Your Brain Can’t Handle New Year’s Resolutions

Your Brain Can’t Handle New Year’s Resolutions





The neuroscience is indeed interesting; the brain cells that operate willpower are located in the Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC), which is the area right behind your forehead. This area of the brain is also responsible for staying focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract tasks. When you set a New Year’s resolution, it is this PFC area that goes into overdrive, as an enormous amount of willpower is required. It is this surge in activity at that your brain simply can’t handle. Imagine your Pre Frontal Cortex as a simple muscle; it needs to be trained, developed and worked on. If you decide to train this ‘muscle’ at the start of the New Year, with a resolution to say quit smoking, add to it start going to the gym and then lose lots of weight, that’s the equivalent of doing an world record squat lift without any previous training. It’s no surprise that your brain can’t do the heavy lifting.

Look into my eyes and just do it. So you can blame your overloaded brain for it’s lack of success on seeing through you resolutions. There is a secondary problem about trying to tackle a goal because someone told you to (or because you simply think you should). It seems that taking on a goal because of outside pressure just makes people want to rebel. There’s an important distinction to be drawn between goals that we feel that we should accomplish and those we believe we truly want to accomplish. Rarely do we attain goals unless we truly embrace the goal. Make sure you’re only picking goals because you’re ready and eager to fulfill them.

So what strategies might work in helping you achieve your NYr? The latest research into the psychology and the neuroscience of goal setting and willpower offer some surprising non-cliché tips for making your resolutions work for you.

1. Pick Only One Resolution. Start with the biggest goal you have for 2015 and let’s focus on that one. Exclude all the sub goals and mini resolutions. In an experiment conducted at Stanford, one group of students was given a two digit number to memorise while the other group was given a seven digit number. Afterwards, they were asked to walk down a hallway while holding that number in memory and presented with the option to eat a slice of cake or fruit salad at the end. It turns out that the seven digit memorisers were nearly twice as likely to choose cake over the fruit salad. It was as though memorising the extra numbers took up ‘good decision making’ space in their brain. Pick one key goals to focus on and you’ll be much more likely to follow through. Then, let go of everything else, otherwise you’ll be picking the chocolate cake for every situation, instead of the choice that you set out to make.

1. Start on Monday. I know that New Year is on a Thursday this year, but think about the 5th as your key day. The turn of another year tricks us into seeing our big-picture selves, our slates wiped clean. Take advantage of it. People commit to their goals more fiercely after a major benchmark like New Year’s Day. If you are an I-don’t-believe-in-resolutions person who nonetheless wants to break a bad habit, wait for a Monday. It’s the most popular day of the week for starting diets and stopping smoking, studies show.

2. Focus on the carrot, not the stick. A new powerful study from the University of Chicago outlines how clearly positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions. Hand in hand with this goes the fact that rewarding yourself for advances with your habits with things that make you feel great way to increase your success rate.

3. Pick a Round Number. George Wu, Professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and his colleagues recently looked at marathon runners at the end of their races. A huge number of people finished in times that clustered around ’round’ numbers, the researchers discovered e.g. a 4-hour marathon. Marathon runners feel a lot worse just missing these really arbitrary reference points: the round numbers. So when people are really, really close to just missing their round-number goal, they’re much more likely to speed up at the painful end to beat it. People who are projected to beat it comfortably, however, actually slow down.

4. Chunk it up. My hero, the late Professor George Miller came up with a theory about short term memory ( 7 +/- 2 ) that helped people learn and recall more efficiently. Use the same ‘chunking up’process for your NYR. You know how good it feels to tick off an item from your to-do list. Put that to work by hacking a massive goal (reading 24 books a year, say) into parts (two per month).

One very comforting and important last fact is that having strong willpower is not something we’re born with, as opposed to popular opinion. So just like your muscles have to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does the Pre Frontal Cortex in your brain. The key is to make sure not to start lifting too heavy, as then we’re bound to drop everything on the floor with our New Year’s Resolutions.

