Master Life Faster: Newsletter

How to keep your New Year’s resolution

Posted in Newsletter by Paul Lem, M.D. on January 6, 2009

Volume 2, Issue 1
SMART: New tricks for old dogs
HEALTHY: Friendly weight loss
SOCIAL: Poor Charlie’s Almanack

“The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”
-T.H. Huxley

New Tricks for Old Dogs

hoop-dreamsDid you make a New Year’s resolution? If so, you’re not alone. About 40-50 percent of Americans make a commitment in January. The top three resolutions are losing weight (31 percent), starting an exercise program (15 percent), and quitting smoking (12 percent). What are the chances you’ll follow through? In a study from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, researchers found that 46 percent of people who made a New Year’s resolution had achieved their goal 6 months later. In contrast, people who wanted to change but didn’t make a resolution were only successful in 4 percent of cases.

Planning is Priceless

Is there anything you can do to improve your chances? It turns out there are two major ways: (1) make a plan, and (2) change your environment. At the University of Sheffield, researchers studied the rate of breast self-examination (BSE) in 155 women. When women wrote down exactly when and where they would perform BSE, 100 percent actually did it. For women who had the goal but no plan, the rate was only 53 percent.

To turn a new behavior into a long-term habit, it helps to change your environment in a way that favors the new behavior. In a telemarketing company in the Netherlands, workers were asked to visualize and write down when, where, and how they planned to recycle their old paper and used plastic cups. Some of the workers were also given a personal recycling box to place in a prominent position by their desk. After 1 week, participants were recycling almost all of their paper and cups. Two months later, both groups were still recycling most of their garbage, but the workers with the personal recycling boxes were recycling the most.

Make 2009 a Success

This year, achieve your New Year’s resolution by following these three simple steps:

  1. Set a specific goal. e.g. I will lose 10 pounds in 2 months.
  2. Make a specific plan that answers the questions: where, when, and how. e.g. when I come home from work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will put on my sneakers and run in the park for 15 minutes.
  3. Change your environment. e.g. post a big sign by your desk that reminds you to run on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


Norcross JC, Mrykalo MS, Blagys MD. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. J Clin Psychol. 58:397-405. Abstract.

Orbell S, Hodgkins S, Sheeran P. (1997). Implementation intentions and the Theory of Planned Behavior. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 23: 945-954. Abstract.

Holland RW, Aarts H, Langendam D. (2006). Breaking and creating habits on the working floor: A field-experiment on the power of implementation intentions. J Exp Soc Psychol. 42: 776-783. Abstract.

“Never eat more than you can lift.”
-Miss Piggy

Friendly Weight Loss

girlfriends1Did you gain a few pounds over the holidays? I must confess that I ate more than my share of chocolate and desserts. In Master Life Faster, I talk about how a Paleolithic diet of lean protein and fresh fruits and vegetables is the healthiest way to lose weight and keep it off forever. In the first 3-5 days, you will lose several pounds, mainly from water loss. Over the next 6 months, you will lose about 10-15 pounds, even if you don’t exercise or decrease your calorie intake. But if you do exercise and eat slightly less, you will lose about 30-75 pounds, depending on your starting weight.

Lean on Me

To help you achieve your weight loss goal, it’s a good idea to work together with a small group. At the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, researchers recruited participants either alone or with 3 friends or family members. All participants received standard behavioral treatment such as meal plans, exercise programs, and problem-solving training. At the end of 10 months, 76 percent of those recruited alone completed treatment and 24 percent maintained their weight loss in full from Months 4 to 10. For those recruited with friends, 95 percent completed treatment and 66 percent maintained their weight loss in full.

If you ask around, I’m sure you can find some friends or family members who ate too much turkey and stuffing at Christmas dinner. Make a New Year’s resolution that you’ll lose the weight together.

Cordain L. (2002). The Paleo diet: lose weight and get healthy by eating the food you were designed to eat. John Wiley & Sons.

Wing RR, Jeffery RW. (1999). Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 67(1): 132-138. Abstract.

