The picture below is of a rabbit up a tree… in the mouth of a Goanna. I got this photo at work on New Year’s Day. We have a rabbit problem there, but hopefully with the help of this fella and others of his type, the rabbit population will go down.
Happy New Year one and all! I hope it has started well for you and that this New Year will better for you than the one that has just passed. Hopefully, it will be better for me than the way the last ended at the very least. But more of that shortly.
So I’m back at this Blog and will start posting again from today. If you happen to follow any of my other Blogs, I will be starting to post on those again over the next week, gradually getting them all up and going again for the New Year – you can’t rush these things after all. Well, you probably can and I have been doing that for years. But still, not this time.
If you remember back to my final post here from last year, you may remember/recall what I was hoping to do over my break – Nuh, no and didn’t!!! Well, I did read some books – but the bush and camping didn’t happen. I had to work both Christmas Day and New Years Day, but further to the point, the car started having mechanical problems on the Saturday before Christmas Day – so that put the end to that idea. But no, that wasn’t the beginning or the end of my Silly Season woes.
In the week prior to Christmas (in fact, this all happened on the same night – Wednesday I think it was) my fridge, washing machine, and my vacuum cleaner all died on me. Thankfully I had a spare vacuum and a work friend gave me the use of a spare fridge and washing machine on an extended loan. Then came Saturday when the car started having major issues and that night the wine cooler fridge died also. As far as the cooler goes it was a drain on power and the cost of electricity has skyrocketed so I wasn’t greatly concerned about that. At least the bill I got for my car’s CTP (Compulsory Third Party insurance) was hundreds of dollars lower than I expected and I unexpectantly was able to balance the budget for the end of the year. Phew – but somewhere along the line, I have to pay for car repairs, get a new fridge … well, you get the picture.
So as I say, 2018 has got to be better than the way 2017 ended hasn’t it? Though having said that, there is still a clown living in the White House in a foreign country (I’m Down Under).
Self-control is a major problem for many of us, so failure to maintain our resolutions isn’t surprising. But is it inevitable? Is there anything we can do to make it more likely that we stick to our resolve?
Psychology research can help: here are four things you can do to make it more likely that, this year, you maintain your resolutions.
Intentions, constructions and bundles
First, you can form implementation intentions. Multiple studies show people are much more likely to follow through on an intention to do something – say, exercise more – if they form the intention to do it when they encounter a cue.
Rather than just intending to exercise more, you might form the intention to set off jogging when the alarm goes off. Forming an implementation intention automates preparation for the behaviour when the cue is encountered. And that makes following through more likely.
In one study, for instance, women who formed food specific implementation intentions lost twice as much weight as a control group of dieting women.
Second, you can focus on abstract properties of events and things rather than concrete properties. Suppose your goal is to eat more healthily, and you’re tempted by a doughnut.
A focus on its concrete properties – its sweet stickiness, for instance – tends to promote consumption. But a focus on its abstract properties, the properties it shares not only with other doughnuts but the broader set of things you find tempting, tends to promote self-control.
You might think of the challenge not as “eat this doughnut or not?” but “eat unhealthy food or not?”.
This is an application of what’s known as construal level theory to the problem of self-control. In general, construing things in more abstract terms tends to facilitate more rational thought and behaviour, possibly because it makes more salient the reasons why we want to exercise self-control in the first place.
It’s the effects of a pattern of eating doughnuts – not of eating a single doughnut – that we want to avoid, and these patterns and their effects are abstract properties. In contrast, the low-level properties of a temptation make salient the ways in which it’s immediately rewarding.
Relatedly, you can engage in the activity American psychiatrist, psychologist, and behavioural economist George Ainslie calls bundling choices.
When you bundle choices, you don’t see them as discrete episodes, unrelated to one another. Rather, you see your current choice as representative of a recurrent challenge.
You can bundle choices by regarding yourself not as choosing just how to act now, but rather as choosing how to act now and on every subsequent occasion. I might see my choice whether to eat a doughnut with my coffee as predictive of how I will act in similar situations in the future (whenever I go to the cafe, for instance), thereby bundling my current choice with my future, similar, choices.
Just like focusing on abstract properties, bundling helps people to make choices they’re less likely to regret later.
There’s some evidence that self-control is a limited resource: the more you use up, the less you have available for future challenges until the passage of time and rest restore your self-control capacities.
The third strategy you can employ to maintain your resolutions, then, is to restore your self-control relatively rapidly. Several things seem to help.
Eating sweet foods helps too, though that’s a problem if what you’re trying to control is your tendency to eat too much junk, especially since it turns out artificial sweeteners don’t help. One experiment showed that while subjects who drank sugar-sweetened milkshakes had their depleted self-control restored, milkshakes flavoured with artificial sweeteners didn’t help at all (despite the fact that people were at chance when it came to guessing whether their drink used sugar or not).
Why artificial sweeteners don’t restore self-control, but sugar does, is currently unknown. Fortunately, more recent research has shown that it’s not necessary to actually consume the sugar sweetened food to get the benefits: swishing a sweet drink around your mouth and then spitting it out is just as effective.
If self-control is a limited resource, then we can avoid expending it unnecessarily: we can save it until we need it. The fourth strategy for keeping our resolutions, more generally, is avoiding temptations. This seems, and is, obvious, but its importance may go unrecognised.