One goal, 365 days, Be Amazing Every Day.

Happy New Year.

Google Irony

Irony is the one form of humour that everyone thinks they understand, when actually no one really does. Truly, it is the cleverest joke ever played on mankind. It is also one of the most misused words in the entire English language. It is not something Alanis Morissette understands at all (see the analysis of this later) and Google seem to be struggling with. My friend told me recently that, ‘I just don’t understand Google or irony’. Which was ironic because we were at the bus stop at the time.

One of my favourite ‘ironic events’ (IE) last month was the celebration of World Standards Day. It is celebrated internationally each year on 14 October. The aim of World Standards Day is to raise awareness among regulators, industry and consumers as to the importance of standardisation to the global economy. The 14 October was specifically chosen to mark the date because on this date in 1946, delegates from 25 countries first gathered in London and decided to create an international organisation focused on facilitating standardisation. The United States held their Celebration of World Standards Day on 23rd October 2014. Nice.

It has been a rich month for irony watchers and IE geeks like me. Irony is usually defined as the intended meaning being an inversion of the plain meaning. Pretty simple really (see formula at end of post to work out if something is ironic), but somehow a difficult concept for many to grasp including Google. There is a rather hidden (by hidden I mean not well publicised; I stumbled across it while researching ironic news stories) page on the Google website that details: Our Philosophy: Ten things we know to be true. Summarised below are the bullet points, but for more complete insights read their page carefully:

  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  3. Fast is better than slow.
  4. Democracy on the web works.
  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  6. You can make money without doing evil.
  7. There’s always more information out there.
  8. The need for information crosses all borders.
  9. You can be serious without a suit.
  10. Great just isn’t good enough.

Now lots of these statements have their own delicious irony (more on the meaning of that shortly) but many could be said to be misleading and untrue as well. Information crosses borders? Competition is a click away? Google search is unbiased? Google clearly identifies its advertising? All rather controversial in that Google clearly is not very open (noting clear and open as key words). However, when one fact-checks Google’s record it proves overstated and not entirely true. Udi Mandber, Google’s VP for search quality famously posted about Google: We are, to be honest, quite secretive about what we doOh the irony!

Their assertion that the competition is a click away, is perhaps the most obvious ironic statement. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained Google’s oft-stated primary antitrust defense. “We are one click away from losing you as a customer, so it is very difficult to lock you in as a customer in a way that traditional companies have.” This fundamental Google antirust defence story line is not true. First, it fails the dictionary test in that the dictionary definition of a “customer” is “one that buys goods or services,” when search is free. Second, it fails the real world test, in that if users were Google customers, why does Google have no customer service operation for users or a way for a user to connect with a Google employee? Lastly, it fails the law enforcement test in that the DOJFTC, and EU have already determined that Google’s customers are advertisers not users.

Then consider the sentiment that ‘Google works for user’: Focus on the user and all else will follow. Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line.

The truth is that users are not the customers for which Google works, users are the product that Google effectively sells to advertisers. With 99% of their $39 billion in annual revenues coming from advertisers, Google is obviously in the advertising business and its financial interests are aligned with advertisers not users. Remarkably in Google’s public representation of its business on its website under What We Do (check it out) there is no statement that Google is an advertising company or that Google’s paying customers are advertisers.

To give you some Google visual irony at this point, take the Google doodle / sketch of the 28 October 2014:

The sketch is both patented and copyright. It has at its heart Jonas Salk, celebrating 100 years since the discovery of the Polio Vaccine. This was one of the most important discoveries of modern medicine and one that is famously not patented.

Salk’s famous rhetorical question, ‘Could you patent the sun?’ is an oversimplification of the complicated questions behind intellectual property. Salk’s contribution was both massively significant and his selflessness made him seem like even more of a hero. Google’s decision to patent its daily scribbles seems absurd, especially since you would think that they would simply be protected under copyright laws. But as Business Insider explained when Google won its Doodle patent in 2011, you can’t blame the company for participating in the system, after all, it’s competitors do. Ironic really.

