Working In Uncertainty

Why good intentions are eroded by the unexpected, and what to do about it

Contents

There can't be many people who have never tried to improve their lives in some way, started following a plan, but then given up. Health clubs are busy for a couple of months after Christmas but things soon get back to normal as good intentions crumble. Store cupboards and loft spaces around the developed world are filled with junk bought when something seemed to be a good idea, only for the item to lie unused until finally, guiltily, we put it away for long term storage – out of sight and out of mind.

Why do most good intentions come to nothing?

In this article I'll explain how the unexpected plays a key role in creating and destroying our resolve, why much of our apparently weak-willed behaviour is quite rational, and what we can do to manage some of the less rational aspects of our decision making.

Do this well and you can expect to:

  • stick to good intentions for longer, but not longer than you should;

  • avoid wasting so much time on things that quickly prove unnecessary; and

  • rebound from the periods of adversity that usually kill good intentions forever.

How good intentions rise and fall

To understand why our good intentions crumble so often we need to go back to the point where they are formed. Why that plan? Why then? For example, why do so many good intentions form just after Christmas?

It's not just a New Year tradition. The reason is that we usually form good intentions when the case for them seems most compelling. For example, just after Christmas many of us are in poor physical shape. In the Northern hemisphere we've had perhaps months of cold, wet weather and spent much time indoors. We've over-indulged during the Christmas holiday (a huge holiday here in the UK) and been sitting down most of the time. During the same period work pressures tend to recede as many people take holidays at around this time and things tend to be quiet at the office. After a couple of weeks to forget the stresses of work life we start to feel that we have time to spare. Put those two together and the case for action is clear: we must get in shape and we feel ready and able to do it.

Now fast forward a month and work stress is kicking in, with overtime creeping up again. We're not in such bad shape as we were. We've been keeping up those gym visits for a whole month but our good intentions are now vulnerable because the case for action is much weaker than it was. We fall ill with a bad cold for a week and have to cut out the exercise. Back to the office and catching up with work is the top priority. Two weeks later and that new exercise regime is history.

Sound familiar?

If so there's no need to feel inadequate or weak willed. Not only are you in excellent company but there's a rational basis for a lot of this behaviour. The case for most self improvement ideas does rise and fall in strength, and it's natural to decide to take action when the case is near a peak of persuasiveness. It's also a basic statistical law that the likely direction for that strength to go next is downwards. In short, we start good regimes when the case for them is unusually strong but stop later when the case weakens, as it normally does.

Our mistake is sometimes to think that this is entirely due to our lack of will-power. Will-power can be important, especially when we try to break addictive habits, but planning and decision-making behaviours also play a vital part. These can be adjusted once we understand what is really going wrong. So, put guilt aside and let's look at how to avoid some of the more subtle mistakes that undermine our progress.

Plan for fluctuating priorities

We tend to plan our new habits on the basis that things will continue as they are. This is another example of our tendency to look at the future with blinkers, something I often call 'uncertainty suppression'.

Planning on the basis that things will continue as they are now is unrealistic because, as we've seen, the conditions for our new habit are likely to get worse, and will certainly fluctuate over time. Consequently we tend to have unrealistically high expectations of what we will do and the results we will achieve. The average reality over time will usually be lower.

Here are some things we can do to plan for fluctuating priorities:

  • Identify a range of things you can do. For example, instead of simply resolving to go to the gym three times a week, accept that there are many levels of investment and that you will fluctuate over time, ranging from three times a week to five minutes of calisthenics at home, or at least trying to get a walk each day. Accepting these possibilities is not giving up at the start; it is setting yourself up to persist with something when the going gets tough, rather than give up completely.

  • Plan rewards for varying levels of investment and result. Don't assume a level of investment, a level of end results, and then set that as a target. The chances are that in two weeks time that target will be too high and lead to disappointment and loss of motivation. Make sure that, one way or another, you will be rewarded for any progress, but of course more rewarded if the progress is greater.

  • Plan to review all priorities regularly and frequently, and adjust activities accordingly. This is vital if you are to restart something after an illness or other crisis, when just getting through the day was the only priority that you could cope with. Review all priorities and vary investment in different activities accordingly.

  • Try to predict how conditions will change over time. If you are planning to start a family be aware that most people fail dismally to anticipate the cataclysmic impact of a baby on their lives. Generally, some changes are quite predictable and some conditions are long lasting. For example, we all continue to get older. However, it is much harder to predict all potentially competing priorities, which is why we should force ourselves to have a more open view of the future.

  • Prefer initiatives that give benefits quickly. If it takes a long time before you see a return it's much more likely that you will get no return at all before switching to new priorities.

  • Plan to learn by being flexible and exploiting exploration and chance discovery. Writing a specific action plan to build a skill often leads to plans that are brittle. As long as everything goes as expected they're great. But as soon as something surprising happens you can get demoralised by failure or fail to notice and exploit a breakthrough. Make specific plans, but also plan to be flexible and to explore what you can do. Try different things. Maybe you can't do what you intended, but you find by exploring that you can do something else that is also progress. Reward these achievements just as much as you would reward accomplishment of a planned goal.

