Small Things to Remember to Change Your Life for the Better

Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

It’s the first week of 2017, and Science of Us is exploring the science that explains how people make meaningful changes in their lives. Handy information for resolution season.

It is a New Year, which means, if we are to believe the PR pitches in my inbox, it is time for a New You. But perhaps you would rather just make some slight improvements to Old You, instead of going to the trouble of creating a whole New You from scratch. Here, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite lessons from behavioral science over the years, all of which are smallish ways that can help you create significant changes in your life. New You is just Old You with slightly better habits.

Take advantage of the weirdly powerful effect of writing.

In particular, some of us live and die by our to-do lists, and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin — author of the 2014 book The Organized Mindhas a theory on their underrated power:

I think this is really important, that you write down all the things that you have to do, clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro resources with that little voice reminding you to pick up milk on the way home and to check to see if you paid the utility bill and that you have to call back Aunt Tilly because she left a voicemail and she’s going to worry and all this chatter — get it out of your head, write it down, then prioritize things.

Also: Regular journaling (as in, three 20-minute sessions per week) seems to help with mood regulation and goal achievement. (And bullet journaling specifically gets a nod of approval from Levitin, too, if that’s the kind of person you want to be in 2017.)

Use the “fresh-start effect.”

That New Year/New You feeling has a name: Research psychologists call it the “fresh-start effect,” a term used to describe the hunger for change that often comes with the start of some new era. These are “intertemporal markers,” which “make people feel disconnected from their past imperfections” by “disrupt[ing] people’s focus on day-to-day minutiae, thereby promoting a big-picture view of life.” In one study, for example, college students were more likely to attend the campus gym earlier in the month, week, or day than later; the researchers also noted an uptick in gym attendance right after a school break, and, interestingly, right after gym-goers’ birthdays.

If you didn’t quite get going on a resolution on January 1, however, not to worry — as my colleague Jesse Singal once wrote, you can simply make up a fresh start out of thin air. A “new era” can be as big as getting married or starting a new job, or it can be as small as a Monday morning.

Take a third-person perspective.

Weird, isn’t it, how often you seem to know exactly what your friends and family should do to change their lives for the better? Perhaps inspired by this peculiar brand of know-it-all-ness, researchers at the University of Waterloo and the University of Michigan found in a series of experiments that people tended to make better decisions if they took a third-person perspective when considering their choices. Before making a change, try to imagine: What would you advise a friend in your same situation? (Just please try not to forget about Future You.)

By the way, the authors of a separate study, also on taking an outsider’s view of your own life, opened their paper by referencing an old LeBron James interview. In it, James explains his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami. “One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision,” James told ESPN reporter Jon Greenberg. “I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”

Adopt a reasonable amount of pessimism.

Daydreaming is fun. (Most of the time, anyway.) But focusing too much on “positive fantasies” can backfire when you’re trying to make lasting changes to your life, or so theorizes New York University professor Gabriele Oettingen. Instead, she suggests the following: WOOP. It’s Oettingen’s acronym for her four steps for more realistic goal-setting:

Wish: Dream up a goal.
Outcome: Imagine what it would be like to achieve that goal.
Obstacles: Return to reality for a second and consider the problems you may run into in the process.
Plan: Figure out how you’ll get past the obstacles.

It’s very similar to Daniel Kahneman’s “premortem” idea: “Imagine that you are [X amount of time] into the future. You implemented your plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Take five to ten minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.” It’s often worth dwelling on your failures, but this is perhaps especially useful to try before they actually happen.

Remember this tiny word: “Yet.”

Carol Dweck is a Stanford professor and the brains behind the notion of “mind-sets”: If you have a fixed mind-set, you believe your abilities or skills are pretty stable. If you’re not great at math, well, you’re just the kind of person who’s not great at math — not much you can do about it. If you have a growth mind-set, on the other hand, you believe that with effort you can get better at something you’re bad at. As Dweck once explained:

We’ve found that putting in certain phrases like not yet or yet can really boost students’ motivation. So if a student says, “I’m not a math person — yet” “I can’t do this — yet.” And it means that with your guidance they will continue on their learning trajectory and get there eventually. It puts their fixed mindset statement into a growth mindset context of learning over time.

That’s not to say that everyone is destined to be, say, a math wunderkind; it’s just that everyone is capable of getting a little bit better than they were when they started. Useful advice for Old You, New You, and whatever version of You you become in between.

Small Things to Remember to Change Your Life for the Better