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Landmarks in Time & The “What The Hell” Effect

Have you ever noticed that people base their decisions to change in ‘landmark moments’? This is described in the excellent book ‘The Power of Moments’, by Chip and Dan Heath. This is particularly true of weight loss attempts but applies to many changes or challenges. There are two interesting phenomena here: 

  1. The reason people choose the 1st January (insert other significant date here) as the start of their weight loss attempts (insert alcohol-free period, exercise regime start, etc.)?  
  2. The reason people choose a year with a ‘9’ or a ‘0’ in to make some sort of big change or take on a challenge? 

In the first instance, people are choosing a date/point in time, after which they are going to be different, as a way of drawing a line in the sand. There is usually some nagging discomfort about their weight, their fitness or some other issue they want to change. Choosing a date after which they will ‘be different’ is their way of changing, but not immediately. There is still time to enjoy their current lifestyle doing what they want to do before doing what they should do. This is also true of birthdays, holidays, other national or international holidays or events.  

In the second instance, it is the focus that landmark events such as decade birthdays or years force people to think about their own mortality and lives. For example, more people undertake personal challenges in a year with a 9 in it. 29, 39, 49, 59, 69, etc. are all years to do ‘…something before I’m 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, etc.’ People use these landmarks as a way of marking out the point after which they are going to be different. It is the internal discomfort of aging that pre-empts this type of thinking – which, by the way, is completely normal! If you have found yourself doing the same thing, it is definitely not just you! 

You may well have found yourself doing the same thing. Christmas is approaching and its been a tough year. One of the greatest elements of selecting a date after which you will be different is the run up. You can really enjoy yourself right up to the moment you are going to be ‘different’. Eat and drink a much as you like, it doesn’t matter, because soon you will be a different you… in theory! 

This is very all or nothing. What if your goal is to lose weight or run a marathon after you turn 40, but something throws your plans out the window, like a sick child or parent for the first two-months? Your plan to be a healthy weight at 40 is already 2 months behind and you are at dangerous risk of the ‘what the hell effect’. Is the next milestone 41 or 50? As you read this you may well feel like you would make the rational decision to carry on at 40 and two-months because it wasn’t your fault and you can start a bit later. However, that’s not how lots of people see this in the moment and this type of issue is often the end of an attempt to lose weight and get healthier altogether! 

If you find yourself contemplating a lifestyle change post-Jan 1st, that’s great. But don’t fall into the trap of the ‘what the hell effect’. We have seen this year more than most how outside events can curtail our plans. Adopt a growth mindset about the change coming up. This means being flexible in the face of the unforeseen issues that will inevitably come your way, even if you can’t predict exactly what they are. My next blog will provide some details on how to do this. In the meantime, have a great Christmas and Happy New Year ? 

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