3 January 2013

New Year Resolutions and The “Planner-Doer” Fallacy

Glad to meet you again in the New Year 2013! Since most of you are in the first day(s) of work in this year, I will start with a “light” post on a typical thing related to the start of a New Year, namely Resolutions.

As a new year approaches or just begins many people make a “to do” list with things that they want to accomplish in the following year. These resolutions are a marvel of good wishes and best behavior. On a personal dimension the list includes items such as “losing weight”,  “dieting”, “exercising more”, “quitting smoking”, “call parents more often” and so on. On a professional dimension, things vary a bit, but overall they are in the same line of positive wishes. Common items on the professional list of New Year resolutions are: “getting a new job”, “getting a promotion”, “achieving the (unrealistic) target of sales”, “becoming employee of the month at least three times”, “starting a business”, “being a better leader” and so on.

After the new year party and subsequent hangover, things change a bit. What was so easy to do in the future is suddenly very difficult to do in the present. In more scientific terms this is called the “planner – doer fallacy”. In normal language it means that New Year resolutions are rarely fulfilled.

Let’s see what are the sources of this discrepancy between planning and actually doing. The first source is the human tendency to overestimate future resources. We tend to think that in the future we will have a lot more resources than we will actually have. We believe that in the “new year” we will have more time, more self-control, more money, more strength etc. than what we will actually have.

Our overestimation of future resources is rooted in inherent optimism and in wishful thinking. It is only natural to want to have a better year than the previous one and this leads to making daring or even unrealistic plans. However, usually things do not change that much form one year to another and the same things that kept you from doing what is on the resolutions list will still influence your behavior… and this is how we go to the second source of the “planner doer fallacy”, namely ignoring factors. In scientific terms this is called “focalism”; in normal language it means that we see the future acts out of context.

Let’s take the “exercise more” resolution as an example and imagine a young lady called Dana. Dana wants to lose some weight and she is aware that she could use some “shaping up”, thus she makes a resolution to exercise more in the new year. A few days before new year’s eve she sets a target of going to the gym three times a week, every week for the next year. This is very ambitious and honestly it is very likely that she will not get to do this for more than one month. The first source of fallacy in her plan is the overestimation of resources. She thinks on December 28 that magically next year she will have more time and more will-power to go to the gym three times a week. The second source of fallacy in her plan is “focalism” or ignoring the myriad of factors that will influence her behavior in the future (new year). On December 28 she does not see the colleagues who say “let’s go for a drink after work” exactly on one of her “gym days”. She does not see the subway that will be late and super crowded at the end of a horrible day that by miracle coincides with another “gym day” and thus she will not even think about the feeling of “just wanting to get home, take a shower and be lazy on the couch”.

The examples could go on, but I guess you get the idea. We overestimate the resources available in the future and we ignore the (small) factors that have a super big influence on our behavior.

Now, there’s a legitimate question of “should or should we not make new year resolutions?”. The answer is a bit more complex, but in a nut-shell it goes something like this: Make New Year resolutions, but no more than 2-3. For each think how you are going to accomplish it and do not create a “blank area” which includes a miracle… these things do not exist. At the same time when making new year resolutions, take into account that what prevented you to do what you wanted to do in the past will still act in the future unless you make radical contextual changes. In other words, if you want to go to the gym more often, than you should be aware that whatever kept you from going to the gym in the previous year will still prevent you to go in the next year. This might change if you do some major changes such as taking a job at a gym…

Good luck in 2013 (and 2014 - later edit) and remember that It is easy (and pleasant) to make plans for the future, but we have to live ONLY in the PRESENT.

Learn more on my book:
It Makes (No) Sense: Between the Joy of Gaining and the Fear of Losing


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