How To Make a Microresolution

The mechanism for changing your mindset through messaging is the same as for changing a physical behavior: a targeted and limited resolution practiced relentlessly until it becomes automatic. 

The following excerpt is from Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Caroline L. Arnold, 2014.


Are you ready to make a microresolution?

Start by asking yourself what you’d like to improve about your life. Sticking with the example we explored in the last chapter, the first expression of your goal might be framed in broad  terms—“I’d like to be neat”—and that’s a reasonable place to start. Yet neat is not a state you can adopt; rather, it’s a set of distinct behaviors that add up to neat according to your definition—there’s neat and then there’s neat. Every personal­improvement goal within your power can be reduced  to a list of behaviors, whether your ultimate  objective is to be neat, lose weight, get fit, be nicer to your spouse, be­ come organized, be on time, save money, advance your career, or get more sleep.

So taking neat as our example, the first step is to deconstruct what you mean by neat. Your  most pressing neatness issues might be to keep clothes hung up and to stay on top of laundry; or perhaps every drawer is crammed and the bed never gets made; or maybe you leave dishes overnight and let items pile up on surfaces. Don’t bother compiling an exhaustive list; just pinpoint one or two behavioral changes you think would make a difference.  Remember, you’re not trying to solve for neat overall; you’re just looking to identify a discrete behavioral change that will move the neat dial in the right direction.

If your neatness target is focused on managing clutter, your first resolution might be as simple  as resolving  to allow only certain items on certain  surfaces. It’s hard to keep a surface organized when it’s littered with items that have nothing to do with its utility—e.g., coins and a comb and keys on a desk; magazines and bills on a bureau; mail stacked up on a kitchen island. If every surface you have is just a parking lot for whatever, dedicating surfaces might be a good first resolution (you might even want to start with just one surface). Once items are segregated in logical groups it’s much easier to see what’s required to keep a particular surface orderly.

For example, if your desk is overflowing with piles of unopened and unsorted mail, making a microresolution to sort and discard mail before you place it on your desk will probably eliminate three­quarters of your pileup (neatness) and allow you to see at a glance what really needs handling (organization). If clothes sit in a heap on the bedroom chair all week, resulting in a mind­numbing weekend session of hanging  up (now very wrinkled) clothing, you might  consider  a resolution to hang up your clothes as soon as you take them off or start with a resolution allowing any set of clothes  only twenty­four hours  on the chair. 

Mindset Messaging

What about the mental habits that keep you from succeeding in your goals? In the present case, how might you improve your neatness mindset—values, preferences, and attitudes—to advance your objective?  For example, a neat mindset might include the attitude it’s more productive to work at a clean desk. Such an attitude can be taught through practice, just as one can teach oneself a physical behavior through repetition. You can do this by resolving to give yourself a microresolution message designed to improve your governing mindset.  A change in mindset will drive behavioral change, just as a successful behavioral change ultimately alters your mindset through experience.  As the nineteenth ­century psychologist and pragmatist William James observed, “The greatest revelation of our generation is the discovery that human beings,  by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” 

The mechanism for changing your mindset through messaging is the same as for changing a physical behavior: a targeted and limited resolution practiced relentlessly until it becomes automatic. The success of a microresolution message is measured solely by your remembering to give yourself the message in the circumstance you’ve selected, and that’s it. It’s like a mental tweet synchronized to a specific trigger.

For  example, someone working on neat might resolve  to send himself the message It’s really just as fast to hang it up when removing  his coat. Using the removal of the coat to cue the message will disrupt the autopilot attitude I don’t have time to hang it up right now and likely lead, over time, to a preference for hanging up the coat. To once again quote James, “The mere thought of a behavior tends to lead to the performance of it,” or as Sigmund Freud put it, “The thought is father to the deed.”

Some of my most successful microresolutions have been mindset targeted. I once resolved  to send myself the following message when I was tempted to snack in the late afternoon: I enjoy dinner so much more when I’m hungry for it. My resolution didn’t prohibit an afternoon snack; it simply posited the greater pleasure of sitting down to dinner with good appetite. Repeating this message to myself when I was tempted by a treat in the late afternoon led me to manage my snacks more closely and to give up noshing while preparing dinner (you know, that little  piece of French bread,  that  extra glass of wine) and did indeed result in deeper enjoyment of the family meal I prepared each night.  Repeating this message ultimately changed my mindset; I realized that by choosing to snack richly I was choosing to enjoy dinner less. I began selecting lighter snacks and timing them to result in greater appetite. Never before had I “saved” my appetite; I had always been an indiscriminate snacker.  So much so, in fact, that every diet plan I had ever drawn up for myself had been focused on how many calories I could carve out for my snack allowance.  Today I so prefer to save my appetite for meals that I seldom snack at all, and it’s all due to the mindset shift created by faithfully repeating my hungry for dinner message when tempted by treats in the afternoon.

From Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Caroline L. Arnold, 2014.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Russia sends humanoid robot to space, fails to dock with ISS

The Russian-built FEDOR was launched on a mission to help ISS astronauts.

Photos by TASS\TASS via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Russia launched a spacecraft carrying FEDOR, a humanoid robot.
  • Its mission is to help astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
  • Such androids can eventually help with dangerous missions likes spacewalks.
Keep reading Show less

Human extinction! Don't panic; think about it like a philosopher.

Most people think human extinction would be bad. These people aren't philosophers.

Shutterstock
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new opinion piece in The New York Times argues that humanity is so horrible to other forms of life that our extinction wouldn't be all that bad, morally speaking.
  • The author, Dr. Todd May, is a philosopher who is known for advising the writers of The Good Place.
  • The idea of human extinction is a big one, with lots of disagreement on its moral value.
Keep reading Show less

this incredibly rich machinery – with Antonio Damasio

Picking up where we left off a year ago, a conversation about the homeostatic imperative as it plays out in everything from bacteria to pharmaceutical companies—and how the marvelous apparatus of the human mind also gets us into all kinds of trouble.

Think Again Podcasts
  • "Prior to nervous systems: no mind, no consciousness, no intention in the full sense of the term. After nervous systems, gradually we ascend to this possibility of having to this possibility of having minds, having consciousness, and having reasoning that allows us to arrive at some of these very interesting decisions."
  • "We are fragile culturally and socially…but life is fragile to begin with. All that it takes is a little bit of bad luck in the management of those supports, and you're cooked…you can actually be cooked—with global warming!"



Keep reading Show less