This new year, many of us have made several resolutions to change our way of living. But the chances of adhering to those are very low. People lose control of their behaviours in a wide variety of circumstances. Studies have shown that these self-regulatory failures are an important cause of several societal problems like obesity, addictions, poor financial decisions, etc. It has been estimated that 40% of deaths can be attributed to poor self-regulation.
Helping individuals be steadfast in their resolutions could be the biggest of all behaviour change initiatives.
Why does self-regulation fail? Many of the goals we keep are to avoid short-term benefits for much more significant larger gains—avoid the pleasure of that chocolate for a trimmer, healthier you. Behavioural economics reminds us that we prefer less valuable immediate rewards over more valuable long-term goals. So the allure of an extra hour under the blanket on a cold morning will always be more attractive than the long-term health benefits of a morning walk.
Cognitive scientists have figured out that the brain needs to deploy several cognitive controls to make sure that one does not lapse into short-term-oriented behaviours. As with any brain activity, this cognitive control too expends brain’s energy. There are, of course, limits to the energy expended by the brain. Therefore, regulating one’s behaviour over an extended period of time impairs subsequent attempts at resisting the temptations. A person might hold off his cravings right through his shopping trip and only to give into the strategically placed tempting chocolate display right at the cash counter.
Most self-regulation failures begin with what psychologist Ellen Hendriksen called self-sabotage: relatively small actions, just one visit to the fridge, by the individual. A person might have withstood the temptation for something for a long time. The real problem begins when he fails the first time. Studies have shown that dieters who violated once will have a tendency to eat more after the violation. Minor binges snowball into full-blown binges.
When people are in a bad mood, more so when having a negative view of the self, they have the highest tendency to disregard inhibitions that deter consumption of unwanted food or drugs.
So there are many reasons that contribute to one’s failure to self-regulate. What could be done to improve an individual’s ability to manage his behaviour?
In her book Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance, Angela Duckworth points out that the ability to have a focused persistence towards one’s goals and commitments might be one of the most important qualities of any successful person. According to Duckworth, the goals we choose must be of deep interest to us. No doubt, many of our goals we set might have emanated from an external source: our doctor, our boss, etc. One needs to find ways not only to internalize those goals but fall in love with it over a point of time.
Studies by Paul O’Keefe and Lisa Linnenbrink Garcia have shown that there are two central components that build interest in anything. Affect and value. Affect relates to the emotional interest in the goal and the feelings one experiences when one is involved in the pursuit of that goal. Value relates to the personal interest in the goal and the importance of the goal in one’s life and how it helps build one’s identity. When both emotional interest and personal interest are high, attention to the task becomes more focused and determined.
To increase the emotional benefits of an activity one must change the way one experiences it. We need to turn that activity into a game—have fun doing it. Only then will we be able to muster the grit to spend long hours doing an activity. For example, the morning walk should not be about the tedious walk around the park. It could be about meeting interesting new people during the walk or counting the number of various bird songs one listened to during the walk.
One significant benefit about emotional high is that it provides instant positive feedback. While the health benefits one accrues from a morning walk might take a long time to reflect, the joy of meeting several friends during the morning walk is something one experiences every day. This immediate emotional benefit will be a significant driver to develop a persistent habit in a person.
Every goal you set should have a larger meaning. Duckworth has found that the more the activity one indulges in is meaningful for others, improves the well being of others, the more one’s own commitment to it will increase. If the morning walks were reframed as an activity to provide a safe and secure future for one’s family and not as an activity to improve an individual’s health, the motivation to get out in the morning for a walk will be higher. There are chief executive officers who exercise regularly to make sure that bad health does not become a concern for shareholders.
One can persevere with any goal, only if one begins with high hope. One should have the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. One should believe that one’s efforts can improve the future. Everyday, each small activity we undertake towards a goal, should be seen as making a small step towards a brighter future.
New Year resolutions are a great behaviour change initiative by individuals. Even small improvements can go a long way in making our world a better place to live.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.
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