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
-Albert Einstein

Poor Charlie’s Almanack

poor-charlies-almanackCharlie Munger is Warren Buffett’s billionaire partner at Berkshire Hathaway. In Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Charlie explains the usefulness of a latticework of mental models for developing worldly wisdom (see our October 2008 issue for more details). By evaluating investment ideas through the lens of his latticework, Charlie has helped Warren pick stock market winners such as Coca-Cola and American Express. Yes, it’s useful to know how to pick stocks. But perhaps the most useful section in the book is Charlie’s list of 25 psychological tendencies that underlie human nature.

25 Tendencies of Human Nature

  1. Reward and Punishment Superresponse: e.g. Pachinko machines are addictive because you constantly receive small rewards.
  2. Liking/Loving: e.g. your judgment is impaired when you fall in love. Just ask Romeo and Juliet.
  3. Disliking/Hating: e.g. you assume the worst of your enemies.
  4. Doubt-Avoidance: many people would rather believe in something flawed than persist in doubt.
  5. Inconsistency-Avoidance: people become fixed in their beliefs to avoid inconsistency
  6. Curiosity: e.g. thrill seekers.
  7. Kantian Fairness: e.g. waiting your turn in line.
  8. Envy/Jealousy: e.g. keeping up with the Joneses.
  9. Reciprocation: e.g. gift exchanges and returning favors.
  10. Influence-from-Mere-Association: e.g. Wall Street traders believe that their returns are due to skill and not luck.
  11. Simple, Pain-Avoiding Psychological Denial: e.g. retail therapy.
  12. Excessive Self-Regard Tendency: e.g. pride.
  13. Overoptimism: e.g. people think their odds of winning the lottery are higher when they pick their own tickets.
  14. Deprival-Superreaction: e.g. the reaction you get when you try taking something away from a child.
  15. Social-Proof: e.g. peer pressure.
  16. Contrast-Misreaction: e.g. a real estate agent makes an expensive house seem less expensive by showing you an exorbitantly-priced house first.
  17. Stress-Influence: we’re more susceptible to other people’s influence when we’re stressed or tired.
  18. Availability-Misweighing: vivid examples are top of mind e.g. parents are more afraid of guns killing their children than swimming pools, even though a pool is 100 times more likely to kill a child than a gun is.
  19. Use-It-or-Lose-It: your skills decline if you don’t practice them.
  20. Drug-Misinfluence: alcohol and drugs impair your judgement.
  21. Senescence-Misinfluence: your skills decline as you get older.
  22. Authority-Misinfluence: e.g. you assume your doctor must be right.
  23. Twaddle: people often talk about things they know nothing about.
  24. Reason-Respecting: e.g. technical jargon sounds impressive.
  25. Lollapalooza: when several psychological tendencies work together in the same direction, you can get unexpectedly large effects.

Forewarned is Forearmed

By carefully studying the list of 25 tendencies, you can protect yourself from being manipulated. For example, Bernie Madoff is accused of running a giant Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of billions of dollars. In this New York Times article, how many tendencies can you identify that influenced investors to trust Madoff with their money?

Fool Yourself into Improving

Note that you can also harness the power of the 25 tendencies to improve your life. For example, in the previous article in this newsletter, we learned that social support significantly improves the odds of losing weight. Why does it work? From Charlie’s list, we can identify at least 5 tendencies working together to produce a Lollapalooza effect:

  1. Reward Superresponse: it’s a boost to your self-esteem when you lose weight and receive compliments from others in your group.
  2. Inconsistency-Avoidance: you’ve publicly committed to losing weight, and you don’t want to be seen as a liar.
  3. Envy/Jealousy: you see your friends losing weight and you don’t want to be left behind.
  4. Social-Proof: your friends are following through with the program so it must be good.
  5. Authority-Misinfluence: your doctor says the program will work for you and you believe it.

As you go through 2009, think of ways to use the 25 psychological tendencies to your advantage. It may be the most useful thing you ever do in your life.

Copyright 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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