Why new year’s resolution don’t work

Source: The art of thinking clearly – ROLF DOBELLI

– PROCRASTINATION – 

A friend has tried to quit smoking every day for the past ten years. Each cigarette is his last. And me? My tax returns haven been lying on my desk for six months, waiting to be completed. I haven’t yet given up hope that they will themselves in.

Procrastination is the tendency to delay unpleasant but important acts: the arduous trek to the gym, switching to a cheaper insurance policy, writing thank-you letters. Even new year’s resolutions won’t help you here.

Procrastination is idiotic because no project completes itself. We know that these tasks are beneficial, so why do  we keep pushing them on the back burner? Because of the time lapse between sowing and reaping. To bridge it requires a high degree of mental energy, as psychologist Roy Baumeister demonstrated in a clever experiment.

He put students in front of an oven in which chocolate cookies were baking. Their delicious scent wafted around the room. He then placed a bowl filled with radishes by the oven and told the students that they could eat as many of these as they wanted, but the cookies were strictly out of bounds. He then left the students alone in the room for thirty minutes. Students in a second group were allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. Afterward, both groups had to solve a tough maths problem. The students who were forbidden to eat any cookies gave up on the math problem twice as fast as those who were allowed to gorge freely on cookies. The period of self control had drained their mental energy – or willpower – which they now needed to solve the problem. Willpower is like a battery, at least in the short term. If it is depleted, future challenges will falter.

This is a fundamental insight. Self control is not available around the clock. It needs time to refuel. The good news: to achieve this, all you need to do is refill your blood sugar and kick back and relax.

Though eating enough and giving yourself breaks is important, the next necessary condition is employing an array of tricks to keep you on the straight and narrow. This includes eliminating distractions. When I write a novel, I turn off my Internet access. It’s just too enticing to go online when I reach a knotty part. The most effective trick, however, is to set deadlines. Psychologist Dan Ariely found that dates stipulated by external authorities – for example a teacher or the IRS – work best. Self imposed deadlines will work only if the task is broken down step by step, with each part assigned its own due date. For this reason, nebulous new year’s resolutions are doomed to fail.

So get over yourself. Procrastination is irrational, but human. To fight it, use a combined approach. This is how my neighbour managed to write her doctoral thesis in three months: she rented a tiny room with neither telephone nor Internet connection. She set three dates, one for each part of the paper. She told anyone who would listen about these deadlines and even printed them on the back of her business cards. This way, she transformed personal deadlines into public commitments. At lunchtime and in the evenings, she refuelled here batteries by reading fashion magazines and sleep a lot.

The Art of Thinking Clearly


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