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New Year's Resolution Revisited

By Asrar Chowdhury

Before you make a New Year's resolution for 2014, revisit the one you made for 2013. Did it work? If it did, then you're in a minority group. Most New Year's resolutions don't work out.
Roger Buehler asked final year students to declare two submission dates for their theses: a 'good' and a 'worst' date. Only 30 percent finished within the 'good' date. On average, students took 22 days more than their anticipated 'good' date. Some finished seven days after their 'worst' date. Conclusion: more than two thirds failed their 'good' date. This Canadian example is not unique. In Bangladesh, every year, the NBR extends tax-return dates more than once. Still some people fail to make it even on the 'final' final date. In 1979, Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics) and Amos Tversky first identified this psychological bias as the “Planning Fallacy”. This is a bias that underestimates cost components of future actions and overestimates their benefits. We dearly want the harvest, but under-calculate costs towards the harvest.
With New Year's resolutions, we tend to fall in the “Planning Fallacy” trap. There is a time lag between sowing the seed (making the resolution) and reaping the harvest. This time lag requires planning. This planning requires willpower (mental strength). In 1998, Roy Baumeister found that willpower is like a battery that can drain out if exposed to harsh conditions.
Two groups were put in two different rooms. The aroma of chocolate biscuits baking fresh in an oven filled both rooms. In room 1 nobody was allowed to eat the chocolate biscuits, but was free to eat as many radishes as they liked. In room 2 anybody could eat as many chocolate biscuits as they liked. After some time, the two groups were asked to solve math problems. The group in room 1 gave up much earlier than the group in room 2. Room 1 had drained out their willpower battery resisting the temptation of the chocolate biscuits.
Baumeister further showed willpower is connected to the glucose in the bloodstream. People may become irritable when exposed to cold weather. Why? The immune system uses up its stock of glucose. This tends to make people impatient. Lab experiments show willpower can be increased in the short-term with a quick dose of sugar. What about the longer term?

In another experiment, Baumeister showed willpower can be maintained by exercising the 'willpower muscle'. Students were required to record their eating, exercise regularly, speak and write in full sentences (not use emoticons). After several weeks, the students were resisting their ego-depletion. They showed greater willpower to control their lives. They ate at regular intervals, watched less television, and studied more. Conclusion: the more organised (focused) one is over a long period, the higher the possibility of achieving a goal.
Now ask what went wrong with the 2013 New Year's resolution. Your willpower battery probably ran out of steam or was not properly recharged. Wait. What about the “Planning Fallacy”? Like all harvests, New Year's resolutions are also prone to unpredictable weather. How do you tackle that? Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 bestseller “Thinking, Fast and Slow” referred to Gary Klein's 'Pre-mortem'. It's simple and intuitive. Imagine it is December 2014. The 2013 New Year's resolution was implemented. The outcome was a disaster. Now take a few minutes and write a paragraph working your way from December 2014 back to December 2013. Evidence suggests this will make you think with more clarity before you finally commit to a New Year's resolution or any major decision as an individual or as a group.
Having revisited a New Year's resolution, it is important not to forget your health and happiness. Being in good health and being happy in what you're doing are worth more than many things in life. Wishing you all good health and happiness in 2014 and beyond.

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Published: 12:00 am Thursday, December 26, 2013

Last modified: 10:05 pm Thursday, December 26, 2013

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