The New Year
Don’t Eat the Frog
Years ago I heard a motivational speaker encourage his audience to “eat that frog.” … it makes sense in its own way: Stop procrastinating and just do the thing you fear. Once you do that, everything else is easy. While that may be helpful in overcoming procrastination, it’s exactly backward for big goals and projects. Instead, you should tackle your easiest task first.
I’ve written several books now, and the way I do it is almost always the same. I start with the easiest task first. I write the title page, the dedication, and the table of contents. Then I think through the chapters, pick the easiest chapter, and tackle it first. A book feels daunting. But one chapter is doable, especially if it’s the easiest one. When I launch a new product, create a new course, or undertake any major goal, I operate the same way.
While we should set goals in the Discomfort Zone, the way to tackle a goal is to start with a task in the Comfort Zone. There are at least three reasons to front-load your task list with easy items, starting with motion. The first step on any project is usually the toughest. But when you start with the easy steps, you lower the threshold for taking action. This is how you trick your brain into starting.
Second, emotion. Getting some quick wins boosts your mood. According to researchers Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats, “Finishing immediate, mundane tasks actually improves your ability to tackle tougher, important things. Your brain releases dopamine when you achieve goals. And since dopamine improves attention, memory, and motivation, even achieving a small goal can result in a positive feedback loop that makes you more motivated to work harder going forward.” That’s exactly what happens for me. My excitement level goes up as I work, and it’s the same for my confidence.
Third, momentum. Getting started and feeling good about your progress means it’s easy to build momentum—just like I did with my manuscript. Gino and Staats say checking items off your list frees up mental and emotional energy to focus on other projects. You might also find the tough items get easier as you go. The opposite is also true. When you start with the hardest projects first, you can drain your mental and emotional energy. Now you’re lagging—and still looking at a handful of small jobs on your to-do list. Suddenly the easy looks hard. It’s a momentum killer. You risk getting discouraged and chucking the whole goal out the window. That’s like me walking into the gym, and my trainer says let’s go over to the bench press and press 150 pounds without warming up. That would be stupid. You need to warm up first. That’s what a next step in your Comfort Zone is all about.
Take the example of fitness. Let’s say you set a goal to run a half marathon this year. That goal is in your Discomfort Zone. You’re not exactly sure how to accomplish it. Maybe you’ve already tried a physical challenge like that and failed. Don’t let the size of the dream be its own demise. Instead of worrying how you’re going to succeed, just commit to an easy next action—like calling a coach. You’re looking for one discrete task. You basically want to put the bar so low, you can fall over it. Then once that task is done, you can set the next. I don’t care how big the goal is—it can be accomplished if you take it one step at a time.
What if your next step feels uncertain? Don’t sweat it. Just try something and don’t worry if it’s wrong. The goal may be risky, but the next action isn’t. You’re stepping out, but not far. If it doesn’t work out, you just take another step. Stick with the running example.
The Fresh Start Effect
New Year’s Day has long held a special power over our behavior. We turn the page on the calendar, glimpse all those beautiful empty squares, and open a new account book on our lives. But we typically do that unwittingly, blind to the psychological mechanisms we’re relying on. The fresh start effect allows us to use the same technique, but with awareness and intention, on multiple days. After all, New Year’s resolutions are hardly foolproof. Research shows that a month into a new year only 64 percent of resolutions continue to be pursued.
New Year’s Resolutions and the Power of a Fresh Start
At some point in your life, you probably made a New Year’s resolution. On January 1 of some year, you resolved to drink less, exercise more, or call your mother every Sunday. Maybe you kept your resolution and rectified your health and family relations. Or maybe, by February, you were pasted on the couch watching Legend of Kung Fu Rabbit on Netflix while downing a third glass of wine and ducking Mom’s Skype requests.
Regardless of your resolution’s fate, though, the date you chose to motivate yourself reveals another dimension of the power of beginnings. The first day of the year is what social scientists call a “temporal landmark.” Just as human beings rely on landmarks to navigate space—“To get to my house, turn left at the Shell station”—we also use landmarks to navigate time. Certain dates function like that Shell station. They stand out from the ceaseless and forgettable march of other days, and their prominence helps us find our way.
…To establish a fresh start, people used two types of temporal landmarks—social and personal. The social landmarks were those that everyone shared: Mondays, the beginning of a new month, national holidays. The personal ones were unique to the individual: birthdays, anniversaries, job changes. But whether social or personal, these time markers served two purposes. First, they allowed people to open “new mental accounts” in the same way that a business closes the books at the end of one fiscal year and opens a fresh ledger for the new year.
This new period offers a chance to start again by relegating our old selves to the past. It disconnects us from that past self’s mistakes and imperfections, and leaves us confident about our new, superior selves. Fortified by that confidence, we “behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our aspirations
Why do we make Resolutions at the Start of a New Year?
Take the prevalence of New Year’s resolutions. The Wharton professor Katherine Milkman said she found it striking that “at the start of a new year, we feel like we have a clean slate. It’s the ‘fresh start effect’
. . . all of my past failures are from last year and I can think, ‘Those are not me. That’s old me. That’s not new me. New me isn’t going to make these mistakes.’ ” In other words, New Year’s resolutions are not really about the resolutions. After all, for most people, the resolutions haven’t changed. Most people wanted to lose weight and save money on December 31, too. What we’re doing on New Year’s Day is more like a mental accounting trick. Our past failures are left on the ledger of Old Me. New Me starts today.