Resolutions and Motivations

On a long run recently, I decided to listen to my ever increasing volume of podcasts instead of music. I went on somewhat of a podcast download frenzy last year subscribing to a variety of Ted Talks on culture and science, and interesting random things. I signed up for Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me and Hidden Brain from NPR, as well as Serial, which everyone seemed to be raving about, but I have not yet listened to.

I decided to listen to a couple of episodes of Hidden Brain, because really, who doesn't love social science research applied to the everyday..? The two episodes I listened to were on renewal and resolution and got my brain firing in all different directions. Podcasts, I learned, are a great way to pass the time on a long run (as is solitaire when on a treadmill if you can find a treadmill that does this - I did, but in Hong Kong).

One of the discussions was about new year's resolutions, their value, and why we make them. The presenters discussed research out of the Wharton School about "Temporal Landmarks." The article, "The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior" (2013, Dai, Milkman and Riis, argues that there exists a "fresh start effect" that occurs after temporal landmarks. These landmarks allow us to relegate undesirable behaviors to a past version of ourselves. We tell ourselves that moving forward we can be better in x, y, z way. Temporal landmarks are not just when a new year rolls in, but birthdays, the first day of a month or week, a new job, or a holiday. Any point in time that allows us to draw a line between past and present. The authors conclude that the fresh start effect has the capacity to propel us forward and toward our aspirations in ways that at any other time in our lives we will be less successful at doing. They proposed: "that the psychological separation between one’s present and past selves induced by temporal landmarks motivates people to pursue their aspirations" (p. 3).

Aspirational motivation is powerful and can be harnessed on these temporal landmarks to assist us in getting where we want to go. However, another area of research Hidden Brain discussed connects to this fresh start effect, and perhaps influences whether our resolutions are successful. The article, "Multiple types of motives don't multiply the motivation of West Point cadets" (Wrzesniewski et al, 2014), found that possessing multiple motivations to achieve something actually limited the positive effects of intrinsic motivation. They studied the motivations of 10,000 cadets at West Point and determined that when a cadet had both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation they were less likely to persist. That is, when a cadet had an extrinsic or instrumental motivation pushing them in addition to something internal, the positive effects of the internal motivation were reduced. External or instrumental motivations could be things like family pressure, something for the resume, or prestige. The authors of this study state: "research suggests that instrumental motives, which are extrinsic to the activities at hand, can weaken internal motives, which are intrinsic to the activities at hand" (2014, So what does all this mean for us?

What is fascinating about these two articles and where I connected them as I ran, is that when we make resolutions, we often (not exclusively) don't really make them for ourselves. We make them because of the presence of external pressure - instrumental motivation. Whether that pressure comes in the form of a barrage of diet and gym commercials in the new year, a doctor or family member telling us we should do A, B, or C, or a belief that we are in some way not good enough because of the messages we receive from our work, social environment, or the larger culture. I wonder then, if resolutions, even though they are made as part of the "fresh start effect" set us up for some kind of failure because what we seek (our aspirations) is ultimately not 100% for ourselves? This is a rather bleak statement I suppose, because it means perhaps we should never make resolutions. And many people don't for this reason. 

The risk of failure is so pronounced for many of us we don't even try. I write this still sitting in the space of hesitation of whether or not to try/do an Ironman. My internal motivation has to be there, free of extrinsic motivation, and I am not sure it is, yet. The temporal landmark of my birthday, or 2016, was not enough for me to step forward with confidence, press "submit" and harness the psychological separation from my 2015 non-IM self to my 2016 IM self. As one commenter on the Hidden Brain website quoted: "No. Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try. (Yoda to Luke)." Is it really that simple?

The podcast finished with the recital of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop about losing that I have re-printed here. We do master the art of losing and in many ways expect it, especially when it comes to resolutions. But I think we can break through that, and focus on aspirations that are about us and not about anyone else. This way the "fresh start effect" has more power. The capacity for us to separate ourselves from who we were yesterday, last month or last year, becomes less like hiking Mount Everest (a feat we perhaps believe we can never achieve) and more like mastering the art of winning.