And now for something totally…
Not all surprises are nice surprises. Case in point: 2020.
I’d bet a case of homemade chutney (different flavors) that last year did not turn out the way you expected. Or planned. Or wanted. Or hoped for. Or liked very much.
Maybe you got some of that, but it sure came mixed with a lot of you-know-what, right? My friend Lorna did a painting last year that about summed it up for me:
In the midst of the year from hell’s lower reaches, in which just about everyone lost something precious—mobility, jobs, close contact, sense of security, peace of mind, and worst of all, loved ones—there were still a few sweet blossoms. Possibly more of the literal ones than usual, since so many people turned to their gardens to get through.
But after the past nine months of cascading whack-a-mole disasters, are you making new year’s resolutions this year? My main resolution is not to make them.
What scares me about resolutions is what my brain gets up to behind my back. Here I am, just noodling along, or even sleeping, and that sneaky lump of gray matter between my ears is plotting to undermine me.
That is most evident every year when Resolution time rolls round. You know the drill: this year I will eat my spinach, tighten my triceps, get rid of the belly bulge, pull the weeds before they get three feet high and two feet wide. The first three resolutions bite the dust by February. If the last one doesn’t, it’s only because the weeds are biding their time till May.
I used to berate myself for my lack of willpower. If I could just beef up my determination, truly commit to my goals, Just Say No to the refrigerator and Yes to the free weights, we’d be home happy.
But it turns out it’s not all about willpower; it’s that my brain has other ideas. I know because I’ve been reading up on this, something I thought was just more procrastination (another thing I resolve every year to stop and then keep putting it off). This time, though, procrastination paid off: the reading has brought me some eureka moments.
I discovered that my brain is not the only one getting in the way of resolutions. If you’ve dipped into any of the essays in newspapers, magazines, websites, whatever, over the past 10 days or so, and gotten past the alarm calls about assaults on democracy coming from high places, you have probably encountered numerous mentions of resolutions for the new year. Possibly one in ten of those may divulge the dismal statistics about the failure rates of such resolutions.
If you want to guarantee yourself a 50% chance of failure in the next year, start a small business. If you want an even higher probability of failure, make a resolution.
For business failures, you can blame economics. For resolution failures, we get to blame the workings of the human brain.
I find this ironic. I grew to adulthood convinced the brain was a reasoning organ. You know, the kind that sets priorities, susses out the situation, and figures out the shortest route between point A (where you are now) and point B (where you want to be). The kind of machine underlying notions of utilitarianism. The gearing that drives homo oeconomicus.
The philosopher-economist Amartya Sen once quipped that purely economic man is a social moron. But even if humans aren’t social morons, they often deceive themselves when they scan the situation and plot their routes. Why? Because we all continually fall prey to the cognitive biases that our brains invariably dish up.
Wait a minute, you may be saying. This is supposed to be a gardening blog!
Well, I’ll give you a garden-variety example. You remember Tamerlane, my friendly local eat-everything-in-sight woodchuck? He’s in for that long winter’s nap right now. Around late March or early April he’ll be coming out, hungry as a groundhog and chomping from the first ring of spring’s starting bell. For all I know, he may be a she, in which case there could be ten little Tamerlanes, even hungrier, eyeing my tiny tender lettuces and winsome fronds of carrot tops, nothing but merciless pillage in their twisted rodent minds.
I find myself waking too many wee-hours mornings alternating between twin anxieties. One, what the T-rumperlane and his hordes are up to in DC and around the country. And two, what kind of fence I can put up to keep Tamerlane and tribe out of the new raised beds and still keep my own access to them reasonably easy.
These anxieties are hardly commensurate, I hasten to say. One could have a huge impact on the welfare of the entire world. The other will affect only 64 square feet of veggie patch and maybe a begonia here and there. I’ve already done everything I can possibly do—my individual mite among millions’—to help forestall the global disaster. I’m not complaining about that anxiety; I think nonstop worry is the sensible and rational reaction to those repugnant shenanigans.
For the woodchucks, there is something I can do. However, not until at least late March. It is now early January and I’ve been worriting on this since December. Why am I losing sleep for 90 days or so while I can do absolutely nothing, when I know I can do something about it once the ground thaws out?
Are you muttering “neurotic!”? Maybe so, but it happens that my throes may be explained by a common cognitive bias, one of those little tricks our brains love to play on us when we’re not on guard. It’s known to experimental economists as the Zeigarnik Effect. This is the handy label for the brain’s tendency to keep nagging us about things we haven’t yet done, instead of congratulating us for the impressive list of things we’ve already done.
When you look at it that way, what are New Year’s resolutions but a tool of self-torture, a meta to-do nag list? Not just things you haven’t done but things you haven’t changed, but should—and in fact should have changed last year when you failed to…. You get the idea.
Okay, though, maybe there are things you want to change that you really should change. Who doesn’t have some of those? How do you go about that without a) driving yourself nuts and/or b) marching once more into the maw of failure?
Habit your way
Here, there’s a growing body of work about habits and how to change them. You might have seen Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Or, more recently, psychologist Wendy Wood’s book Good Habits, Bad Habits. As Jerome Groopman’s review in the New Yorker summarized part of that book’s findings, “the path to breaking bad habits lies not in resolve but in restructuring our environment in ways that sustain good behaviors.”
This I can dig, if you’ll pardon the garden pun. Rather than seeking a supervitamin for my willpower, I’m best advised to take the easy way out by making sure I design an easy way out. It’s easier not to buy food that’s bad for me than not to eat the food I bought that’s bad for me. You know, the kind that starts calling your name the instant you take it out of the bag and that makes eyes at you every time you open the cabinet where it sits right up front, having somehow mysteriously shouldered its way there so as to block your view of the Irish rolled oatmeal and organic Thompson raisins.
Nope, you’re better off just arranging your environment to make the distractions deflecting you from your goal less prevalent and less visible. Leave the bad food at the grocery store. Admittedly a bit easier these pandemic days, when you have to wonder whether it’s really worth the risk of dying next week to go in and nab those Pr*ngles today.
So for this year in the garden, I will make just one resolution: I’m resolving to make things easier for myself. As luck would have it, I can even feel virtuous about that. My latest issue of Dave’s Garden newsletter proposed four new-year garden resolutions, the first two of which feature doing less: leave it a bit messy, and use less water. I’m signing on for that! (There are details, but I’ll worry about those after spring thaws us out.)
Eventually, I may even arrive at the nirvana of no-till gardening. For the next growing season, though, there will be work. Fortunately, I have a few months in which to think about how to do less of and fewer of the things I haven’t done, and then design my primrose path to the work still required.
If only I could think of an effortless way to distract Tamerlane from his goal, But I’m afraid the woodchuck brain has its own powerful Zeigarnik effect: never minding what he’s already eaten, always fixating on what to devour next.
And now, your turn:
Please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear under their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but you should feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.
- Have you made any gardening resolutions in past years that you managed to stick to? Tell us your secret!
- Do you have any tips for forming better habits? Tell us about a good habit you’re especially proud of forming, whether in the garden or out of it.
- Any garden-related topics you’d like to see me tackle in 2021?
If you’re commenting for the first time with a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After you’ve had one approved comment using that address, your next one should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.
Remember I’m running a contest for 2021: the reader who sends me (kateriffoley at gmail dot com) the weirdest garden-related snippet of news or information between now and December 31, 2021, will win some kind of cool prize. Might be a hori hori: might be a gorgeous gardening book. I promise it won’t be a woodchuck. I’ll offer a few choices when the time comes. So please, keep your antennae up for choice tidbits, and send them on!