I’ve resolved on New Year’s Eves of the past to exercise more, swear less, eat healthier, drink less, stay in closer touch with family and friends, spend less and save more for retirement, do more with the kids, finish the house we’re eternally renovating and of all things work harder. Thankfully, I’ve never smoked or I might have failed at that too.
The New Year’s resolution has to be one of the oddest of all traditions. Typically, holidays are times of celebration and family, but the tradition of the New Year’s resolution asks us to get deadly serious and make major decisions in our lives and then stick to them come hell or high interest rates. And because we’re making these decisions motivated by little more than tradition and latent guilt, New Year’s is the one holiday of the year that sets us up for failure.
Okay, say I’ve made that New Year’s resolution. Say I’ve resolved to finish that novel I’ve been pecking away at for years. What now? How do I deal with the refreshed guilt, the heavier burden? How do I actually get what I’ve decided I want? This is where Daniel Goldstein comes in. Daniel says he can help. You see, he studies decision-making. As the brains behind the blog Decision Science News and the Principal Research Scientist at Yahoo! Research (on leave from the London Business School), Daniel has a lot to say about making decisions and sticking to them.
For starters, I don’t think Daniel favours traditions like the New Year’s resolution, that annual exercise in futility, because we’re making decisions for the wrong reasons. But let’s set that aside for a minute because I’ve already resolved to finish that novel. Daniel says it’s not that my goal is unachievable, it’s more that factors will inevitably interfere with my self-discipline after I’ve made this promise to myself.
And a promise it is. My resolve to finish that novel is a contract between my present and my future self. To live up to that contract, I’m going to have to sacrifice some short-term fun for that long-term gain. Daniel’s a real killjoy and it’s not very Buddhist of him, all this concern about our future selves, but what he says makes perfect sense. If I’m going to write that novel, I’m going to have to sacrifice some things now to get to the future I imagine, one with a finished, published novel.
Because he works primarily on financial decision-making, Daniel Goldstein has a lot to say about retirement planning and so on, but much of his work can be extended to other kinds of decision-making. He’s developed what he calls commitment devices to help us stick to the decisions we make. A commitment device is a kind of mental motivator, often tailored to the individual, that can overcome the temptations offered the present self – the self in control right now – so the weaker future self can get what’s been promised. Locking your credit card away, keeping junk food out of the house and unplugging your internet to avoid distraction from the writing of that novel are all examples of commitment devices.
But commitment devices are problematic. They’re like a crutch. They demonstrate to you that you lack self-control. “They take the power away from you,” he says. “Self-discipline is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.” Daniel would rather us cast aside these crutches and build our own commitment muscles.
The other problem he sees with commitment devices is that they’re easy to weasel out of. I might tell myself that I can’t work on that novel today because it’s New Year’s day, a holiday and I’m not supposed to work. I’m a little hung over too, and besides, I’ve got an article to write for Life as a Human about commitment.
To avoid the pitfalls of commitment devices when it comes to personal finances, Daniel developed several tools for self-reflection designed to motivate people to make smarter financial decisions and stick to them. One such device is a sliding scale with spending on one end and saving on the other. The spending end is illustrated with a picture of the client’s face that changes from a smile to a frown as the scale slides toward savings, a frown because he doesn’t get to spend all his money on fun things now. The savings end is illustrated with a picture of the same face aged by use of a computer program with a smile that changes to a frown when the scale slides the other way towards spending. The idea is that people will see that to make the present self-happy, the future, retired self will have to make sacrifices. And to make the future self-happy, the present self will have to sacrifice some fun. Perhaps a little simplistic and an entirely material approach to happiness, but the point is well taken that decisions are often a give and take relationship between the person we are and the person we want to be.
If Daniel Goldstein is right, I should simply get at it if I want to write that novel. And if I need a commitment device to help me stick to the work, I shouldn’t be writing it anyway. If passion can’t fuel the journey of this novel from my head to the page, then it’s not worth all the anxiety, energy and guilt. I should just have fun with my time instead… okay, so that’s all for now. I’ve got to get going, got some writing to do. Happy New Year.
Thinking Man @ Flickr