Well is it? Let’s begin with what irony is not, since that is where the confusion mainly comes from:

• It is not a lie.
• It is not a joke.
• It is not a coincidence.
• It is not merely anything unexpected.
• It is not the same as sarcasm.

Which makes the song Ironic recorded by the Canadian-American singer Alanis Morissette for her third album, Jagged Little Pill (1995) even more special. It was written by Morissette and Glen Ballard, and was produced by him. Alanis contribution was the ‘Isn’t it ironic’. Even if irony was simply any amusing coincidence (which is overly generous), most of the lines in the song are not ; each one is tragic, annoying, or inconvenient, but not ironic. My comedian hero, Ed Byrne did once describe some qualifiers which would MAKE certain lines ironic (such as the line about rain on your wedding day — ironic if you’re the weatherman).

As American comedian George Carlin once said:

If a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is hit and killed by a truck, that is an accident. If the truck was carrying sugar, then he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck that hit him was carrying insulin, then he is the victim of irony.

There are several types of irony according to theorists: SocraticVerbalDramatic,TragicSituationalCosmic, and Historical. If something does not fit in any of these, it is not irony. But there are some fuzzy boundaries among irony and concepts such as sarcasm or satire make more difficult to establish patterns beyond punctuation marks or beyond domain-specific words. So which of these is ironic?

  • I feel so miserable without you, it’s almost like having you here.
  • Sometimes I need what only you can provide: your absence.
  • I thank God that you are unique.

According to different people’s perception, these three examples could be ironic, sarcastic or even satirical. This means there is not a clear distinction about their boundaries. While irony courts ambiguity and often exhibits great subtlety, sarcasm is delivered with a cutting or withering tone that is rarely ambiguous. In addition irony evokes certain types of emotions. In these examples, we can cite aggressiveness, surprise, desire, and why not, zest and pleasure. Finally, we cannot obviate their funny effect.

Where does irony end and where does sarcasm (or satire) begin? Back to the news and time to consider whether these are ironic, sarcastic or even satirical. From the very reliable and unbiased champion of the underdog and low pay, Daily Mail this week:

Feminist T-shirts worn by politicians are made in ‘sweatshop’ conditions

… now we learn that these T-Shirts were made in a sweat shop on the tiny island nation of Mauritius by girls who only get paid pennies a day! But, where were those shirts made? The £45 T-shirts carry the defiant slogan ‘This is what a feminist looks like’. But one of the thousands of machinists declared: ‘We do not see ourselves as feminists. We see ourselves as trapped.’

From the Legal world (well German legal World which appears to be an alternative universe):

Formula One’s boss has bribery accusations dropped by paying across money

“I ASSUME”, Judge Peter Noll told the defendant, Bernie Ecclestone, in a Munich court on August 5th, that “we’ll only see each other again on television.” With that Mr Ecclestone, the 83-year-old boss of Formula One motor racing, was free to leave. He must pay $100m—$99m to the state of Bavaria, $1m to a charitable foundation for children. But he will continue to be presumed innocent of the bribery charges that could have sent him to prison for up to ten years and put a spoke in the wheel of his sports empire.

One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used. I used Google to find that definition.The ultimately irony? It could be that the Morissette ‘Ironic’ song has actually nothing ironic within it…or that Google’s 10 things we know to be true can be researched on Google and be shown to be untrue.


Be Amazing Every Day

There is also a ‘simple’ mathematical equation that defines Irony:

Where ( according to Antonio Reyes, Paolo Rosso, Davide Buscaldi in their original paper, From humor recognition to irony detection: The figurative language of social media ) S is the set of synsets (s, …, sn) for word w; P(n,k) is the number of permutations of n objects in k slots; and d(si, sj) is the length of the hypernym path between synsets (si, sj) according to WordNet. This formula is a way of quantifying the difference among the senses of a word.