If you find yourself faltering in keeping your resolutions—perhaps that pledge to hit the gym four days a week, or to banish desserts from your life—take heart. In his new book The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results, Bob Nease, Ph.D., describes seven strategies that lead to better decision-making, helping us make good on our goals and resolutions, whether it’s exercising regularly or eating healthier snacks.
Here’s the science behind his strategies: Our brains can handle ten million bits of information per second, yet only 50 bits are devoted to conscious thought. We’re wired for inattention and inertia, a cognitive limitation that’s been with us since we lived in caves. Back then it worked in our favor: we paid attention to only a few important daily challenges—eat or be eaten—and moved as little as possible in order to retain scarce calories. Our brains still want to work that way.
So what we can do to bridge this cognitive divide? Can we deliberately overcome our nature with a little bit of nurture? Here are Nease’s seven steps.
Strategy 1: Require Choice Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight, eat healthier, or you’re experimenting with portion control. Nease says do something as simple as putting the fruits, veggies and water on the dining table and leave the potatoes, bread and wine on the counter in the kitchen. “The reason that works,” he says, “is we don’t actually choose what we’re eating; most of the time we’re on automatic pilot. But if you have to deliberately get up, you’re much more likely to be triggering the part of your brain that wants to do the right thing. If you’re willing to re-engineer your environment,” says Nease, you’ll find that you have a much better chance of achieving your goals.
Strategy 2: Lock in Good Intentions “We all know we’re going to be tempted by something,” says Nease, whose girlfriend Gina, now his wife, made him remove all the TVs in his apartment when they moved in together, not because she hated television, but because she loved it…too much. This kind of self-protective behavior is called a pre-commitment. You know you’ll eat a whole bag of potato chips as easily as you’ll eat one chip, so you just don’t have them in the house. When you set your alarm clock at night, you leave it on the dresser instead of the nightstand, making it impossible to just hit the snooze button. “You need to try things out and find the strategy that works for you, and it needs to be painful enough to point you in the right direction, but not so much that you throw in the towel.”
Strategy 3: Let it Ride The employer-sponsored 401(k) plan is a classic example of “let it ride.” You sign up, pick deductions and allocations, and then like clockwork, you’re saving money for retirement, something you likely wouldn’t do if you had to sign a check every month. Automatic refill programs on prescription medications are another example of letting it ride. If attention and inertia (aka procrastination) are our enemies, these automatic processes can be welcome allies. “Delegate the decision-making to someone else. Sign up for auto-pay on your utility bill if you’re constantly late,” says Nease. Outsourcing and delegating help us preserve more of our precious 50 bits.
Strategy 4: Get in the Flow Our scarce 50 bits go to what’s pressing or pleasurable, says Nease, and not necessarily what’s most important over the long term. “If you grab people by the shoulders and ask ‘Do you want to do this or that?’ usually what they want is the right thing.” But since you can’t grab your own shoulders, you want to go where the 50 bits already are. Put a sticky note on the bathroom mirror, where you know you’ll see it when you shave. “You have a very narrow lane of attention,” says Nease, so getting in the flow of your daily routine can help you remember all the important things you need to do, without dedicating any of your 50 bits to remembering to do them.