Man, am I glad it’s a new year. I need a re-boot. And as I contemplated my resolutions for 2012, I reached out to Kelly McGonigal for some guidance.

Kelly is a Stanford lecturer and author of the terrific new book, The Willpower Instinct (Buy it at Amazon,, or IndieBound) that explores the psychology, economics, and neuroscience of self-control and that offers some compelling (and counter-intuitive) advice.

Here’s our short interview:

You say that instead of making a New Year’s resolution, we should instead pledge not to change something in our lives. Why?

Most people make a fundamental mistake when thinking about their future choices. We wrongly but persistently expect to make different decisions tomorrow than we do today.

I’ll skip the gym today, but I’m sure I’ll go tomorrow. I’ll put this on my credit card today, but no more shopping for a month. I don’t want to get started on the project now, but I’ll tackle it first thing in the morning. The more people have faith in their futures selves, the more likely they are to indulge today. In fact, just knowing you’ll have the chance to choose again tomorrow increases the chance you’ll choose habit or vice today.

Behavioral economics provides an interesting solution. When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself.

What do you mean by “variability?”

Take, for example, a smoker who wants to quit but can’t. The typical approach is to set a goal to smoke fewer cigarettes – or even quite out right. But imagine instead that the smoker simply tries to smoke the same number of cigarettes every day. Research shows that they will gradually decrease their overall smoking– even when they are explicitly told not to try to smoke less.

Hmmm. How does that work?

They are deprived of the usual cognitive crutch of pretending that tomorrow will be different. Every cigarette becomes not just one more smoked today, but one more smoked tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. For someone who really wants to quit, this is exactly the reality check that makes change possible.

So what do we say to ourselves in the moment of temptation to give ourselves that reality check?

Force yourself to view every individual choice as a commitment to all future choices. So instead of asking, “Do I want to eat this candy bar now?” (while lying to yourself that you won’t eat another candy bar all week), ask yourself, “Do I want the consequences of eating a candy bar every afternoon for the next year?” When tempted to procrastinate, don’t ask yourself “Would I rather do this today or tomorrow?” Instead, ask “Do I want the consequences of always putting this off until tomorrow?”

Okay. So what you are you resolving not to change this year?

Over the years, I’ve made a number of no-change resolutions that have stuck, including exercising every day (instead of taking the consequences of not exercising every day). So I know it works! This year I’m aiming to reduce variability in my sleep. I’ve been an inconsistent sleeper all my life with a lot of temptations to both stay up and sleep in. There’s fascinating research coming out about the physical and mental health benefits of not just getting enough sleep, but keeping a predictable sleep schedule. People should feel free to email me at 2 AM or check my Twitter feed timestamp so to see I’m keeping my word.

11 Responses to “How to make a New Year’s

  1. Excellent. I am totally committed to eating four chocolate chip cookies daily. Let’s see how this turns out 🙂

    Interesting suggestions, many of which seem so counter-intuitive. The mind is a fascinating minefield of possibility. Off to order the book.

  2. Matteo Becchi says:

    Sounds like a Jedi Mind Trick… I like it!

    Will try the daily exercise non-resolution myself.

    Happy new year!

  3. Sounds like a great read….just reading the Happiness Project which is also a great way to start the New Year and resonated in Gretchen Rubin’s opening lines “I always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations”.

    Self control was examined in the University of Otago childhood study which has followed 1000 babies born in 1972 and 73 and amazingly still had 96% participation and contact with cohorts at age 32 and maintains high contact today. Here’s the link to the Dunedin study

    The study found a correlation between self control at ages 3-5 and adult outcomes of health, wealth, criminal activity, substance abuse and other factors. Here is the full text article on the findings regarding childhood levels of self control…

  4. Reducing variability is totally the way to go. After years of trying to exercise three times a week, I’ve been able to keep the commitment to exercise every day, so much better than the world where I could always go to the gym tomorrow, instead of today. I think my reduction in variability will be to close my day with exactly 25 items in my in-box. Rather than trying for a once-a-week in-box zero. Maybe I’ll see in-box zero more often this year! Thanks for the ideas.

  5. Emma says:

    Thanks for those links Andrea. I’m interested in the study regarding smoking – anyone have a link to that?

  6. This is excellent insight that I can really put to work. Very useful. Thanks a million, Dan and Kelly!

  7. Randy says:

    2011 Book of the Year – Success by Halvorson

    2012 Book of the Year (candidate) – The Willpower Instinct – I have two copies and it’s really quite impressive. Very clear, strong, and accessible. A book for the highly introspective and directly demands the reader to be a scientist for change and to challenge the assertions offered.

  8. Dave Freeman says:

    Great thoughts Dan. Interesting stuff. Coincidentally I just finished reading Peter Bregman’s article. It also included some good distinctions between Motivation vs. Application. I tend to get stuck on that as well. Article is linked below.

    Your Problem Isn’t Motivation

  9. Georgina Dirker says:

    Sounds like a great idea, I am going to ask ‘ how long am I willing to accept the consequences of not studying my degree each night after work’ Oh, that sounds quite a frightening prospect – hope it works, degree here I come!

  10. bfuruta says:

    Dan, thanks for bringing this book to our attention. Like Kelly said about her course, this could be life-changing for many.

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