How have you been doing with your 2017 New Year’s resolutions? Like me, your intentions may have been easy to make — but not that easy to fulfill. One of my resolutions was to take swimming lessons. Although I can swim, I’m not really competent nor confident in the water. It’s taken me until this month to enroll in a class. I’ve gone to the three lessons. There are five more classes, and I should be practicing during the week, which I’ve done once. Why is something that I know would be good — and many people especially here in Hawaii love to do – so hard for me to accomplish?
In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that “whether it’s a strict diet, a New Year’s resolution, or an attempt at daily guitar practice, the reason so many of us have trouble sustaining change is because we try to rely on willpower. We think we can go from 0 to 60 in an instant, changing or overturning ingrained life habits through the sheer force of will. Tal [the author’s mentor] thought telling himself he was on a diet would be enough to keep him away from his mother’s chocolate cake. [But after struggling and resisting for hours, he got up in the middle of the night and ate the entire remaining cake!]. I thought telling myself to follow some spreadsheet would discipline me enough to practice the guitar. Well, that worked . . . for four days. Then I went back to regularly scheduled programing.
WILLPOWER GETS A WORKOUT
The reason willpower is so ineffective at sustaining change is that the more we use it, the more worn-out it gets” (152). . . .
“Unfortunately, we face a steady stream of tasks that deplete our willpower every single day. Whether it’s avoiding the desert table at the company lunch, staying focused on a computer spreadsheet for hours on end, or sitting still through a three-hour meeting, our willpower is consistently being put to the test. So it’s no wonder, really, that we so easily give in to our old habits, to the easiest and most comfortable path, as we progress through the day. This invisible pull toward the path of least resistance can dictate more of our lives than we realize, creating an impassible barrier to change and positive growth.
THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE
As Cathy sits tethered to her desk on Tuesday, she daydreams about the upcoming Saturday and all its possibilities. She wants to go biking on the trail by her house, join in a pickup soccer game at the local park, and see that Matisse exhibit at the museum.. She might even dive into that pile of books she has been wanting to read. Like all of us, Cathy has a number of hobbies and activities that engage her interests and strengths, energize her days, and make her happy. And yet, when her free Saturday actually does roll around, where does she end up? Conspicuously not on her bike or at the soccer field, and certainly not at that art exhibit everybody was raving about–it’s 20 minutes away! Her remote control, on the other hand, is within very easy reach, and Bravo happens to be airing a Top Chef marathon. Four hours later, Cathy has sunk deeper and deeper into the couch, unable to shake a listless sense of disappointment. She had better plans for the afternoon, and she wonders what happened to them.
What happened to Cathy was something that happens to all of us at one time or another. Inactivity is simply the easiest option. Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we think we do. In general, Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work. If that sounds ridiculous, consider this: For the most part, our jobs require us to use our skills, engage our minds, and pursue our goals–all things that have been shown to contribute to happiness. Of course, leisure activities can do this too, but because they’re not required of us–because there is no “leisure boss” leaning over our shoulder on Sunday mornings telling us we’d better be at the art museum by 9 A.M. sharp–we often find it difficult to muster the energy necessary to kick-start them. So we follow the path of least resistance, and that path inevitably leads us to the couch and the television. And because we are ‘mere bundles of habit,’ the more often we succumb to this path, the more difficult it becomes to change directions.
Unfortunately, though these times of ‘passive leisure,’ like watching TV and trolling around on Facebook, might be easier and more convenient than biking or looking at art or playing soccer, they don’t offer the same rewards. Studies show that these activities are enjoyable and engaging for only about 30 minutes, [my emphasis] then they start sapping our energy, creating what psychologists call ‘psychic entropy’– that listless, apathetic feeling Cathy experience.
On the other hand, ‘active leisure’ like hobbies, games, and sports enhance our concentration, engagement, motivation, and sense of enjoyment. Studies have found that American teenagers are two and half times more likely to experience elevated enjoyment when engaged in a hobby than when watching TV, and three times more likely when playing a sport. And yet here’s the paradox: These same teenagers spend four times as many hours watching TV as they do engaging in sports or hobbies. So what gives? Or, as psychologist [and writer of Flow, The Dynamics of Flow, & Creativity] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it more eloquently, “Why would we spend four times more time doing something that has less than half the chance of making us feel good?”
The answer is that we are drawn–powerfully, magnetically–to those things that are easy, convenient, and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia [my emphasis]. Active leisure is more enjoyable, but it almost always requires more initial effort–getting the bike out of the garage, driving to the museum, tuning the guitar, and so on. Csikszentmihalyi calls this ‘activation energy.’ In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyze a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kick-start a positive habit. Otherwise, human nature takes us down the path of least resistance time and time again” (152-156). . . .
