THE BLOG
12/30/2014 06:58 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

How to Debug Your New Year's Resolution

When a software routine doesn't produce the expected result, technologists don't give up on it, they debug it. When a New Year's resolution doesn't produce the expected result (statistically, 88 percent of the time) most of us just throw in the towel and try again 12 months later.

Don't pledge yourself this year to what failed last year, instead use the tried and true techniques of the software engineer to debug your resolution so that you can succeed not just every year, but every day.

Most of your life is managed by a personal autopilot that is nearly as efficient as a computer program. You're programmed to tie your shoes, lock the front door, and navigate to the bus stop with hardly a conscious thought, leaving your mind free to solve problems and noodle on new ideas. But when you pledge yourself to an ambitious New Year's resolution that requires changing dozens of behaviors and attitudes in one go (e.g., "to be organized"), you are declaring war on autopilot, and 90 percent of the time, autopilot is going to be the winner. After a few weeks of battling autopilot 24/7, your limited willpower store will be exhausted and autopilot will mindlessly steer you back to your old routines and habits.

The key to sustainable personal change is to learn how to debug autopilot routines so that they support, not thwart, your self-improvement goals. Follow the four step debugging process below to nail lasting self-improvement in 2015:

Step 1: Reverse Engineer an Autopilot Routine

When technologists want to understand how a software routine works, they reverse-engineer it, examining it in detail and analyzing how each "behavior" in the routine contributes to processing the final result. This same technique can be applied to human behavioral routines. For example, if your resolution is "to be on time in the morning," it's safe to assume that the routine you practice today does not reliably achieve this result. So your first step is to closely examine your morning routine for an actions you can target to speed your exit. For example, any one of the following morning "bugs" could mean missing the train by a just couple of seconds:

  • Can't find something (keys, shoe, papers)
  • Not enough gas, transit card fares, or cash to get to work
  • Dressing snafus (missing button, stain, stockings with runs)
  • Last minute printing out of directions, tickets, or homework
  • Woke up too late to wash and blow dry hair, but did it anyway
  • Do not realize until the morning that there's no cat food, sandwich bread, or clean kid underwear

Now let's try reverse-engineering that perennial New Year's resolution chart-topper, "to lose weight." The key to permanent weight loss depends on understanding exactly what bugs in your routine lead you to consume more than is healthy on a weekly basis:

  • Breakfast on the go leads to consuming low nutrient calorie bomb such as Danish/muffin/bagel that leaves you hungry after two hours
  • Donuts left at coffee machine by thoughtful co-worker inspires second breakfast
  • Leftover free pizza left on filing cabinet by thoughtful co-worker inspires second lunch.
  • Lack of healthy, handy snack leads to afternoon visit to the M&M dispenser on a colleague's desk
  • Free samples at the supermarket lead to impromptu junk food fiesta.
  • Cooking dinner leads to 30 minutes of mindless noshing (glass of wine, piece of bread, meal samples) before ever sitting down to dine.
  • Finishing food before others leads to second helpings or forays into bread bowl.
  • Childhood training results in clean plate even when you're not particularly hungry.
  • Clearing up dishes leads to polishing off leftovers.
  • Impulsive decision to stay up an extra hour to watch the Breaking Bad finale for fifth time leads to binging on Ben & Jerry's.
  • Virtuous workout leads to consuming 500-calorie smoothie at the gym "health bar" as reward for exercise that burned off 300 calories.
  • "One beer with the gang" explodes into several rounds including potato skins with cheese, chili, and sour cream, but when you arrive home you eat dinner anyway.
  • Low energy from sleeping less than eight hours keeps you in a state of the munchies all day.
Okay, so after your have reverse-engineered a personal routine that produces a sub-optimal result, you are left with a behavioral bug list. What next?

Step 2: Debug Your Autopilot Routine One Behavior at a Time

Select one of the bugs on your list and design a microresolution that will remediate it. From the "on time" list you might resolve to always hang up my keys inside the closet door when I come home or to select tomorrow's clothes immediately after dinner on a weeknight. Practicing these resolutions will mean never being late again due to AWOL keys or clothing issues.

If weight loss is your goal, you might pledge not to eat while preparing food, or to drink just half a smoothie after a workout. Will these behavioral shifts achieve your weight loss goal? Maybe not, but new weight loss models show that every 100 calories you can eliminate on a daily basis will cause you to lose 5 pounds this year and 10 pounds in three years. If you need to lose more, target additional eating bugs until you've reached your goal.

Step 3: Test Your Debugged Routine

Time to see how your newly debugged behavioral routine runs! And here's where things depart a bit from the software engineering analogy. A computer will execute a revised program exactly the first time and every time. But for human beings, only practice makes permanent. You will need to practice your new behavioral routine until it becomes, well, routine. It will take four to six weeks for your new behavior to become sticky, and longer to become true autopilot. But once your behavior starts to feel more like second nature, you can safely move onto debugging another routine. Don't address more than two bugs at a time or you will exhaust your willpower before your new behaviors take hold in autopilot.

Downstream Effects

Any new habit you build will become -- to introduce another programming concept -- a design pattern that will lend momentum to your self-improvement efforts. A resolution to hang up your coat immediately upon returning home leads to the general habit of hanging up clothes; a resolution to walk home from work one day a week leads to walking home whenever weather permits; eating a piece of fruit every afternoon leads to cravings for healthy food instead of junk. These mental design patterns will continue minting new habits that support your self-improvement goals even as you consciously target other areas of autopilot for reform.

Make this New Year's the day you crack the code on self-improvement and achieve progress that lasts a lifetime! More New Years cheer and inspiration in this short film.

Follow Caroline L. Arnold on Twitter, Facebook, and at SmallMoveBigChange.com