Happy New Year!
It’s that time of the year again: family gatherings, reflections on the past, and commitments for the future. That last item, New Year’s Resolutions, is of particular interest to me. I see a lot of similarity between the packed gyms of January 1, the “back to business as usual” gyms of January 30 and the challenges of affecting social change. A fundamental tension seems to exist in humans; evolutionarily speaking, it is in our best interest to eat when the bounty if plentiful, for we know not when we will again be flush with food. In modern life, however, we must constantly resist that instinct–when food isn’t scarce and calories are cheap, the challenge is not starvation but rather obesity.*
Put another way, we struggle to think long-term and to delay gratification. We eat too many sweets and tell ourselves we’ll exercise tomorrow; we buy the cheapest appliance even though the more efficient one will cost less over time; and we avoid building retirement savings until it’s too late. So powerful is this dynamic that social science research has shown that “..a child’s ability to delay [gratification]…predicted higher SAT scores and a lower Body Mass Index” thirty years after the initial study (the famous Marshmallow Test). Why? The hypothesis–and I think it makes perfect sense–is that those with better self-control are more likely to have the discipline to eat right and study.
Self-Control: The Most Important Muscle
The good news is that self-control is not predetermined at birth, even if we may not be genetically predisposed to it. On the contrary, study after study confirms that self-control can function like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. It turns out that simple actions, such as not eating that mid-day cookie, can make it easier for us to do other things in the long term. Think about that: start small, be consistent, and over time you can get better at losing weight, building savings, or whatever long-term goal you have.
This has numerous implications. In Financial Coaching, for instance, perhaps we should be focusing on consistently doing one thing–say bringing coffee to work instead of going to Dunkin Donuts–as opposed to tackling five goals, each of which requires willpower. At some point, the action goes from one that is taxing to one that is a habit. Experts differ on how long it takes, but the fact remains: that which is hard can, over time, become easier.
I know this firsthand. 18 months ago I bought one of those bracelets that track steps and sleep and allow you to log your exercise (I use the Jawbone UP, but there are a number of other options). My goal was to lose weight, be more active and eat better. At first, it was hard for me to track everything I ate; I had to remember to take out my phone, find the food I was eating and then estimate how much I had consumed. But after a while it became second nature, to the point that I now feel strange if I don’t log my calories! The result? I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds and, for the past 157 days, ridden my bicycle at least an hour a day.
A recent NY Times article titled In Praise of Small Miracles really affirmed the concept. In it, David Brooks writes that “Most of us don’t save enough. When governments try to encourage saving, they usually enact big policies to increase the incentives. But, in Kenya, people were given a lockable metal box [to store money]. After one year, the people with metal boxes increased savings by so much that they had 66 percent more money available to pay for health emergencies.”
So as you try to follow through on your resolutions, remember to focus on small actions that build your self-control “muscle” first–once that’s nice and strong, it’ll be easier to build your pecs, abs, quads and, to move beyond the metaphor, your savings as well!
*obviously this is not true of all places in the world, but the more developed the society, the more prevalent the obesity