“Squeezing out” and the art of the New Year’s resolution

Here we are two weeks into 2012. How are we doing with our New Year’s resolutions? Are we on the way to quitting smoking, loosing those ten pounds, becoming more productive? If you’re like most – probably not well. But why is that?

I was reading an old post by Paul Hebert of Incentive Intelligence the other day. The first paragraph stuck with me.

I’ve heard that one reason that smoking is such a tough habit to kick is that it is one of the few “drugs” where you dose yourself over 300 times in a day.  If you think about a pack-a-day smoker (20 cigarettes) with an average of 15 puffs per cigarette, that’s 300 “doses.”  300 times in a day a smoker lights up (pun intended) that little reward center in their brain with a jolt of nicotine.  In a normal 16-hour day of “awakeness” the pack-a-day smoker is dosing themselves about once every 3 minutes (16 hours times 60 minutes = 960 minutes divided by 300 = 3.2 minutes.)  

That’s a lot of reinforcement.

That’s why smoking or any other habit is so hard to break. There’s a lot “to not do.” While Paul’s post is about marketing, I think it’s much more profound than that … and timely.

Most people’s resolutions are about “not doing something.” But like smoking, not doing something is not just not doing it.

"Squeeze out the bad!"

I view the brain like a “zero sum game.” While of course you can expand its capabilities, a lot of the time you only have so much to work with. It’s like time. If you’re a student and you spend all your time learning quantum physics – you’ll have little left to delve into creative writing … and vice versa. This also extends to our life in the work world. A prominent scientist is not likely to be a “jack of all trades” … but rather a master of one. Our brain and the time it takes to develop it is very much “zero sum.” At the same time, I don’t think our brain works well with voids either. It’s going to fill itself with something or more than likely, keep doing what it’s used to.

This is the problem with New Year’s resolutions. If you’re going to quit smoking, with its constant reinforcement, as Paul demonstrated – what’s going to fill its place? Any resolution or self-improvement project needs to not only include a “getting rid of” – but also “an adding to.” And the same goes with a resolution that adds. What’s going to have to go away to make room?

The reinforcement of a habit, good or bad, is extremely powerful. Unless this habit has something to replace it … it’s going to stick around. I believe self-improvement success is two-fold. Instead of just quitting a habit – you have to create a new one in its place. Or instead of just adding something to your plate – you have to clean off something too. The rock icon Alice Cooper, after decades of substance abuse, “cleaned-up.” He he didn’t quit though … he replaced! He replaced alcohol with golf – to the tune of 300+ days a year.

Make 2012 the year you don’t just quit or add – but replace.

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I can found on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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