A normal day in our life might look like this: The alarm clock buzzes. We hit snooze twice and steal another 16 minutes. As we get into the office, yesterday’s work crisis weighs heavily on our mind, but instead we log in and check Facebook for a while. After that, we dip in and out of meetings, chase our inbox, and start on a project that is due in 48 hours. And at 7:15, right before walking out the door, 25 minutes later than planned, we grab a sugar cookie from the communal jar to accompany us on the drive home.
A version of this routine is likely to be part of our grim reality most days, but there is one very important exception. On Jan. 1 many of us make all kinds of promises that “starting tomorrow, things are going to be different.” There is the old (2013 self) and the new (2014 self), and Jan. 1 is an opportunity to welcome the new, improved self in. As the New Year starts, we say to ourselves that the new, 2014 self will be different. We’re confident that from now on we won’t hit snooze, we’ll stop procrastinating and for sure we won’t mindlessly eat unhealthy snacks.
This kind of self-resolve is the kind of magic that keeps mankind moving. Unfortunately, come mid-January, the shiny “new self” doesn’t feel as new. After a few weeks of crashing against reality and old habit, the new self is bruised and sainted.
Given these challenges, how can we take advantage of our good intentions on Jan. 1 and make them work for us throughout the year, or at least for longer than they would naturally last?
One simple answer is to take advantage of these moments of clarity at the start of the New Year and take actions that would commit us to making good decisions in the future. Much like Ulysses and the sirens, this way, even if our future will tempt us to misbehave, we will not be able to act on our temptations.
Where in our modern life could the Ulysses-style “tying ourselves to the mast” help? Here are a few ideas that might help you make Jan. 1, 2014, different from Jan. 1 of years past:
- Order an annual subscription to the Fruit Guy. By committing to a weekly service that delivers fresh fruit, we make having healthy food a reality. This approach has the added sweet side effect of urgency. Every week when the fruit is delivered, we know all too well that if we fail to consume the fruit in the next week, more of it will show up and we will have to waste the unused fruit. And if you like real adventures, what about a more extreme version of this? A weekly subscription to the Kale Guy?
- Give a good friend the ability to take some money from your bank account if you break your diet. Tell this friend that if he sees you eating something unhealthy, he should withdraw a specified amount of money from your checking account and spend it. And if you find that this is not sufficiently painful, either make the amount larger, or make the deal with someone you don’t like that much (maybe your boss).
- Set up an automatic monthly transfer from your checking account into a savings account. This quick, onetime decision to transfer money will help you spend within your budget, while also helping your future financial security.
- Working out every day takes a lot of ongoing willpower. Joining a gym is nice but still requires the daily decision to go to the gym. Instead, a better approach is to set up recurring weekly “meetings” with friends or co-workers for workouts. This kind of social obligation is likely to hold you, and them, accountable to show up, and once you have shown up, you might as well start sweating.
- Go to the nearby shelter and get a dog. Once you make this quick onetime decision, you are going to go for daily walks for the next decade.
Doing all of these things would make Jan. 1 a very busy day. But, by doing these things when the desire to start fresh is still strong in our mind, there is a much better chance that our good intentions will keep serving us for the better part of 2014.
Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of Predictably Irrational and, most recently, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves. Kristen Berman is the founder of Irrational Labs, a not-for-profit that attempts to get people to behave irrationally, but in better ways.