The Snowball Effect: When Laziness Can Trump Ambition

Christine Carter, Ph.D.
www.raisinghappiness.com

My best advice for keeping New Year’s resolutions this year—based on decades of multi-disciplinary research and years of personal experience—is to be decidedly unambitious about it.

I’m not suggesting you should avoid failure by not making resolutions this year.  Just that we are better able to make changes over the long-term when we start really, really small.

For example, say you want to start meditating every day.  The best way to create a habit like this is start off with ridiculously easy goals: the first week, meditate for one minute per day.  The second week, increase your meditation to two minutes.  By week 10, you’ll be going strong on 10 minutes a day – which is better for your health over the long-run than meditating 40 minutes a day, 5 days a week in January, and then not at all.

It isn’t in my nature to do things in a small way. Take my New Year's resolution to "exercise more." This wouldn’t be hard given that I don't exercise much right now, but I can quickly make this resolution unachievable. My thought process usually goes something like this:

"Okay, so I'm going to exercise more. Research shows that you really need to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5-6 times a week to reap the benefits, so I'll schedule a walk every day but Sunday. Actually, maybe I'll run a half marathon with my neighbor. So I'll schedule 2 or 3 longer runs a week. Maybe I should find a running coach. I'll definitely need to start doing some strength training, too, at least a couple of days a week. And stretching. I should get back to yoga. I really want to be doing that at LEAST once a week."

What I need to do instead: plan to "exercise more" in absurdly small turtle steps.

For example, Week 1: Three days this week, just walk the dog, even if I only end up having time to go around the block. This will get me into the habit of reintegrating exercise into my life a little bit at a time.

Here is the good news: Starting small can have very big effects. When we start doing one small thing that takes some willpower, it will have an effect on other things we'd like to change. Self-discipline is like a muscle: make it stronger, and you'll have more willpower for other things.

The Snowball Effect

The weirdest thing about the research on willpower is the phenomena that when we start consciously working on one thing that takes self-discipline, we also tend to start improving our lives in other areas as well. When researchers ask college students to attend to one area of their lives—trying to improve their posture throughout the day, for example, or to attend to their finances for a few weeks—they end up doing other things that might end up on a New Year's Resolution list, too, like watching less TV, working out more, and improving their eating habits.

I love the snowball effect, because it means that my unambitious goals can amount to more than walking the dog or one minute of meditation.

We can't deliberately pursue too many goals at once, or goals that are too ambitious at the outset, because our willpower muscle isn't strong enough yet. Willpower is also like a muscle in that it fatigues, and when it does, it pretty much goes off-duty. 

This is why we are more likely to achieve our goals first thing in the morning, when our willpower is “rested,” and we are more likely to end up eating ice-cream straight out of the carton (instead of jogging) at the end of a long, hard day.

One last thing: If you feel you and your kids have willpower fatigue—you've used up your stores for the day—find a way to laugh. Research shows that a little laugh can measurably improve your mood, which helps to restore your willpower reserves.

  


Christine Carter, Ph.D., teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.  She is the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.  If you are interested in learning more about teaching your kids (and yourself!) how to keep a New Year’s resolution, she teaches a class called “Foundations 1” that includes the science of habit formation.