“I’m sort of sad and sort of glad the holiday season’s over. It’s been fun, but there’s something slightly grungy about unstructured time. It’s like I forget who I am.”

During the holidays, incentives and disincentives change. You may still be performing under pressure, but, for these few weeks, it’s for relatives, not clients or bosses.

For a few days, there’s simply less pressure. We get those lazy, hazy days of winter we’ve been looking forward to. We wake up when we want and, after a late brunch (lunch?), we decide by committee-of-the-pajama’d-family what we’ll do with the remains of the day, which, by then, with dusk at four o’clock, is mostly night.

Many of us covet this time but also find it blurry and disorienting. It can lead to a kind of meltdown, a softening of boundaries, a loss of clarity about what we’re for and about. With our everyday selective pressures masked, we can feel disconcertingly adrift.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


This season can breed what psychologist call imposter syndrome. Without daily evidence that we’re good at our work, we forget that we are. As disappointing as the end of the holidays can be, for some of us there’s relief in returning to our productive daily groove, even if we also dislike its rutlike qualities.

And then, of course, this is the season for New Year’s resolutions. At their best, resolutions exploit the creative flexibility that comes from popping yourself out of your groove for a few days, upleveling to a larger perspective on your life, stepping back, and remembering what really counts. But the tired joke that by now defines New Year’s resolutions is that they don’t last — as if we don’t mean them or don’t have the willpower to make them stick.

Well, what if you do mean them? How can you make them stick? The answer lies in never overestimating the power of willpower and never underestimating the power of incentives and disincentives.

A theme threading through many of these essays is the value of becoming a skilled selectrician. Selectricians know how to analyze selective pressures — incentives and disincentives — that select for some kinds of traits and behaviors and not others.

Selectricians can inventory the variety of encouragements and discouragements that influence them. They recognize the subtle but predictable ways they’re influenced by what pleases and disappoints the people around us. Selectricians have a healthy respect for the comfort zone, the ways it keeps them in both their grooves and their ruts. Selectricians design into their comfort zones the features that automatically move them into self-improving grooves and out of self-destructive ruts.

Selectricians can read their own selective-pressure wiring diagrams. And, above all, they know how to rewire them. They do what they can to configure selective pressures to bring out their best. The selectrician’s motto is, “I may not be able to change myself, but I can often change my environment so it changes me.”

If you mean your New Year’s resolutions this year and want to keep fresh your moment of high resolve, you might want to play a round of Selectrician’s Eye for the Resolved Guy. Ask yourself how much your success depends on willpower. If the answer is “A lot,” then rewire your incentives and disincentives so living up to your standards is merely a matter of doing what comes naturally.

I have various vices that I don’t trust my willpower to help me avoid. If the temptation is around, I indulge. If it isn’t, I don’t miss it. So I’ve figured out ways to wire them out of my life. In a marketplace that’s dedicated to providing us with instant access to everything, we have to coevolve filters that limit our instant access to the things we don’t want. For example, I decided over a year ago that TV was eating up too much of my evening. I removed it from my home not because I think it’s bad but because I think it’s good: TV is too much of a temptation for me to have it around. When it was in the living room, I’d stop by to watch an innocent half hour and end up turning it off three hours later.

If you’re watching too much TV, can you remove the TV or keep it locked away, with someone else holding the key for you? If you’re wasting time at your computer checking your email too often, playing too much solitaire, e-shopping, or pursuing other Internet activities you later regret, can you install a blocking tool? I have friends who keep the password to my computer filters for me. And, if there’s some trait growing in you that you don’t like, is there a way to spend less time around the people who bring out that trait in you?

Aristotle was on to these selectrician tricks. His teacher, Plato, the West’s first hippie, had proposed in his essay “The Republic” a commune, a state that would be run by a selfless guru. Children would be raised kibbutz style, with all the kids belonging to all the parents. In Aristotle’s “Politics,” he rebutted his teacher, arguing that Plato hadn’t paid enough attention to the incentives and disincentives that drive us every day: The guru would be corrupted by the power. People wouldn’t have enough incentives to work hard or take care of the kids. It would be like having the committee-of-the-pajama’d-family running things all year round.

December 16, 2004