How Not to Fail with a New Year’s Resolution

new year resolutionDid you make a New Year’s Resolution?  While good intentions are plentiful on January 1, it is clear that many people have dropped their resolutions before the month is even a week old.  So are New Year’s Resolutions just another pointless tradition or is there a way to make a resolution stick for the year?

FiveThirtyEight is a web site most famously devoted to politics and elections.  However, they also include unique stories on a wide range of topics.  Last week they posted thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions from Christie Aschwanden.  The article reported some interesting insights into how to succeed with them.  For example, Christie writes:

I dug into the literature and talked to some psychologists, and what I discovered is that science can’t tell me exactly what to resolve, but it has narrowed in on a few tricks that can help me succeed. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to do is pick a goal that you’re truly committed to. Not just something you think you should do, but something you truly want to do, said Marina Milyavskaya, a psychologist at Carleton University. “Wanted goals are much more likely to be attained,” she said.

Read more advice for resolution success on the FiveThirtyEight web site.


The Endowment Effect

yellowcupThe pursuit of efficiency often requires a cleanup of our physical spaces.  While clearing out clutter should be easy to do, in practice it is hard to throw away objects we own.  For example, maybe you got a mug at a conference six years ago.  The conference was unmemorable and the mug is an awful yellow color.  As you are considering parting with it, a colleague asks if they can have it.  You quickly decline and put it back on the shelf.   This is a direct experience of the Endowment Effect.

The Endowment Effect is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.   In studies, people want more money to sell an an item they own than they would ever be willing to pay for it new.  Plus, there is often a sentimental value attached to the item, which makes it even harder to part with.

If the Endowment Effect is an obstacle when clearing out clutter, it might be useful to adopt a strategy similar to the one used to avoid the Sunk Cost Effect.  Look at the item as if it were on a store shelf and ask yourself if you would buy it today.  If not, get rid of it.  Another approach is the KonMari Method.  Hold the object in your hand and ask yourself it is sparks joy within you.  If not, discard it.

In order to experience the strategic value of clear space, it is necessary to discard unused items from your world.   Consider these strategies for your next office cleaning session and see the results.

Beware of Sunk Costs

Imagine you paid twenty dollars for a ticket to a local amateur play.  The day of the show, a friend surprises you with a free ticket to an exclusive concert featuring your favorite musician.  Do you choose to go to the play or the concert?  When behavioral economists run this type of experiment, they find most people will stick to the less attractive option (the play) because they paid for the ticket.  This is an example of the sunk cost fallacy in action.

Our minds are easily trapped by sunk costs.  According to Investopedia, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and thus cannot be recovered.  While this concept is often discussed around investments of money, sunk costs also include time and resources.  Think of how often an organization will add patches to clunky system instead of ditching it to build a new one.  People will stubbornly remain committed to a project that is going nowhere because of all the work put into it, even if results remain elusive.

dollarsandsenseRemember, a sunk cost is not recoverable, which gives rise to the famous expression, “Chasing good money after bad.”  The trick is to evaluate the current status of a project, investment, or commitment in light of where it stands now and ignore past contributions.  This way, it is possible to stay nimble and take advantage of better opportunities when they arise.

More information on sunk costs, especially around money, can be found in the book, Dollars and Sense: How we Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter, by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kresisler.

Head in the Cloud

There is an amazing paradox happening right now.  Due to the massive growth of the Internet, people have access to more information at their fingerprints than can ever be consumed in a thousand lifetimes.  However, it seems as if misinformation and lack of understanding are proliferating just as quickly as new Facebook accounts are activated.  In fact, people almost seem to have a worse understanding of the world than their pre-Internet grandparents had!

headinthecloudIn this book, Head in the Cloud, author William Poundstone explores the question of whether all this online information is only serving to make us less informed.  Online information is easier to skim, but hard to dive into deeply.  Poundstone specifically highlights a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which can lead people to overestimate their own level of knowledge in a subject area.

“Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to appreciate that lack.  … The Dunning-Kruger effect requires a minimal degree of knowledge and experience in the area about which you are ignorant (and ignorant of your ignorance).” (p.10 & p.12)

In short, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Read more by picking up a copy of the book from your local library.

What makes us feel good about our work?

Why do we go through the trouble to get up every weekday to commute to work?  Sure we need the money and it can be fun to spend the day with our coworkers.  However, are their motivational factors that make the difference when it comes to committing ourselves fully to our jobs and businesses?

danarielyThis is a question of great interest to behavioral economist Dan Ariely.  So much so that he did several experiments which aimed to probe deep into how people assign value to the work they do.  The results of the experiments were shared in a TED Talk.  From the video description:

What motivates us to work? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t just money. But it’s not exactly joy either. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely presents two eye-opening experiments that reveal our unexpected and nuanced attitudes toward meaning in our work.

Click here to watch Dan Ariely’s TED Talk.

Everyone is Above Average

Quick question: on a scale of one (low) to five (high) how would you rank your own driving ability relative to the other drivers in your area?  If you are like most people, you probably rank yourself as a very good driver, definitely better than most people on the road.  When scientists researched this question, one study found that 74% of all drivers thought they were above average.  One possible reason for this statistically impossible result is the Illusory Superiority fallacy, also known as the Lake Wobegon Effect.

lakewobegondaysIllusory Superiority is a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities relative to others.  It is sometimes called the Lake Wobegon Effect after Garrison Keller’s fictional home town in Minnesota where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  The trap with this fallacy is that it prevents people from seriously examining their own skills and thus overlooking opportunities for growth. From a personal development standpoint, the Illusory Superiority fallacy can be a barrier to self-improvement on many fronts.

Avoiding this fallacy is tricky, but not impossible.  One path forward is to find measurable benchmarks that personal performance can be judged against, such as national or local averages.  Another approach is to seek non-bias feedback from peers, for example in the form of a 360 review.  Either way, developing a critical eye regarding your own performance opens up avenues for personal improvement that may not have been recognized before.

Now excuse me while I listen to old episodes of A Prairie Home Companion

Think like a Computer Scientist

Have you ever experienced a time when you had trouble making a choice and found yourself continually looking at alternatives?  How easy is it for you to decide when to try a new restaurant or return to an old favorite?  What is the best way to make good choices when anticipating for an uncertain future?

These are all types of challenges that computer scientists face when designing computer memory, systems, and networks.  In their new book, Algorithms to Live By: the Computer Science of Human Decisions,  authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths explore fascinating ways that discoveries in computer science can help improve our own decision making on a wide range of problems.  Some of the topics they explore include:

  • algorithmsOptimal stopping : when to stop looking
  • Explore/exploit : the latest vs. the greatest
  • Sorting : making order
  • Bayes’s Rule : predicting the future
  • Overfitting : when to think less
  • Randomness : when to leave it to chance
  • Networking : how we connect

Algorithms to Live By is “A fascinating exploration of how insights from computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives, helping to solve common decision making problems and illuminate the workings of the human mind.” (from the dust jacket)