“In the workplace, the path of least resistance is especially maladaptive, luring us into a whole host of bad habits that breed procrastination and undercut productivity. , , , Regardless of our job description, we never seem to have enough time to get everything done. Eight-hour workdays turn into 12- and 14-hur ones, and still we feel behind. How can this be? Why do we have so much trouble being productive? . . .The American Management Association reports that employees spend an average of 107 minutes on e-mail a day. , , . And I suspect that if most office workers tallied up all the minutes they spent each day on blogs, social networking sites, Amazon.com, and so forth, it would paint a very alarming picture indeed. . . .
And that’s not even the worst of it. The actual time we give to these distractions is part of the problem, but the larger issue is that our attention hits a wall each time we stray. Research shows that the average employee gets interrupted from their work every 11 minutes, and on each occasion experiences a loss of concentration and flow that takes almost as many minutes to recover from. Yet in today’s world, it’s just too easy for us to be tempted. As a New York Times article put it, “distracting oneself used to consist of sharpening a half-dozen pencils or lighting a cigarette. Today, there is a universe of diversions to buy, hear, watch and forward, which makes focusing on a task all the more challenging. . . . It’s not the sheer number and volume of distractions that gets us into trouble; it’s the ease of access to them. . . . In short, distraction, always just one click away, has become the path of least resistance. . . .
[However, you can] lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt [put the guitar on the chair where you usually sit], and raise it for habits you want to avoid [freeze your credit cards in a block of ice if you are trying to stop impulse buying]. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change” (157-161). . . .
For instance, “in our quest for healthier eating habits, researchers have found that they can cut cafeteria ice cream consumption in half by simply closing the lid of an ice cream cooler. And that when people are required to wait in another, separate line to purchase chips and candy, far fewer will do so. In essence, the more effort it takes us to obtain unhealthy food, the less we’ll eat of it, and vice versa. This is why nutritionists recommend that we prepare healthy snacks in advance so that we can simply pull them out of the refrigerator, and why they recommend that when we do eat junk foods, we take out a small portion, then put the rest of the bag away, well out of our reach (163). . . .
For the author Shawn Achor’s example of Ted, the guy who is working almost all the time, and yet is not getting much done, there are specific actions that will help him establish better work habits.
SAVE TIME BY ADDING TIME
“The first step is a seemingly counterintuitive one–disable many of the shortcuts that were originally designed to ‘save time’ at the office. For example, I encouraged Ted to keep his e-mail program closed while he worked, so it would no longer send jarring alerts whenever he received new mail. Any time he wanted to check e-mail, he’d have to actively open the program and wait for it to load. While this reduced involuntary interruptions, it was still too easy for him to click on the little Outlook icon whenever his mind wandered, so to protect against habitual checking, we made it even more difficult. We disabled the automatic login and password for the account, took the shortcut off the computer desktop, then hid the application icon in an empty folder, buried in another empty folder, buried in another empty folder. Essentially, we created the electronic version of Russian stacking dolls. As he told me one day at the office, only half jokingly, it was now “a total pain in the ass’ to check e-mail.
‘Now we’re getting somewhere,’ I replied.
We did the same for his other distractions, disabling his stock widget, changing his home page from CNN to a blank search page, and even turning off his computer’s ability to process cookies so it couldn’t ‘remember’ the stocks and websites he usually checked. Every additional button he was required to click, even every additional address he was required to type into a web browser, raised the barrier to procrastination and improved his chances of remaining on task. I pointed out that he still had complete freedom to do what he wanted; just like in an opt-out program, his choice had not been taken away at all. The only thing that had changed was the default, which was not set to productivity, instead of to distraction. . . .
Ted was not only skeptical, but a little annoyed with me. It seemed to him (and to the other executives on whom I had inflicted similar miseries) that I was only making their busy lives more difficult. . . . But a few days later, once they realized how much more work they were getting done (and in less time), they had come around.
SLEEP IN YOUR GYM CLOTHES
. . . Limiting the choices we have to make can also help lower the barrier to positive change. . . studies showed that with every additional choice people are asked to make, their physical stamina, ability to perform numerical calculations, persistence in the face of failure, and overall focus drop dramatically. And these don’t have to be difficult decisions either–the questions are more ‘chocolate or vanilla?’ than they are Sophie’s Choice. . . .