Always persist with commitments that need no investment

Some of our good resolutions need no investment of time, energy, or money before a benefit is received. Stop smoking, eat better, don't waste time browsing for nothing in shops, watch far less television. These things save time, energy, and often money, immediately (or certainly within a couple of hours). They never draw on our resources, even in the short term, so there is no reason for them to be pushed out by other priorities.

We should always fight our addictive feelings for these behaviours and persist with our good intentions whatever the other priorities in our lives.

Compare this to going to a gym for some exercise. The immediate impact is 1 - 2 hours consumed and, usually, fatigue. Later you'll feel better but that's later. Going to the gym can legitimately lose out to other priorities that need the time and energy now.

Addictive feelings (including 'soft' addictions like shopping and watching television) can and should be fought by every means possible including artificial rewards, auto-suggestion, positive self talk, selective exposure to evidence, and social pressure. Do not apply these methods to other self-improvement initiatives. What is the point of deliberately distorting your judgements about whether something is worthwhile or not? Besides, convincing yourself of something that is not true can be hard, especially when you are confronted with evidence you have to ignore.

The vast majority of advice on motivating yourself is devoted to methods of keeping yourself convinced that the effort is worth it, even if it is not and you should really have changed your priorities. Write things down. Reward yourself like a puppy being trained. Tell friends of your commitment so they can help you stick to it. Listen to tapes telling you to keep going. Tell yourself ten times a day. Join a mutual support group so you can encourage each other.

Isn't it better to see things as they really are? Start with realistic expectations and keep making the most rational decisions you can using as much good evidence as you can conveniently obtain.

Don't over- or under-react to events

Sometimes we over-react to events, perhaps even taking a single incident as evidence of a suddenly emerging trend we need to respond to. We are biased towards evidence that is recent, particularly if it is dramatic and memorable. Often, as I mentioned earlier, we don't recognise that events fluctuate due to a lot of complex variability that does not make a trend. A high point is more likely to be followed by decline than by further rises, but we extrapolate to further rises.

When we over-react it causes us to adjust our priorities too far and too fast. We abandon good intentions we should stick with and pick up new ones that are unlikely to last.

Unfortunately, we also under-react to events, especially when other people are involved and it takes a long time to act on our initial intentions. By the time we get round to acting the need has already passed.

There's no easy prescription but it may help to think about the trends you think you are reacting to and consider how fast they could reasonably be expected to arise. Think whether there are long term trends in factors that would be expected to cause the incidents you are reacting to. If not they may be just a blip.

Life trends like getting older and having a growing family are not hard to predict! That is why the case for action on our health and relationships tends to be strong and get stronger throughout most of our lives.

Don't underestimate maintenance effort

Many of the things we want to improve require an initial effort to reach a better level, and then a continued effort to maintain that level. For example, weight loss, new knowledge, and physical fitness.

Often we under-estimate the level of effort needed for maintenance. Consequently, even when we achieve the initial improvement it is common to find it slipping away again.

Don't be vague about whether it's working

Sometimes the benefits we are working for are hard to see. They may accumulate slowly and gradually, and so be hard to notice. You can also lose track of how much effort you have actually put in. Consequently, when you come to think about how much benefit you have achieved for the effort made, and whether it is worthwhile to continue, the case can be unconvincing and that may lead you to give up on a worthwhile initiative.

Sometimes, collecting precise evidence of work done and results achieved can remove the doubt and allow a better decision about whether to continue. Keep records and draw graphs. If things are going well there are few things more motivating than scientific confirmation.

Other examples

In this article I've used a number of examples, most often to do with physical fitness. That's because it's familiar to most people. There are many other types of good intention that work the same way, with initial enthusiasm fizzling out over time. For example:

  • Acquiring new knowledge. My house is full of non-fiction books I bought when I thought their topic was going to be valuable to me in the future. Many have not been opened since I bought them and few have been read all the way through.

  • Developing training courses. For exactly the same reasons, a company's training department might make numerous false starts on training requirements that soon fade away. (My personal experience is that this does not happen often. Training departments usually lag far behind real training needs.)

  • Improvements to house or garden. Have you ever started a DIY job but had to leave it unfinished for a while because you did not have time to complete it before other priorities claimed your time? It once took me more than three months to paint some shelves. To be fair there were a lot of them, but at times they stood untouched for weeks at a time. These jobs are almost never as simple as one expects.

Summary

The human tendency to break resolutions to improve is yet another implication of our habit of planning our lives on the basis of an overly narrow view of the future. Once we realise that the future is harder to predict and more variable, and begin making more flexible plans, we have a much better chance of consistent progress, even though that progress may not be what we initially expected.


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Words © 2004 Matthew Leitch. First published 13 April 2004.