by Gary North
Well, it's that time of the year again. All over America, smart people are sending out last-minute charity donation checks to get their income tax deductions for 2003, making sure they get stamped, dated receipts from the Postal Service (this costs an extra 37 cents).
Other smart people are making last-minute sales decisions on investments that did well, offsetting the capital gains tax by selling investments that did poorly.
But most people aren't this smart. They are spending their time looking forward to New Year's Eve parties and the bowl games (husbands, anyway) on New Year's Day. College football teams that nobody outside of the home town paid any attention to three months ago will fight it out for mythical second through tenth place, which will entitle them to be forgotten by January 2nd. One team will wind up number one. The public will remember which one until at least Super Bowl XXXVIII, just as they remember the winners of Super Bowls past: Packers, NFC (I), Packers, NFC (II), Jets, AFC (III: Joe Namath > Earl Morrall/Johnny Unitas) . . . ?
Then there are the New Year's resolutions. All over the world, not just in America, people will make New Year's resolutions, as surely as women's magazines at supermarket check-out counters will feature diets in the January issue.
All of the celebrating on New Year's Eve, plus all of the hangovers on New Year's Day, will produce sufficient guilt, worldwide, so that hundreds of millions of people will say on New Year's Day, "Not in 2004. This year will be different."
Will it? Really? I hope so, because 2003 was surely no winner.
My wife asked me, "Will we celebrate New Year's in the usual way? In bed by 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve, and then you write an article on New Year's Day?" Yep.
Traditions die hard at my house.
What about at your house?
RESOLVE EARLY: NO MORE NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS
A New Year's resolution is like an extra 20 lbs. of stuff in your backpack, assuming that you own a backpack. It's an extra burden that you resolve to carry across the desert, only to toss out the extra weight, plus another 5 lbs. of stuff, half way to the first water hole.
Why do you want to carry all that extra weight in your backpack? What do you expect to gain? Is your expected gain worth the guaranteed expense? Jesus said:
For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply [it happen], after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish (Luke 14:28—30).
Maybe the expected gain really is worth the extra effort. But why does it take the New Year to persuade you to pay the price? Why not resolve today, before the sun goes down? Or on January 3rd? Is there something special about New Year's Eve/Day? Yes, actually, there is. People's behavior changes. As to why, nobody knows. It's tradition.
Traditions die hard — a lot slower than people's resolve does. By February 1, the cost of keeping resolutions is always up by 20%. By June, it's up by 50%. The expected gain is delayed; the cost keeps rising. The trail of abandoned resolutions look like the Oregon Trail in Wyoming in 1849: discarded items everywhere.
The guilt of abandoning a resolution adds to the overall burden. So, on the following December 31, millions of people say, "This year, things will be different. I'm going to change."
If you need to change, start changing now. Don't wait for New Year's Eve.
THE GREATEST SPEECH I EVER HEARD
I possess only two marketable skills: the ability to write and the ability to talk in front of a crowd, no matter how large. I gained the second skill first, by age 16, at the American Legion's Boys State program. So, I know when I have heard a great speech. Let me tell you about the greatest speech I ever heard.
It was about 25 years ago — maybe a bit longer. I was invited to an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, to which the sober son of a long-time AA member had invited me. The speaker, Clancy I., was scheduled to give his personal testimony. This was a big event for AA in southern California. Clancy's speech was legendary in AA circles. He gave it every year just before Christmas.
He told of years he had spent drinking. Christmas was the worst time of the year for him. He would look forward to Christmas. It would always disappoint him. Then he would go on a bender. The pattern never changed. One year, he woke up after the New Year in a town a thousand miles away. He could not recall how he got there.
He ended his speech with this warning to a room full of AA members: "Don't get your hopes up about Christmas. So, I want to wish you a merry July 16, or maybe August 12."
My recommendation about New Year's Day is the same. Happy March 23rd.
When you are motivated to make a change in your life, don't ignore it. That's why I'm not opposed to using the New Year as a time to think about where you're headed and what it's costing you. After all, AA always scheduled Clancy's speech for the pre-Christmas season. But I am not in favor of adding to your burden, net. The risk is too great that you will quit before 2004 is half gone.
That's why I recommend New Year's substitutions over resolutions. Don't add a burden to your schedule, your budget, or your family. Get rid of something you really don't need to offset any addition.
If you think you should devote more time to improving your job skills — a wise decision — cut out some television time. The average American household now watches over seven hours of TV a day. If you can cut back by one hour a night, you can add an hour to your self-improvement program.
Look at the weekly TV schedule. Get a copy of "TV Guide" or the weekly TV schedule that runs in the Sunday newspaper. Go through it and mark the shows that you regularly watch. Circle each show. Then decide: Which ones are expendable?
If your TV addiction is really bad, think about recording the marginal shows through the week, and then watching them all on Sunday as rest & recreation. You can speed through the ads, too. You may find that the shows really aren't worth recording.
Years ago, I saw a "Mr. Tweedy" cartoon in my local newspaper. Mr. Tweedy was a loser. Some guest had just opened a closet in Mr. Tweedy's house. There, stacked to the ceiling, were videocassettes of "Bowling for Dollars."
I decided three decades ago that I would cut back on TV viewing. I had not owned a TV for two years. Then, having moved to a new city, I bought one. My wife and I were starting a newsletter business. We needed extra time. So, we decided to donate 25 cents to charity for each half hour of TV we watched, excluding the evening news or a documentary. That money would be worth $1 today. By the end of the week, we found that the only shows that were consistently worth 25 cents to us were "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Bob Newhart Show." I paid for Mary. She paid for Bob. That launched our newsletter business, which still exists: Remnant Review.
