Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work
A friend, a writer, someone who knows how to capture emotion in sentences—let’s call him an artist—writes modest books of about a hundred pages every seven years. His output is the equivalent of two lines of print per day. When asked about his miserable productivity, he says: “Researching is just so much more enjoyable than writing.” So he sits at his desk, surfing the Web for hours on end or immersed in the most abstruse books—all in the hope of hitting upon a magnificent, forgotten story. Once he has found suitable inspiration, he convinces himself that there is no point starting until he is in the “right mood.” Unfortunately, the right mood is a rare occurrence.
Another friend has tried to quit smoking every day for the past ten years. Each cigarette is his last. And me? My tax returns have been lying on my desk for six months, waiting to be completed. I haven’t yet given up hope that they will fill 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 onto 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 math 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 neighbor 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 refueled her batteries by reading fashion magazines and sleeping a lot.