Perhaps people think willpower is more effective than it actually is. Or perhaps they fail to recognise it diminishes with use and across the day (consider how much more likely you are to eat sweets in the afternoon). So they don’t employ this strategy of avoiding temptation as often or as effectively as they might.
If you want to eat less chocolate, don’t buy the family size bar (or fall into the old two-for-the-price-of-one trap) and rely on your willpower to ensure you stick to just three squares tonight. When you’re tired, you might find it hard to stick to your resolve.
Better to buy a small bar: that way, the hassle of going out to buy more will probably be too great for you to give into your desire for another square of chocolate.
You can avoid temptation by choosing the lolly-free aisle at the supermarket; choosing a route home that doesn’t go past the pub; or the bakery, and so on. There’s evidence this kind of strategic approach to self-control is more effective than relying on willpower alone.
It takes planning to keep your resolution, but if it’s a worthwhile decision, it’ll be worth the effort.
This article is part of our series about New Year’s resolutions, A Fresh Start.
Neil Levy, Professor of Philosophy
New Year’s resolutions are set with the best of intentions. But they notoriously fail to translate into lasting behavioural changes.
The new gym membership falls into disuse come February; items forbidden from the new diet sneak back into the pantry by March. Even goals to work less and spend more time with friends and family seem to fall by the wayside almost as soon as the holiday break is over and the brimming email inbox beckons.
But recent psychological research highlights several reasons why these kinds of resolutions might actually work – as well as simple ways to set yourself up for success.
The fresh start effect
A series of recent studies supports the idea that the start of a new calendar year spurs initiation of activities related to self-improvement. They show Google searches for the term “diet”, gym attendance, and use of goal-support websites are highest in January and decline month by month over time.
Researchers doing the studies call it the “fresh start effect” – the idea that particular days and dates serve as temporal landmarks, much like physical landmarks serve as demarcations of important places. In the case of temporal landmarks, the demarcation is between a past self, who has perhaps failed to meet goals, and the present self, who has goal pursuit at their fingertips.
An additional set of studies, published recently in the journal Psychological Science by the same team, looked into this effect in more detail. In one experiment, participants asked to think about New Year’s Day as a meaningful day visited more websites related to goal-support (and spent more time browsing them) than those who were asked to think about it as an ordinary day.
Directly speaking to the idea that a temporal landmark mentally separates people from their past selves, another experiment in the series established that framing a character in a short story as experiencing a new beginning led participants to perceive that character as different from who they’d been in the past.
Importantly, that past/present differentiation statistically explained the effect of the new beginning on how much participants believed the character would pursue a previously unmet goal. In other words, the reason why goal pursuit flows from a new beginning is because of a perceived separation from past selves.
Another reason why temporal landmarks may work to promote goal pursuit is that they spur a search for meaning in life. Research from 2014 shows people whose ages end in the digit 9 (29, for instance or 39, and so on) report more desire for having a sense of meaning in life.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine that the end of the year (rather than a decade) might spur similar soul-searching. And that, in turn, can engender goals for self-improvement.
Effective New Year’s resolutions
There are several ways to set yourself up for success with your New Year’s resolution. Here are a few relatively easy, research-supported methods.
Let the calendar be your guide: the “fresh start” research discussed above shows a similar goal-boosting effect for the start of the month (with activity peaking at the 1st of the month and declining towards the 30th or 31st). It even works for the start of the week (with activity peaking on Monday and declining through to Sunday). And there’s also a boost around birthdays and national holidays.
Clearly, the calendar itself can help in re-committing to goals. From this view, “a case of the Mondays” could be the impetus to revisit the gym, shut off email in the evening, or trade spaghetti bolognese for salad.
Don’t go it alone: setting a goal with friends can be the setup for success. One research study found signing up for a weight-loss program with friends and having that social support reinforced over time resulted in an increase from 75% to 95% in course completion. It even resulted in an increase from 24% to 66% in weight-loss maintenance, compared to signing up alone and receiving treatment not focused on social support.
As you ring in the New Year, look around for those with whom you can set collective resolutions.
Set a range: Many people are tempted (or even told) to set a specific goal. But research suggests that setting a range for a goal (planning to lose five to ten kilograms) rather than a specific target (aiming to lose eight kilos) will likely be more effective.
In research where participants were given a bag of M&Ms and asked to eat as few as possible across 25 minutes, the average consumed five. But participants who set a range goal of how many M&Ms to eat (on average, between three and eight) rather than a specific number (on average, five) reported that their goal seemed simultaneously more challenging and more attainable.
They also felt more accomplishment at the end of the 25 minutes as well as more interested in pursuing the goal again. The researchers who did that study found similar effects across a range of contexts, including weight loss and spending money.
These tactics will help you leverage the “fresh start” of the New Year to get ahead. Let the rhythm of the calendar push you, find a buddy, and set a range for your resolution. Science will be on your side.
This is the first article in our series about New Year’s resolutions, A Fresh Start. Look out for more articles on the topic in the coming days.
Putting up a post on this Blog is hopefully an indication that I’m beginning to get back on track. This has been a particularly difficult period for me and I’m sure I’m not out of the woods just yet. I do feel I have turned a corner though and that is a very good think – I think.
To help me get back on track I’m actually taking a week off work from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day, returning the following day. I’m really looking forward to a week of sleep, rest and relaxation.