The potential to harness fresh starts is underutilized. When we hope to change, we have an opportunity to try reshaping our environment to help us disrupt old routines and ways of thinking.
This could be as simple as finding a new coffee shop to work in or a new gym. Can you change your physical circumstances (or help your employees change theirs)? Moving to a new home or office might be impractical, but working at a café or changing some of your other routines could be enough to make a difference. Or is there anything you can do to reset the way you’re tracking success?
Harnessing fresh start also works with time periods. Is there an upcoming date that could represent a clean break with the past? It could be a birthday, the start of summer, or even just a Monday.
Whatever it is, we should be looking for opportunities to capitalize on our life changes, to reevaluate what matters most to us. Whether it’s an illness, a promotion, or a move to another town, it could offer just the disruption needed to turn your life around.
Although fresh starts can jolt you into positive change, they can also interrupt you when you’re on a roll, reversing your progress, so pleases beware.
Fresh starts are great for helping us take the initiative to begin pursuing a tough goal. But they can prevent us from pursuing it wisely if we don’t take into account other obstacles, such as present bias. If the thought of going running at 5:00 a.m. makes you want to gag in October, it will probably still be unappealing when you ring in the New Year.
Doing the “right” thing is often unsatisfying in the short-term. You know you should take the stairs, but you’re tired, and the escalator beckons. You know you should focus on important tasks at work but scrolling through social media is more fun. You mean to keep your temper in check but yelling at an irritating colleague is more satisfying.
Economists call this tendency to favor instantly gratifying temptations over larger long-term rewards “present bias,” though its common name is “impulsivity,” and it’s unfortunately universal.
Rather than believing we’ll be able to “just do it” (as Nike implores us), we can make more progress if we recognize that we struggle to do what’s distasteful in the moment and look for ways to make those activities sweeter. In other words, when goal pursuit is made instantly gratifying by adding “an element of fun,” present bias can be overcome.
One way to do that is what Katy refers to as temptation bundling. Temptation bundling entails allowing yourself to engage in a guilty pleasure (such as binge-watching TV) only when pursuing a virtuous or valuable activity that you tend to dread (such as exercise). Temptation bundling solves two problems at once. It can help reduce overindulgence in temptations and increase time spent on activities that serve your long-term goals.
Gamification is yet another way to make goal pursuit instantly gratifying. It involves making something that isn’t a game feel more engaging and less monotonous by adding gamelike features such as symbolic rewards, a sense of competition, and leaderboards. Gamification works when players “buy in” to the game. It can backfire if players feel the game is being imposed on them.
When it comes to preventing procrastination, dangling a carrot is just one option; we can also use the stick. That is, we can see temptation coming a mile away and take steps to prevent our bad impulses from getting the best of us. An effective solution to this problem is to anticipate temptation and create constraints (“commitment devices”) that disrupt this cycle.
Whenever you do something that reduces your own freedoms in the service of a greater goal, you’re using a commitment device. Telling your boss you’ll finish an optional report by a certain date is a commitment device to get that work done. A traditional piggy bank—the ceramic kind that you have to break open if you want to access the money inside—is a commitment device that makes it ever-so-slightly harder to dip into your savings. Stocking your kitchen with small plates is a commitment device to help you eat smaller portions.
Naturally, there are a wide range of costs we can impose on ourselves, or that others can impose on us, to help us achieve our goals. These range from soft penalties, such as announcing our goals or deadlines publicly so we’ll suffer humiliation if we miss them, to hard penalties, such as having to hand over cash should we fail. There are also soft restrictions we can self-impose, such as eating from a smaller plate or using a piggy banks, and hard restrictions, such as putting our money in a locked savings account or accepting gym-only access to your iPod.
Signing a pledge is a particularly soft form of commitment because the penalty is simply the guilt and discomfort you’ll feel if you break your word, to others or yourself. Being at odds with yourself, which psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,”. Soft commitments are surprisingly effective, though not as effective as “hard” commitments, which involve more tangible penalties or restrictions.
Making smaller, more frequent commitments is more effective than making larger, less frequent ones, even when they amount to the same commitment (like saving 5 dollars a day as opposed to 1,825 dollars a year).
Sometimes we flake out and fail to follow through on our intentions. Flake out has many causes, including laziness, distraction, and forgetting. Fortunately, forgetting may be the easiest of these obstacles to overcome.
One known technique to overcome forgetting is to use timely reminders, which prompt you to do something right before you’re meant to do it, can effectively combat forgetting. Obviously, reminders that aren’t as timely have far smaller benefits.
Forming cue-based plans is another way to combat forgetting. These plans link a plan of action with a cue and take the form “When ___ happens, I’ll do ___.” Cues can be anything that triggers your memory, from a specific time or location to an object you expect to encounter. An example of a cue-based plan is, “Whenever I get a raise, I’ll increase my monthly retirement savings contribution.” The more distinctive the cue, the more likely it is to trigger recall.
That said, there is one important caveat to cue-based planning. Research has shown that you can overdo it on cue-based planning. Having too many plans can overwhelm us. If we form multiple cue-based plans for competing goals (to exercise more and to learn a foreign language and to get a promotion and to renovate the kitchen), we’re forced to face the fact that doing everything required to succeed will be really tough. And this leads our commitment to dwindle, making it harder to achieve even one of our goals.