If you’ve ever tried to start up the habit of early-morning exercise, you have probably encountered how easy it is to get derailed by too much choice. Each morning after the alarm clock sounds, the inner monologue goes something like this: Should I hit the snooze button or get up immediately? What should I wear to work out this morning? Should I go for a run or go to the gym? Should I go to the nearby gym that/s more crowded or the quieter gym that is slightly farther away? What kind of cardio should I do when I get there? Should I lift weights? Should I go to kickboxing class or maybe yoga? And by that point you’re so exhausted by all the options, you’ve fallen back asleep. At least that’s what would happen to me. So I decided to decrease the number of choices I would have to make in order to get myself to the gym.
Each night before I went to sleep, I wrote out a plan for where I would exercise in the morning and what parts of my body I would focus on. Then, I put my sneakers right by my bed. Finally–and most important–I just went to sleep in my gym clothes. (And my mom wonders why I’m not married yet.)
But the clothes were clean, and I had essentially decreased the activation energy enough so that when I woke up the next morning, all I had to do was roll off my bed, put my feet (which already had socks on them) into my shoes, and I was out the door. The decisions that seemed too daunting in my groggy morning state had been decided for me, ahead of time. And it worked. Eliminating the choices and reducing the activation energy made getting up and going to the gym the default mode. As a result, once I ingrained a lifetime positive habit of morning exercise, I now don’t have to sleep in my gym clothes anymore. . . .
This isn’t just about getting yourself to exercise. Think of the positive changes you want to make at your job [or at home or with personal growth], and figure out what it would mean to ‘just get your shoes on’ at work. The less energy it takes to kick-start a positive habit, the more likely that habit will stick.
SET RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Whether you’re trying to change your habits at work or at home, the key to reducing choice is setting and following a few simple rules . . . like deciding ahead of time when, where, and how I was going to work out in the morning. . . . [S]etting rules in advance can free us frm the constant barrage of willpower-depleting choices that make a real difference in our lives. If we make a rule to never drive a car when we’ve had more than one drink, for example, we eliminate the stress and uncertainty of trying to make a judgment call every time we aren’t sure if we’re too drunk to drive (which probably means we are). At work, setting rules to reduce the volume of choice can be incredibly effective. For example, if we set rules to only check our e-mail once per hour, or to only have one coffee break per morning, we are less likely to succumb in the moment, which helps these rules to become habits we stick to by default. . . .
The key to . . . permanent, positive change — is to create habits that automatically pay dividends, without continued concerted effort or extensive reserves of willpower. The key to creating these habits is ritual, repeated practice, until the actions become ingrained in your brain’s neural chemistry. And the key to daily practice is to put your desired actions as close to the path of least resistance as humanly possible. Identify the activation energy–the time, the choices, the mental and physical effort they require–and then reduce it. If you can cut the activation energy for those habits that lead to success, even by as little as 20 seconds at a time, it won’t be long before you start reaping their benefits. The first step metaphorically–and sometimes literally–is just to get your shoes on” (163-170).
Or for me, just jump in the water – and swim. I will go to my five remaining swimming classes. In October and much of November, I will have easy access to a pool, so I’ll continue practicing there. My goal is to swim for an hour without stopping. Surely, I can do that (and not hate it) before the end of December — when I’ll write another New Year’s resolution list.
Image from – http://www.freeimages.com/search/woman-swimming
The book has other good advice including a section on the importance of relationships. I encourage you to read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. If you can’t get that done by the end of the year, you could add it to your 2018 New Year’s resolutions.
What about you? It’s not too late to revisit your 2017 New Year’s resolution list. Perhaps you’ve been relying on your willpower to accomplish your goals. It’s probably not enough. As Shawn Achor suggests – Figure out how can you put your desired actions as close to the path of least resistance as humanly possible.
Besides working on my swimming, I’m putting my vitamins on the counter each morning right by the sink; the bottles must be back in the cabinet before the end of the day. Learning to play a ukulele is also a goal, so like Shawn Achor, I’ve been leaving the instrument on my chair.
The year isn’t over. You can still accomplish what you resolved to do. Good luck.
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor <https://www.amazon.com/Happiness-Advantage-Principles-Success-Performance/dp/0753539470/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1503851065&sr=8-1&keywords=the+happiness+advantage+by+shawn+anchor
P.S. I recommend this book for other good insights. Although the focus is for success and performance at work, you can apply the principles in all aspects of your life. “Principle #7 SOCIAL INVESTMENT – Why Social Support is Your Single Greatest Asset” is particularly useful.