Rethinking Resolutions

Cass Sunstein investigates the “fresh start effect,” the tendency for people to “refocus their thinking and even reorient their conduct” at certain points in time, such as the beginning of a week, month, or year:

Why do temporal landmarks matter so much? First, they provide a clear opportunity to step back from daily life and reflect — to ponder whether your actions, and your life, mirror your highest goals for yourself. When you hit a birthday or a new year, you ask about the big picture.

But there is a second factor. [Researcher Hengchen] Dai and his coauthors contend that temporal landmarks open up new “mental accounts” that enable us to separate the past from the future. We make a sharp distinction between our past self (who ate too much and failed to exercise, or stuck with unrewarding work or a bad relationship) and our current self (who has turned over a new leaf). People’s behavior often stems from their sense of their own identity, and big changes happen more easily when they can convince themselves that their 2015 self is on a whole new path.

For Sofia Faqudi, what worked was convincing herself to make a single resolution for each month of 2014. She describes how setting smaller goals led her to success:

In November, my resolution was to skip coffee. It was similar to the February goal of no chocolate—but I no longer needed a referee or a financial penalty. After nine months of practice, I had developed the willpower to break an addiction. Yes, it was challenging to step off a red-eye flight and go straight to the office. But I did it. Resisting the temptation was easier after I hid the coffee in my apartment as well as the loyalty card to my favorite café. Walter Mischel, designer of the renowned Marshmallow Test, found that children who successfully refrained from eating the marshmallow did so by distracting themselves or covering their eyes. Those who kept looking at the marshmallow succumbed to the temptation. Removing coffee from my immediate vicinity paved the road to success.

Meanwhile, Ted Spiker shares his take on resolutions:

One of the best goals I heard in 2014 came from one of the spiritual leaders of the Sub-30 Club—a club I started a few years ago for people who wanted to run a sub-30-minute 5K, but includes many folks who were already speedier than that, like Laurie Canning. Laurie had said that her only running goal this year was to run with as many new people as she could, including those she had never met from our virtual group. Between training, new races, and meet-ups all over, she ended the year running with 25 new people. She says, “I have never enjoyed running as much as I have this year—ever.”

By the way, Laurie also completed the year doing 20,000 strict military pushups and crushed her previous best marathon time, running a 4:11. My takeaway: You can use a deeper goal to help achieve other ones.