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Planning New Year's Resolutions and Goals - Reasoning from First Principles

With the new year approaching and people making New Year's resolutions, I thought I'd revisit a question asked by some existentially-minded individuals when determining their pursuits in life: why? Many physicists and engineers reason from first principles, which are axioms that can be used to derive logical conclusions. How does one reason from first principles?

1. What am I trying to achieve here? What is my goal?

Let's start with something simple but specific: weight loss. I want to lose 20 pounds in 5 months. That is: I want to lose 20 pounds by June 1st, 2016.

2. What information/evidence do I have, how does this affect the probable outcomes, and what information/evidence do I still need to make a good decision?

I currently weigh 220 pounds. This affects the maximum caloric intake necessary to maintain my weight and affects the types of exercises I can do. I need to find out which exercises I can do to mitigate any potential joint pain, maximize caloric burn in a sustainable way, and still enjoy my workouts.

3. What are the potential second order (and higher) impacts of this scenario (both upside and downside)?

I will need to monitor my diet and make sure my caloric deficit enables me to lose weight at the rate I want to. This may impact social outings where drinking and eating are common ways of connecting with people. I will also need to spend a significant amount of time prepping food, going to the gym, and taking into account how often I need to do my laundry to wear clean gym clothes.

Other questions you can ask are:

  • What has to happen for “X” scenario to be true?
  • What are the risks and rewards of various scenarios and how likely are they to transpire?

Admittedly, all this seem a bit excessive for such a simple goal, but understanding the framework that first principles provide for achieving goals or resolutions can aid in achieving things that have a higher degree of complexity. Understanding constraints, how to mitigate risks, and proper planning are excellent first steps toward achieving one's objectives. The next step is discipline.