. And you know, sometimes a game of tennis is just fine all by itself.

So this year, instead of writing a list of what you think you should do use goal factoring, pre-hindsight, and structured procrastination to create rational resolutions.