Grassroots Commentary


Bill Franklin · Jan. 2, 2014

It’s that time again.

Time to change those things we don’t like about ourselves in the annual ritual called New Year’s resolutions. Time to surrender to the allure of every January 1: a new year, a new beginning, potent with fresh-startism.

The compulsion to do a self-makeover is stronger on January 1 than any other time of the year (who ever heard of making resolutions on June 12?) Despite the fact that, as the popular aphorism goes, every day is the beginning of the rest of your life, a fresh start, and a second chance, January 1 is different – or seems so.

The hope and change euphoria of New Year’s resolutions does not admit that nine in ten of them will fail according to a survey conducted a couple of years ago, and most of those failures occur quickly – like within a month. So if one of your resolutions is to hit the gym and get the old bod in shape, my suggestion would be to buy the weekly or monthly plan, not the enticingly-priced annual plan which gives “two months of ‘free’ membership.” Those clever gym owner guys know that most of the people who sign up in January won’t be there at year-end; in fact most won’t be there after Valentine’s Day, which is why they price annual memberships so attractively.

I’ve belonged to two gym clubs at different times over the past 25 years and I always hated January. Workout times lengthened because oversold memberships overwhelmed the capacity of the machines. My only solace was knowing that I only had to put up with it for a month. Most of the new members would be gone by then and workout times would return to normal. The gym owners knew the same thing. Don’t buy more machines; just put up with old member complaints for a month and this too shall pass.

If we used a product that failed as often as New Year’s resolutions, we’d stop using it and we’d tell all of our friends to avoid it. But we are convinced there’s a difference with resolutions. When products fail it’s the product’s fault; when resolutions fail, it’s our fault. Not enough willpower, the old scold looking back from the mirror tells us. Maybe more positive affirmations pasted around the house and office would have helped.

But changing the person you are is not a rational process. It’s an emotional process. And emotions can’t be controlled by force of will alone, at least not for long. Still, the temptation to try harder is compelling, all the while ignoring that the psychological “muscle” of willpower is like any other muscle. Pushed to the limit by having to resist one temptation after another now forbidden by a new resolution, it ultimately fails. And when we pursue too many New Year’s resolutions, the willpower muscle fails sooner.

The only way to deal with limited willpower is to realize that willpower is limited. Sounds obvious but apparently it isn’t. We can’t make up for limited willpower by trying harder. Trying harder assumes more effort will create more willpower. At the same time we don’t want to be limited by our limited willpower. So, how do we keep something that’s limited from limiting us? We avoid relying on it as much as possible. One way to avoid relying on willpower is to distract our focus away from whatever takes willpower to resist.

In his well-known book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, author Daniel Goleman cites the children’s marshmallow experiment developed by Walter Mischel at Columbia University. It was suspected that a child’s ability to delay immediate gratification was a precursor to success in later life as an adult. Mischel created the experiment to test his hypothesis.

A marshmallow was placed in front of each child in a group arranged around a table with the assurance that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow, they would be given another when the researcher returned. The researcher didn’t reenter the room for 20 minutes – an eternity for a child staring down temptation – during which time the behavior of the children was observed through non-transparent glass.

Some children surrendered to temptation almost immediately, others held out until they no longer could, and still others succeeded in holding out until the researcher reentered the room with their reward. The group was tracked longitudinally into their adult careers and it was found that the children who had been able to delay gratification later got better SAT scores, had fewer problems controlling their weight, and tended to have more career success than those who couldn’t delay gratification. Goleman labeled the ability to delay gratification “emotional intelligence” and concluded it was a better predictor of adult success than IQ.

Goleman’s conclusion is controversial because it’s unclear if success in life correlates with the ability to delay gratification or is caused by it. Correlation and causality are quite different. If a farmer observes that his rooster crows when the sun comes up, he might conclude (incorrectly) that the crowing rooster causes the sunrise. In fact there is no causality; they correlate by happening at the same time. Roosters crow during daytime also.

What is often ignored in reciting the Mischel research is the behavior of the children who “delayed” gratification. Some sang to themselves, others fiddled with their clothing, and still others put their heads in their hands or on the table top. In other words, they distracted themselves from the marshmallow. Quite possibly their willpower was no stronger than any of the other children. But they had somehow learned to distract themselves to avoid burning up their willpower reserve. In school they likely used that same strategy to distract themselves from the temptation to play, so they studied more. In their careers they distracted their attention from disruptive temptations, allowing them to advance faster. Their success was due less to the ability to delay gratification than a simple and repeatable secret: when life serves dessert, look at the salad bowl.

In other words, the seemingly strong-willed children learned to avoid as much as possible putting their willpower to the test – a practice they carried into successful adulthoods.

So why do we put ourselves through the annual ritual of making New Year’s resolutions, knowing from past years that our willpower to keep them will fail? Isn’t doing the same thing and expecting different results the definition of insanity? I think the answer lies in the ritual of New Year’s resolution-making itself. It fires us up and inoculates us against what the late Zig Ziglar called “stinkin’ thinkin’” – i.e. doing something positive makes us feel positive, if only temporarily. We ignore past failure and hope for the best one more time, just as an alcoholic believes he can take one drink.

