Personal Development

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.


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.


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

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