The power of a fresh start
Plus, the downside of getting more done
“Willpower is not actually, we have found, the best way to achieve our goals and to change our behavior.” —Wendy Wood
Fresh starts. You don’t need to wait for the new year to start a new habit, but there’s a good reason we do: The fresh start effect. “We think of life in chapters,” psychologist Katy Milkman says. “At those break points, including the start of a new year, we feel like we’re further from our past self.” This temporal distance allows us to see our past failures almost as the failures of a different person. So when we make resolutions, it really does feel like a “new you” is setting the goal. In the scheme of things, January 1st may just be any other day, but it’s a good excuse to take advantage of the fresh start effect and set some resolutions. Of course, it’s one thing to set goals and quite another to stick with them. To keep your resolutions this year, try something Milkman calls “temptation building.” Link your aspirational habit to an existing habit that you already enjoy. In Milkman’s case, it was listening to audiobooks: She stuck to her resolution of working out more often by only allowing herself to listen to The Hunger Games at the gym. “So time is flying while I'm there,” Milkman says. “I'm totally engrossed in the novel. I don't even notice the pain of the workout. And then I'm done.”
Take your time. Goals are great, but in our endless effort to get things done, our desire for productivity can sometimes backfire. At Scientific American, psychologists David Rosenbaum and Edward Wasserman explore the problem of “pre-crastination.” That is, “the inclination to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later.” Rosenbaum and colleagues explored this idea in a study where they asked people to carry one of two buckets. One bucket was on the left side of a walkway; the other on the right. They told people to choose whichever bucket seemed easier, then carry it to the end of the walkway. “We expected students to choose the bucket closer to the end because it would have to be carried a shorter distance,” the researchers write. “Surprisingly, they preferred the bucket closer to the starting point, actually carrying it farther.” When asked why they made this decision, most people said something along the lines of, “I wanted to get the task done as soon as possible.” The problem, of course, was that the bucket was actually farther away from the end point, so the volunteers made the task harder and more time-consuming for themselves. In our quest to get stuff done, we may not always make the best decisions, the researchers explain. It feels good to complete a task, but pre-crastinating can lead to hasty decisions — and more work in the long run. As you consider your resolutions for the new year, this might be good to keep in mind. You’ve heard the old adage: slow and steady wins the race. But maybe not this slow.
Play and work may have more in common than we think. Both involve painstaking effort and repetitive tasks. Yet many people pay money to do one set of activities and resent doing the other. In this episode, what the world of work can learn from the psychology of games. Listen to learn more.
ON THE HIDDEN BRAIN PODCAST
Dec 27: At the beginning of the year, many of us make resolutions for the months to come. We resolve to work out more, procrastinate less, or save more money. Though some people stick with these aspirations, many of us fall short. This week, psychologist Wendy Wood shares what researchers have found about how to build good habits — and break bad ones.
Jan 3: When you’re at the grocery store, do you ever wonder why some items are shelved at eye level, and others are either high up, or near the floor? This week, we explore the invisible architecture that shapes our choices.
ON THE MY UNSUNG HERO PODCAST
Dec 30: In 1985, Vanessa and her husband were stranded in Alaska when a kind stranger gave them a ride and a place to stay. That summer, Vanessa started a new life.
Forwards I am heavy. Backwards I am not. What am I?
LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE
What is special about the following words: revive, banana, grammar, voodoo, assess, potato, dresser, uneven?
The answer: Take the first letter of each word and place it at the end to spell the same word backwards.
FROM THE TWITTERATI…
A MOMENT OF JOY
We’ll have what he’s having.
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