It’s officially 2016, which means we’re going to be hearing a lot about resolutions and goals over the next few days and weeks. Every new year brings with it promise of new opportunity, new beginnings, and new changes. It inspires in many people hope that, perhaps for the first time, things will change- things will be better, somehow, and you will be better. That’s why you tend to hear things like this:
“I’ll get healthier this year.”
“I’ll get more positive this year.”
“I’ll get more motivated this year.”
“I’ll get a gym membership/find a yoga studio/get a journal.”
And the intention behind these resolutions is great. It’s helping people get clear on just what it is they want to invite into their lives. But I think there is a more effective way to ensure that these goals will actually be fulfilled in the coming year, and more importantly, be translated on a greater scale to your life as a whole. The way these are phrased has an emphasis on the future. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to be forward-focused, but your brain, unfortunately, is easily confused.
In psychology, there is a concept called “temporal discounting”. What temporal discounting deals with is the relation between time and reward, and how the further away something is, the less importance or weight you’ll place on it.
An easy to understand example is that of the smoker; someone who is trying to quit smoking will have difficulty with the idea of skipping the next cigarette in their agenda, but will easily dismiss the difficulty of skipping one six months later. This is because we viscerally experience emotions in the present moment, but discount how deeply we will experience them in a few days, weeks, or months. It’s because of this that big life changes -or even simple habit changes- are put off over and over again.
It’s hard to imagine, if you’re struggling to shift to a healthy diet from one completely based on fast food that at lunch you’re not going to head to McDonalds and instead stay home and make a salad. But if I were to tell you that next Friday at 12:00 you’re going to do that, you’d probably think to yourself, “No big deal. I can do that.”
The problem is, by the time Friday rolls around, you are in that moment experiencing the same anxieties you had last week when imagining making that change to your routine. And the motivation to keep to the plan you set a week back is now waning to the point where achieving your goal is much more difficult, and even unlikely.
That’s temporal discounting.
So when we, like most people do, make resolutions like the ones listed above, we’re not setting ourselves up for optimal success. What we’re doing is satisfying ourselves in the present moment with the promise of a distant and greater future (one where we’re happier, healthier, and in greater control of ourselves and our actions), and not taking into account the fact that when the time to act rolls around, we’ll be feeling exactly as we did before we set the resolution- unchanged, unmotivated, unhappy.
New Year’s, unfortunately, particularly lends itself to the trap that is temporal discounting. We’re not talking about a goal we hope to achieve next Friday at noon, we’re talking about a goal we’d like to achieve over the next twelve months. That means when we say things like, “I’ll be healthier.” or “I’ll be happier.”, we are picturing ourselves 365 days from now as that person, and will feel less pressure to actually change our habits anytime soon with such a vague due-date.
Humans like routine, because it makes them feel good. When we have a routine, we don’t have to make active decisions. Writer Charles Duhigg discusses this in his book The Power of Habit, which I highly recommend. He describes what neuroscientists have discovered about habit and decision making: habit-making behaviors are made in the basal ganglia of the brain, whereas decisions are made in the prefrontal cortex. When decisions are made into routine habits, they move from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia, and we no longer have to be aware of the energy it takes to execute them. That’s why when you show up to your favorite restaurant and your usual is off the menu, it’s suddenly extremely difficult to pick something else.
Decision making is an exhaustive resource in your body. Scientists have discovered that we have a finite capacity for making active decisions in our pre-frontal cortex because, like every other muscle in our body, it gets tired with use. When we’re in our daily routine, it makes us feel good because it’s easy and unconscious. Our basal ganglia can roll through our day while we can focus on more pleasurable things: what music we want to play in the car, what what color shirt to put on, a tea or a coffee.
Leaving these routines means shifting back into the prefrontal cortex, which can feel absolutely exhausting. It’s a big reason as to why something as relaxing as a vacation can feel so draining- you’re forced to make simple decisions that you wouldn’t make otherwise more frequently and with more consequences. Where will I get my morning coffee? Will I get my workout in? Where should we go to lunch?
Forming new routines reacquires being in this more active portion of your brain; at least for awhile, until they can shift back to the basal ganglia.
Temporal discounting doesn’t take this into account- it doesn’t think that this process of shifting habits back to the prefrontal cortex will be as tiring as it really is. It believes that, because it is so far away, it was have all the reward with none of the effort. Because in the future you will be better, happier, and more in control, right?
To get around this phenomena, and create more effective, more educated goals, you need to focus on the here and now. You’re not going to get better in the next year, you’re going to be better. It’s not being put off until you reach a goal, it’s insisting that you begin an evolution towards that goal.
I’m a firm believer that “faking it til you make it” is a real thing, and that it should be rephrased as “faking it til you become it”.
You need to deal with who and where you are right now in order to change how you act and feel. Relying on a vague future-version-of-you will only mean that more time will pass with you stuck in your old, possibly toxic, habits already stored in your basal ganglia and no effort being made toward development. Forming new habits is hard, but having an understanding of how they work can ease this process. In the beginning, making new decisions- whether it’s what to make for breakfast or heading to the gym- will feel incredibly complex and taxing. But the more you do it and the more you create a routine around it, the easier it will become as it shifts back to the basal ganglia and out of the prefrontal cortex.
I love the quote, “It’s only effort until it’s routine.”
The New Year is a perfect time to develop more effective and more reliable goal-setting techniques, and to me, understanding the science of habit-making is the missing link between having a goal and actually achieving it.