On New Year’s Day, many of us will be waking up with a heavy head from the night before and thinking about what the year ahead may hold. We might well imagine that the coming year – after everything that has happened in 2020 – will be different. This will be the year that we finally get round to losing weight, running a marathon and learning a new language. This will be the year that our New Year’s Resolutions will stick.
But most of us will find that, by the start of February, we will have failed to follow through on our good intentions. We did eat more healthily for a few days, but it didn’t last beyond the second week of January. We did go for a couple of runs, but it didn’t amount to a sustained effort. And we never quite got round to signing up to those language lessons.
One of the main reasons why this happens with such predictability is that our present self has different preferences to our future self. Our future self enjoys healthy food, long runs and bike rides, and language lessons; but our present self prefers takeaways, leisurely strolls and Netflix.
The problem is that while our future self imagines what we will be doing next Monday (going to the gym), when Monday arrives it will be our present self making the decisions (watching TV).
The trick, then, to achieving your New Year’s Resolution is to reduce the cognitive gap between our future and present selves. Here we outline three ways in which you can do this, which I explore in more detail in the book I co-authored with my old colleague Rory Gallagher called Think Small:
(1) Make a Commitment and Write it Down
The simplest way of binding your future self to action is to create a commitment. The evidence suggests that the best way of doing this is to set yourself a clear goal, to write down that goal, and (ideally) to commit to achieving that goal. This can be as straightforward as writing it down, including the date by which you want to achieve it, and signing your name against it. And then putting this written commitment up somewhere where other people can see it.
(2) Get a Commitment Referee
You can turbocharge your commitment by getting someone else to help you stick to your goal. Behavioural scientists call these worthy individuals ‘commitment referees’, and the evidence suggests that having one on board makes it more likely you will stick to your goal and to enforce any rewards or punishments (see below). One important caveat is that your commitment referee should not be someone too close to you, or who has too strong an interest in the goal. If your partner likes sharing indulgent meals with you, for example, appointing them as your commitment referee might unwittingly undermine your dietary ambitions.
(3) Put in place an ‘Anti-Incentive’
You can reinforce your commitment and give the commitment referee a stronger remit by putting in place a reward should you succeed or (better still) to enforce an ‘anti-incentives’ should you fail. An anti-incentive is typically a donation to a cause that you hate with a passion (such as a political party or campaign that you vehemently oppose), and can be powerful even at low levels.
If you do all these three things together – create a commitment; get a commitment referee; and put an anti-incentive in place – you will be much more likely to achieve your goal this coming New Year. So on behalf of the Cognition Company, have a fulfilling and achievement-filled New Year!