Am I suggesting that we should give up making New Year’s resolutions because they fail in large proportion and do so fast? No. Self-examination and making an effort to change ourselves is preferable to doing neither. And research has shown that people who formalize their goals as resolutions will be more likely to achieve them than people who have the same goals and motivation but don’t formally commit to them. The keys to New Year’s resolution success are moderation and method.

Let me explain.

Typical resolutions might be “lose 50 pounds by the end of the year,” (after all, that’s less than a pound a week, a paltry 3,500 calories, just 500 per day) or “read 25 books this year” (just two a month) or “exercise three hours a week” (good grief, with 112 average waking hours per week, surely three can be spared!) However, a pound a week, a book every other week, and less than 3% of weekly available time for exercise is a rational defense of the resolution’s ease. The resolution’s accomplishment, especially if it’s radical change, requires dealing with emotions – the feelings needed for natural action – because that is where the resistance will come from. We do things we like to do because our feelings work with us to act naturally. We avoid things we don’t like because our feelings work against us because we have to act unnaturally.

A compelling argument could be made for the ease with which 500 calories could be eliminated from our daily intake either by avoidance or substitution. Yet 37% of Americans are obese, and for some ethnic groups, it’s over 50%. Deprivation never feels good.

A Huffington Post poll taken in October indicated that 28% of Americans haven’t read a book in the past year. A Pew Research poll taken a year ago indicated that the median number of books read by readers last year was 6. (I was surprised it was that many.) Despite the arguable ease with which 25 books could be read in a year, it’s four times the median number read. To make time for reading, something must be given up that’s more fun than reading. If it weren’t, we’d be reading.

Exercise trainers say 30 minutes of walking five days per week and ten push-ups from the knees three times weekly is sufficient to maintain body tone and weight (if combined with calorie management) for most age groups. Few people could argue that these requirements are Spartan. Yet the CDC says 80% of adults fail to get the weekly recommended amount of exercise.

Don’t forget that the person who is urging you to eat less, read more, and exercise is the same person who has a natural dislike for diets, reading, and exercise – a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the same skin. Good luck with that.

I’ve written previously in this blog that ObamaCare will fail primarily because it attempts too much change. A more sensible strategy would have been to string together lots of little changes which collectively would have amounted to major change. It would have taken longer, but it would have converted a sure failure into a possible success. Alas, that isn’t the political way. But it’s the way we achieve successful change in business – lots of little changes, a few at a time.

The same approach should be applied to New Year’s resolutions to improve their success. Don’t make a dozen resolutions. One or two is enough; more than three is too many. The object is to move the ball. In time, you’ll cross the goal line.

If you resolve to exercise five minutes a day, you’re more likely to do it than resolving to exercise 50 minutes, and you may find that once started you’ll not stop at five and may go for 50 minutes. But every day, regardless of how much or how little you walked the previous day, resolve to walk only five minutes.

Instead of resolving to read 25 books this year, resolve to read about 18 pages every day. Even the slowest readers can achieve that number in about 15 to 20 minutes. If you want, read half of the pages in the morning and half in the evening. But every day, regardless of how much or how little was read the previous day, resolve to read only 18 pages. Over the period of a year that will get you through about 25 books. But never think about 25 books. Think only about 18 pages. Cut this quota in half and you’ll still read twice the books read at the national median.

Most authors don’t sit down to write all day. While output varies from author to author, most resolve to accomplish a less frightening goal – like writing 500 words and hanging it up for the day. Books average 100,000 words, and at that pace the author produces a book in about 200 days – or, with weekends off, a book in ten months! Move the ball 500 words at a time and a book is produced every year.

Former wide receiver and now football commentator Cris Carter struggled with drugs and alcohol while he was with the Philadelphia Eagles until head coach Buddy Ryan cut him because of his addictions. The Minnesota Vikings claimed Carter off waiver in September 1990 for a $100 fee. He was a good player if he could conquer his substance abuse, so the Vikings management immediately put him in rehab. The team substance abuse counselor, Betty Triliegi, challenged Carter to go one week without drinking. Just one week. That challenge was made on September 19, 1990, and Carter has been sober since – one week at a time.

The Iditarod Race is a grueling 1,100 mile-long test of dogs and mushers through an Artic area beset by blizzards and temperatures that can fluctuate between 40 degrees above to 60 below zero. The musher and dogs go all day and rest at night or go all night and rest during the day – about 12 hours on and 12 off for the eight to ten day race. That is, until Susan Butcher came along. She changed the way the Iditarod is run today by introducing the four to six hour work-rest cycle. The dogs became less tired before they were rested and recovered their stamina quicker. Butcher’s short sprints were initially pooh-poohed by Iditarod vets (all men) who believed in “go for broke” daily goals before Butcher’s short cycle technique won four out of five consecutive races, proving small is better.

The lesson to be learned here is that New Year’s resolutions are more likely to be successful if they are few in number and they focus on process rather than outcomes. Like the children and the marshmallows, a focus on process distracts attention from the ultimate and often intimidating goal. And short cycles of process – 30 minutes here, five minutes there – are less likely to be resisted and combatted by procrastination or creative avoidance.

Plodding along in short process cycles will more often succeed in achieving the desired outcome than heroic long cycles because life by the inch is a cinch; life by the yard is hard.

So go ahead and make your New Year’s resolutions, and this year may the Force of good technique be with you!

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