How Design Thinking Could Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick

Introducing Design for Living, an advice column in which we apply design thinking to everyday problems. In the debut column, Clear app designer Phill Ryu tackles New Year’s resolutions.

How Design Thinking Could Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick
Image via Shutterstock]

If design isn’t just “how it looks, but how it works,” then we should be able to apply it anywhere–even to the mundane but important problems that come up in the course of living our everyday lives. As Charles Eames once cheekily put it: “I have never been forced to accept compromises, but I have willingly accepted constraints.” He wasn’t just talking about the design of a chair or a film. Exercising creativity while accepting constraints to enable meaningful outcomes–and zeroing in on the constraints that matter, while avoiding getting trapped in ones that don’t–is the essence of design, and, it could be argued, living well.


What if a Dear Abby-style advice column were informed by design thinking? Let’s find out. Here’s a question from a reader:

“The year has come to a close, and all I can think of are the new habits I wanted to get into, but didn’t. I wanted to floss every day, but couldn’t stick with it. I also wanted to learn how to meditate, but something always seemed to get in the way. It’s not like I told myself to climb Mt. Everest–what’s wrong here? How can I make 2014’s resolutions actually stick?”

The trouble with building new habits is that we tend to psychologically rebel against almost any kind of demand or “should” statement about our behavior, especially when it implies some sort of judgement about our own inadequacy. What does a New Year’s resolution boil down to, for most of us, but a version of this sentence?: “You should be [X] and you aren’t, so shape up.” Is it any wonder that it’s tough to get motivated under that kind of pressure?

Reward Yourself
Designer Phill Ryu knows something about helping people get out of their own way–he co-designed Clear, the lauded to-do app whose gestural interface was intended to, as he puts it, “remove any questionable friction or distractions when creating and working in your lists.” I asked him if he saw any parallels between getting motivated to start a new habit, and designing an app that’s supposed to make crossing off to-dos feel delightful rather than intimidating. “It was very important to us to make it feel very satisfying to cross off and clear your list,” he says–which is why Clear includes all kinds of subtle rewards for checking things off, like ascending chimes and inspirational quotes.

Image via Shutterstock

If you want to start flossing every day, you could do the same thing: set up a little reward to coincide with taking the action. I’m not talking about bribing yourself with a bowl of ice cream every night because you dragged a line of string through your teeth. Like Clear’s simple but pleasing aural effects, maybe you could help yourself out with a little sensory TLC to make your first attempts at getting into a groove feel less chore-like. When I was first training myself to floss every day, I bought flavored floss that I actually liked the taste of, and found a comedy podcast to listen to while I put it to use.


Make It Easy
But more important than structuring your new habit is, as anyone will tell you, simply doing it consistently. So another way to design your approach is to take yourself off the hook, give yourself some credit for your good intention, and make it as easy to physically do as possible. Ryu says that he had a similar attitude about the design of Clear: “There’s a general lightness and approachability to things when you focus more on the content, and less on the structure surrounding it.” If what you want to do every day is floss, consider: what would make that “content” feel light and approachable? For me, it was deciding that flossing in the morning and the evening was too much pressure. I also knew that convincing myself to do it each night before bed, when I’m tired, would feel burdensome. Better, then, to give myself permission to do it just in the morning, when I have more pep. Plus, I’m more inclined to care about my own appearance in the morning anyway–so flossing bits of my breakfast out of my teeth feels worthwhile in itself, not just like a tedious thing I “have” to do.

Image via Shutterstock

Skip The Multitasking
But what about building new habits–plural? We’ve all been trained to make our New Year’s resolutions in lists, after all. And what’s wrong with wanting to self-improve on more than one front? Well, for starters, consider that even designers of buzzy, smash-hit apps don’t try to take on too much at once. “If we as a tiny studio began each new year with the notion of shipping three to five products in the first few months in parallel, each solving major problems in our lives, we would be setting ourselves up for failure,” Ryu says.

He suggests thinking about each new resolution or habit as a product to be “shipped.” “If you think about them as investments, they have high up front costs, and then level off once they are ‘set’ and pay off well from that point on into the long-term future,” Ryu says. If you want to get yourself flossing daily and teach yourself to meditate, maybe you should attempt them one at a time–and “invest that new momentum into your next healthy habit that builds most naturally on your established ones,” he adds. Leave the multitasking to your overstressed boss. It’s your life: you can take things one at a time. Even if you use an app like Clear to keep track of them.

[Got a situation in your life that needs some design thinking? Drop me a line:]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.