It’s that time of year when people look to the future, look at themselves, and resolve to improve.
It’s a great impulse, but it’s also an unfortunate truth that most resolutions barely outlast January. Gyms actually build their business models around the certainty that the spike in membership at the start of the year will fund a much-reduced occupancy through the rest of the year. Indeed, if all the members actually regularly attended – as they had resolved to – then the gym would be so overcrowded it would collapse.
So, why? What is it about psychology that makes people super keen to do better, but unable to sustain the change needed? And how does this relate to limerence?
1) It’s habits again
It’s becoming a recurrent theme of the blog, but so much of our behaviour is governed by habit and so much of habitual behaviour is subconscious, that without a deliberate and strategic attempt to intervene changing our ways is very difficult. Familiar patterns are comfortable, take no cognitive effort, and are a sort of mental autopilot. You need to switch that autopilot off and start driving yourself if you are going to reverse bad habits and establish good ones. It’s essential to recognise that wanting and hoping are not effective in themselves, and need to be coupled to a clever strategy to actually reverse the old bad habits.
2) Too much too soon
Another common pitfall is to resolve with great determination to turn yourself around, and then start on the self improvement project immediately, and all in. This is the classic for exercise. The enthusiasm and drive for getting fitter carries you to the gym, signs you up, and gets you doing a few workouts. But then you set yourself impossible goals – a full body workout three times a week. The irresistible force of your ambition and willpower soon meets the immovable object of reality. You can’t go from couch potato to crossfit pro in three months.
Willpower is for sprints. If you are trying to complete a self-contained project (like redecorating the spare room, or taking your dad on holiday) then it can be useful as a spur to action. But if you are aiming for a lasting change (like eating well or exercising regularly), willpower won’t get you across the finishing line, because there is no finishing line. Instead, the best strategy is to focus on attainable goals: attending the gym at least once a week. Going on an exercise bike for 10 min a day. Doing 5 press ups. Start small, start manageable, and then build. If you are clever about the process, you can even build in mini-peaks of achievement along the way, to help reinforce the new behaviour. Add one extra press up every week, until you get to 20 a day. Train for 30 min instead of 10 min. Build. Don’t try to go from zero to one hundred in one fell swoop.
3) Change the habit or change yourself?
Sometimes the habit is relatively trivial, and it’s easy to follow the Charles Duhigg method of replacing the middle part of the “cue → routine → reward” pattern with a new, healthier, routine that leads to the same reward. But sometimes it becomes clear that the issue is deeper.
To effect lasting change it is often necessary to address the root of the behavioral problem more directly. Let’s take an example of resolving to get more productive work done and waste less time.
There are (at least) two layers to this problem – a habit of wasting time (let’s say on social media) and a deeper issue of favouring pleasurable distractions over more purposeful activity (such as advancing a career, launching a side project, or learning a new skill). Without recognising the deeper problem, it will be hard to make the surface change stick. Fortunately, though, once you are aware of the deeper problem (the psychological urge to seek comfort), a two-layered response can be devised.
The lower layer is a broad resolution to treat the foundation (I will become a more industrious person) and the upper layer is to devise some specific, manageable resolutions that help that deeper goal (I will reduce my time on social media by an hour a day, and read a reference book instead). The specific resolution is easy to implement, and modest in ambition, but it creates a virtuous cycle where that relatively simple change leads to compounding benefits. Meeting that goal increases your sense of self-worth, is concrete evidence that you are becoming more industrious and therefore, helps you achieve the bigger ambition.
Making a limerence resolution stick:
So, taking these ideas and thinking about a new year’s resolution to take control over a destructive limerence episode. What could work? Well, there are two layers to this: first, you have a broad resolution:
I am going to stop being a person that gives in to limerence
That in itself is a Big Challenge, which is best beaten with several smaller challenges that move you in the right direction. So the second layer of resolutions could be:
I will not text LO after 8 pm.
I will change my lunch routine to avoid meeting LO in the cafeteria
I will turn down every second invitation for after-work drinks, if LO will be there
The resolution to master limerence is a good one, but without some specific and attainable goals it’s too big and too nebulous a goal to be realistic. Keep things simple, and build on small wins.
Good luck, and Happy New Year, all!