As far as I can tell, TV is the most expensive consumption good in human history. It eats up our only non-renewable resource: time. Statistically, I have about as much time as David Rockefeller does. I can't match his money, but I can match his time. So can you.
So, I suggest that you start making substitutions. Identify your spare time, meaning wasted time, and put it to productive use. When you iron clothes, listen to audiotapes. When you mow the lawn, listen to audiotapes. I don't mean music. I mean educational tapes that are related to your work, or investing, or education.
You can download audio files from the Web, make a CD-ROM of MP3 files, and listen. There are so many free educational audio files on the Internet that you cannot possibly not find something worth listening to.
I am always looking for educational audio files. If you have spotted a web site that offers useful items, let me know. I'll share this with readers.
If you know of a web site that offers a simple system for downloading audio files and converting them to MP3 files, send me the link. I'll share this with readers.
A small MP3 player that runs on batteries costs under $100. That is a capital investment that can be converted into money or education without much trouble.
If you need a music CD or MP3 to get you to exercise, then use CD-ROMS or tapes of music. However, be aware that for men, aerobics may not be the best form of exercise. Dr. Al Sears, who writes the Health Confidential for Men newsletter, recommends strength exercises over aerobics. Strength exercise takes less time — another advantage.
WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH?
Until you are clear in your mind about what it is you are trying to accomplish, you should avoid committing to a New Year's substitution.
Ask yourself what you have failed to achieve so far in life that continually bothers you. Make a list. Hint: try to keep it to one page.
Pick one item. One is plenty. Then set a date to achieve it. Then estimate the cost involved. This is my old rule:
What do you want to achieve?
How soon do you want to achieve it?
What are you willing to pay to achieve it?
Until all this is clear in your mind, make yourself no promises.
The goal is to substitute something that isn't that important to you in order to achieve something that is important, but which you have consistently failed to achieve. You will keep nagging yourself if you don't achieve it, or at least try to achieve it. To get yourself off your back, make a substitution.
If you can identify a low-value pleasure item to abandon that will free up sufficient resources to enable you to start working on that unfulfilled dream, consider making a substitution. Look for a low-benefit burden to abandon.
Maybe you really hate to mow the lawn. So hire someone to mow it, but use the time freed up to work on your project. It costs you extra money, but maybe money is less of a concern to you than not working on your long-postponed project.
The people who attend AA know that their biggest problem is alcohol. The AA program recommends drinking a milk-shake when the desire to drink alcohol seems overwhelming. This may lead to a weight gain, but a weight gain isn't going to kill most people. The booze will kill an alcoholic. The milk-shake/booze trade off is wise for an AA member. It's a matter of priorities.
The problem with New Year's resolutions is that they are spur-of-the-moment decisions. They are not made by people who have carefully, painstakingly thought about their priorities. I am recommending that you take care to think about your priorities for 2004 before you make a New Year's resolution. Then make a substitution instead.
Setting your priorities requires a cost-benefit analysis. You want to achieve your goal with the least possible expenditure. That's why I recommend a self-conscious substitution. When you go looking for things to give up — costs — you must think about your priorities. You will be much more likely to make a wise judgment that you will be able to stick with in 2004.
What things can you do that are most likely to give you a sense of accomplishment when you look back a year from now? Here are a few possibilities:
Decrease your level of credit card debt by 30%.
Increase your savings rate to 5% of your after-tax income... on the way to 10% by the end of 2005.
Increase your rate of charitable giving to 10% of your pre-tax income.
Lose 10% of your weight by mid-summer, and keep it off through December 31, 2004.
Get a raise of 5% above price inflation.
Find out what your work is worth locally.
Start a home business without debt.
Read three books related to your career.
Read three books on how to avoid retirement.
Enroll in a night class at a local college.
Learn one new computer-related skill/program.
Join a service organization and serve.
Teach a beginner something that you know well.
Read a [???] For Dummies book and master it.
Set up a web site.
Take your wife on a vacation she has wanted.
Write an article and get it published.
All of them are good. You can't do all of them. If you could achieve the first three, it would constitute something approximating a miracle.
WRITE IT DOWN
Don't vow to do anything on this list or anything not on this list until you have written down exactly what your goal is AND WHY.
Then, once you have written down the relevant reasons, pick one goal. Write down why you picked it over the rest of them. You must write it down.
Now comes the difficult part. Write down what your mid-term goals are by the quarter: April 1, July 1, October 1, December 31. Be specific.
Keep these four pieces of paper in a file. Get out the file on each due date. Make some sort of reminder system to check the file. Monitor your progress. If you did not achieve your mid-term goal, write down what you must do now to achieve it in the next quarter. Substitute this new page for the original one.
Writing all this down is really difficult. Checking back each quarter is even more difficult. But the act of checking your own schedule quarterly will help you stick with your program.
The really diligent person will create a weekly calendar and look at it weekly. That's why successful people buy a Day-Timer or a cheap equivalent. Without doing this, it's not easy to stick with the program.
Don't make a New Year's substitution if you are not willing to write down your goals for each quarter. Don't set yourself up for failure.
If you are willing to go ahead with this program, get out some paper and go through the exercise.
Write down potential goals and WHY.
Write down what you will swap and WHY.
Write down the goal(s) selected and WHY.
Write down mid-term goals by the quarter.
Create a reminder system to check them.
If you are really determined to succeed, buy a Day-Timer or its equivalent and write down your weekly steps.
Until it's all on paper, don't promise anything to anyone, especially to yourself.
Between now and midnight, January 1, there is time to do this right. Do it right or don't do it at all.
December 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com