It’s the new year transition, the line between our last year’s self and our hoped-for healthier, happier, and more productive 2020 self. To become that new self, we know what to do. We know that a full night’s sleep boosts our alertness, energy, and mood. We know that exercise lessens depression and anxiety, sculpts our bodies, and strengthens our hearts and minds. We know that what we put into our bodies—junk food or balanced nutrition, addictive substances or clean air—affects our health and longevity.
Alas, as T. S. Eliot foresaw, “Between the idea and the reality . . . Falls the Shadow.” So how, this year, can we move from knowing the needed behaviors to doing them?
First, do make that New Year’s resolution. Research by Gary Latham, Edwin Locke, and others confirms that challenging goals motivate achievement. Specific, measurable, realistic goals—such as “finish the business plan by the month’s end”—direct attention, promote effort, motivate persistence, and stimulate creativity.
Second, announce the goal to friends or family. We’re more likely to follow through after making a public commitment.
Third, develop animplementation plan—an action strategy that specifies when, where, and how you will march toward achieving your goal. Research shows that people who flesh out goals with detailed plans become more focused in their work, and more likely to complete it on time.
Through the ups and downs of goal-striving, we best sustain our motivation when we focus on immediate subgoals. Better to have our nose to the grindstone than our eye on the ultimate prize. Better to attend to daily study than the course grade. Better to center on small steps—the day’s running target—than to fantasize the marathon.
Fourth, monitor and record progress, perhaps aided by a tracker such as a Fitbit. It’s all the better when that progress is displayed publicly rather than kept secret.
Fifth, create a supportive environment. When trying to eat healthy, keep junk food out of the cupboards. Use small plates and bowls. When focusing on a project, hole up in the library. When sleeping, stash the smartphone. Choose the right friends. Such “situational self-control strategies” prevent tempting impulses, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues have found.
Sixth, transform the hard-to-do behavior into a must-do habit. Habits form when we repeat behaviors in a given context—sleeping in the same comfy position, walking the same route to work, eating the same breakfast oatmeal. As our behavior becomes linked with the context, our next experience of that context evokes our habitual response. Studies find that when our willpower is depleted, as when we’re mentally fatigued, we fall back on our habits—good or bad. To increase our self-control, to connect our resolutions with positive outcomes, the key is forming “beneficial habits.”
“If you would make anything a habit, do it,” said the stoic philosopher Epictetus. But how long does it take to form a beneficial habit? A University College London research team led by Phillippa Lally asked 96 university students to choose some healthy behavior, such as eating fruit with lunch or running before dinner, and to perform it daily for 84 days. The students also logged whether the behavior felt automatic (something they did without thinking and would find it hard not to do). When did the behaviors turn into habits? On average, after about 66 days.
Gwyneth Paltrow recalls that when she first started working with a personal trainer, “finding motivation was hard. She advised me to think of exercise as an automatic routine, no different from brushing your teeth, to avoid getting distracted. Now it is part of my life—I exercise Monday to Friday at 10 a.m. and always stick with it.”
Friskie.Cin Then do it every day for two months, or a bit longer for exercise. You likely will find yourself with a new habit, and perhaps a healthier, happier, and more productive life.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com, where this essay originally appeared—here.)
If you have watched a 2019 Democratic Party debate, you perhaps have taken note: While Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker glide smoothly through their spoken words, Joe Biden sometimes hesitates, stammers, and stumbles. Is he just less mentally agile than his more lucid counterparts?
Perhaps we should cut him some slack, suggests John Hendrickson in an upcoming Atlanticessay. Biden experiences the lingering effects of childhood stuttering that made him a subject of mockery. An empathic Hendrickson, himself a stutterer, illustrates from Biden’s July debate:
“My plan makes a limit of co-pay to be One. Thousand. Dollars. Because we—”
He stopped. He pinched his eyes closed. He lifted his hands and thrust them forward, as if trying to pull the missing sound from his mouth. “We f-f-f-f-further support—” He opened his eyes. “The uh-uh-uh-uh—”
Hendrickson is not the only one who empathizes. As a childhood stutterer who received speech therapy in my Seattle public elementary school, and for whom such dysfluency has occasionally resurfaced in adulthood, I know the dismay of coming up to a word that gets stuck in the roof of the mouth, to everyone’s embarrassment, especially my own. For me, K has been a difficult consonant, and sometimes there seems no other way to call on “K-k-k-kathy.”
But often, those who stutter have learned that they can fake normal fluency by backing up and detouring around the verbal roadblock, rendering the impediment invisible. As with Joe Biden’s debate responses, listeners may notice the pauses and mid-sentence changes of direction. They just don’t attribute the dysfluency to stuttering (which Biden also does not blame).
And so it happens with the great invisible disability, hearing loss. “Can everyone hear me?” asks the person on stage. Given the inevitable answer from those hearing the question, the nodding heads lead the speaker to think, “I don’t need a mic.” And most in the audience likewise presume all’s well—oblivious to the unseen exclusion of so many of us (and hence my advocacy for user-friendly hearing accessibility technology in such settings—see here).
Like stutterers, those of us with hearing loss also finesse awkward situations. At a noisy party or in a restaurant, we fake hearing. As our conversational partner makes unheard social chatter, we smile and nod—not wanting to be a pain by asking people to repeat and repeat. Sometimes our response is inappropriate—smiling at someone’s sadness, or being unresponsive to a question. But mostly, after straining and failing to carve meaning out of sound, our pretending to hear hides our disability.
There’s practical wisdom to socially finessing one’s speech or hearing challenges. But some go further to hide their hearing disability. They respond to ads for “invisible hearing aids” that can keep people from knowing that—shame, shame—you have hearing loss. (Shame instead on the hearing professionals whose ads imply that hearing loss is something to be deeply ashamed of, and to hide.) Actually, the more public I am about my hearing loss, the more comfortable I become at seeking people’s help in coping with it—by finding quieter tables in quieter restaurants, facing the wall, sitting with my good ear toward the person, having them speak into that ear, and using a wireless mic that transmits to my hearing aids.
We can extend the list of hidden disabilities to include some forms of vision loss, brain injury, chronic fatigue, pain, phobias, dyslexia, depression, dementia, and a host of others. Given the invisibility of such disabilities, we often don’t see the challenges that lie behind everything from a child’s misspellings to a Joe Biden stammer. If only we knew—and if only those of us with the invisible challenges would let others know—we all could be less judgmental, more understanding, and more genuinely helpful.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)