Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Towards Better New Year’s Resolutions

by Gary Berg-Cross

I’m not a big one for making New Year’s resolutions. Mark Twain touched on it-
“New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions.” Further, according to Wikipedia New Year's Resolutions come from the old Summerian-Judeo-Christian concepts of human imperfection.
This has evolved to institutionalize the idea of getting God’s mercy by apologies for one’s wrong doing over the past year. It also fits the Protestant idea of self-improvement which is OK.

It also fits what Barbara Ehrenreich calls America’s love affair with positive thinking, which is taken to task (along with an urgent call for a new commitment to realism) in Bright-sided How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.

There’s the older Catholic ethic of giving up pleasures (e.g. alcohol and meat) during pre-Easter Lent as an act of discipline. Discipline is good, self discipline better and looking as these as personal vows not religiously dictated makes sense as a secularist. It;a a gift we give ourselves to enhance the self, others or the world in a way that makes sense to oneself.

I see that people are still getting and giving advice on how to get personal improvements. It is understandable that people try to take possession of 2012 by setting a reasonable personal goals. There are some smaller scale, modern ones such as Nick Bilton’s promise to take breaks from his tech devices (see his Bits blog post “Disruptions: Resolved in 2012: To Enjoy the View Without Help From an iPhone,” )

Getting a job, living the American dreams, change a lifestyle, and losing weight are all popular. More denotations to the poor, become more reflective or becoming more environmentally responsible are all grander goals and sets them apart from ordinary resolutions. In this category I’ve seen worthy goals/projects listed on this blog:

· “Turn-off the TV,

· elect intelligent School Board members,

· void excessive debts from student loans,

· support Head Start”

Edd Doerr might add a resolution to write more letters to the editor on topics of interest.

But as Tara Parker-Pope noted in her New York Times column, a third of resolutions are ditched by the end of January. Four out of five people simply give their resolutions up (see Why Your New Year's Resolution Will Fail by February 1.

One problem comes from the type of resolutions we make. Many of then are just too extreme all-or-nothing New Year’s decisions. Taking on a big challenge is heroic and it is nice to start the year that way, but this one step transformation is often something that is so unrealistic we can’t possibly keep the commitment. Eric Zorn, put it this way-

“Making resolutions is a cleansing ritual of self assessment and repentance that demands personal honesty and, ultimately, reinforces humility. Breaking them is part of the cycle.”

People know they will have difficulty especially losing weight or making health gains. Deep down we might not expect ourselves to keep to such a goal, but are proud to start. But as CNN noted in its Why bother with resolutions? Because failure inspires there is value in trying. And maybe there is value in just developing the self control that resolutions require. It may be a dramatic end to procrastination. It seems good in itself to commit to developing what Psychologists call our own “locus of control”

OK, so let’s try. Does Social Science suggest anything useful? Dan Ariely, Decision Scientist at Duke University, has several ideas. They aren’t exactly new, but being based on study have some value.

A place to start is that many resolutions are general and vague (support Head Start might be vague). We don’t really believe we can hit them because the goal is uncertain. So the obvious remedy is Be specific, very specific. Ariely suggests the obvious fact that:

“the more clear cut your resolutions are, the easier they are to handle. Very specific restrictions make it easy to know if you are following the resolution.”

Maybe there is time to rescue that vague resolution before February. So to lose weight it helps to understand where your calories are coming from. You may need to cut down on desserts, but “ don't say you'll simply eat fewer desserts." Instead locate the action in space and/or time. Maybe you have the will power to avoid eating desserts late at night or on weekdays or at that expensive restaurant. This becomes a pragmatic/operational definition of what “fewer” means.

What else? Here are 4 more I’ve adapted from a summary by Ariely and his Duke Colleagues:

Get inspired. That is, make it meaningful to you (but also concrete as noted above). Meaningful resolutions have sticking power even if they aren’t grand challenges. Beth Reardon, director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine put it this way:

"If you want your resolution to act like Velcro rather than Teflon, be sure to link it to deep, authentic intentions. For example, resolving to order more food from Community Supported Agriculture is more powerful if you link it to your desire to support local businesses as well as your own health."

Reflective, Planned Readiness Resolutions are most effective if they are based on a genuine readiness to change a behavior – evidenced by development of a plan and consideration of likely effects, difficulty etc. Don’t just jump into it, but consider it.

Andy Silberman, director of Duke's Personal Assistance Program counsels not resolving to take on a big change until “you can explain how concerned you are about the behavior. It is also useful to outline what your motivation is to change, what specifically you want to accomplish and how confident you are that you can make the change.”

Environment & setting yourself up for success. Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke who studies decision-making, cites pre-committing to, and expecting, changed circumstances. Environmental structuring is a powerful tool for making a resolution stick. An example might be changing your environment to help reduce monthly spending. OK, so pre-commitment to cutting up a credit card (or placing one in the freezer) to slow down spending.

The right circumstances just help one to make better decisions that are less impulse driven. That’s a step towards more control & less procrastination which is a good end in itself. And it may help avoid Mark Twain’s observation about New Year's Day… “now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

1 comment:

Edd.Doerr said...

Good piece, Gary. And let me add the suggestion, given the brainpower associated with this blog, that each reader would undertake to write one letter to an editor every two weeks, or more frequently to add a comment on line agreeing or disagreeing with a column or story in the Wash Post, the NY Times or one of the local Neanderthal rags in this area.