Laziness isn’t always a vice. Instead of seeing our inherent laziness as a bug, try to regard it as a feature with many upsides. Sure, it can unquestionably get in the way of behavior change but it also prevents us from wasting oodles of time and energy. As Herbert Simon, the 1978 Nobel laureate in economics, points out in his seminal book Administrative Behavior, taking the path of least resistance is exactly what the world’s best computer programs do when solving problems, in order to avoid using costly processing power.
When behavioral scientists talk about habits, they often liken them to shortcuts. If you’re a coffee drinker, think back to the first time you used a new coffee maker. It presumably required your full attention and took a bit of time as you figured out exactly where to pour the water and how many scoops of grinds you needed. But once you had done it morning after morning, it became habitual, and you could brew your morning joe quickly and without thinking
In an ideal world, you would also put good decisions on autopilot. Once a good habit is successfully ingrained in your life, wise decisions become mindless. Then your tendency to take the path of least resistance helps you achieve your goals instead of standing in your way. You may not have thought about drilling behaviors like flossing and healthy eating the way you’d drill your skills as a pianist or firefighter, but it turns out that’s just what you should do.
Too much rigidity is the enemy of a good habit. By allowing for flexibility in your routines, your autopilot can become flexible, too. You will find you respond consistently even under unideal circumstances. Overall, you’ll build “stickier,” more lasting habits.
Instead of rigidity, try to aim for streaks. Anything more than a short lapse in a behavior you hope to make habitual (say, multiple missed visits to the gym, as opposed to just one) can keep a new habit from forming or disrupt an existing one. Piggybacking new habits on old ones can also help with habit formation. Link whatever you hope to start doing regularly (such as push-ups or eating fruit) with something you already do habitually (such as drinking a morning cup of coffee or leaving for work).
No one can make a major breakthrough without experiencing setbacks along the way—the decisive factor is how we respond. By surrounding ourselves with supporters, putting ourselves in the position of advice givers, letting ourselves off the hook for small failures, and recognizing that setbacks help us grow, we can overcome self-doubt. As the saying goes, “Believe you can, and you’re halfway there.”
When we don’t believe we have the capacity to change, we don’t make as much progress changing. One study demonstrated that when trying to lose weight, people who report more confidence in their ability to change their eating and exercise habits are more successful. Another study similarly showed that science and engineering undergraduates with higher self-efficacy earn higher grades and are less likely to drop out of their majors.
Of course, some aspirations really are out of reach for most people, such as becoming the next Toni Morrison, Marie Curie, or Bill Gates. But many of us stumble in pursuit of far more realistic goals, such as learning a foreign language or getting in shape. Understanding what gives us the confidence to push forward in the face of discouragement, and how we can instill that confidence in other people, can be important for anyone hoping to change and help others do the same.
Although overconfidence can be an issue, researchers suspect that so many of us are overconfident because believing in yourself is absolutely critical when you pursue ambitious goals. Evolutionarily speaking, a little excess confidence may, on average, produce better results. When interviewing two job candidates who have identical résumés, both pointing toward average skills, would you be more likely to hire the person who conveys that they expect to be average or the candidate who says they expect to excel? The answer is obvious. We all want the person who exudes confidence.
Giving people unsolicited advice can undermine their confidence. But asking them to give advice builds confidence and helps them think through strategies for achieving their goals. Giving advice can also help us act, because it can feel hypocritical not to do the things we advise other people to do.
Consider forming advice clubs with friends or colleagues attempting to achieve similar goals or consider becoming a mentor to someone. By giving (solicited) feedback to others, you can boost your confidence and unearth helpful ideas for making progress in your own life.
Your decisions are heavily influenced by the norms in your peer group, so it’s important to be in good company when you hope to achieve big goals, and it can be harmful to have peers who are low achievers. The closer you are to someone, and the more their situation resembles your own, the more likely you are to be influenced by their behavior.
Although some peer influence will rub off on you effortlessly, you can supercharge positive peer effects deliberately. Do this by watching peers who have managed to achieve whatever goal you hope to achieve and then copying and pasting their methods.
Social forces can be powerful drivers of behavior change, helping us overcome self-doubt by highlighting what lots of others in the same position have managed to do. But what if a good behavior isn’t all that popular? What if most people in your workplace aren’t recycling, mentoring their peers, adhering to safety protocols, or doing whatever it is you’d like to help them (and yourself) do more consistently?
All hope is not lost. Studies have shown that if a behavior is merely trending upward, rather than widely popular, sharing information about that trend can win people over. If you find out that just 20 percent of your colleagues are enrolled in a new computer programming boot camp, you might hesitate, but if you discover that enrollment has doubled since last year, you’ll have a different perspective. An upward trend tells people that this counternormative behavior will eventually become the thing “everyone” is doing.
Goals Are Just Means To An End
Hitting the gym is just one way of getting in shape. If improving your fitness is your broader aim, there are other ways to achieve it. You could use a walking desk at work, join a basketball team, add a brisk stroll to your lunch break, change your commute, or exercise at home with an app. Maybe working out at the gym isn’t the best path to fitness for you, but another path could put success within reach.
If you’ve tried really hard to achieve a goal using all of the wizardry that you can muster but still aren’t seeing results, it’s a good time to consider new ways to reach the same end and give yourself a fresh start. Not only do the obstacles that you face require tailored solutions; you need tailored goals that acknowledge and match your strengths and weaknesses. Pain points are different for every person—a goal that feels like a chore for one person can be a pleasure for someone else,
With a tailored approach that suits you and your circumstances, change is within your grasp.