It’s New Year’s. You want to set goals, and achieve them. But, realistically, you’re probably not going to. Researchers find that anywhere from 40% to 8% of Americans who set New Year’s resolutions successfully stick to them.
The problem is that people often aim to completely overhaul their lives, setting themselves lofty and unachievable goals: “I’m going to get up at dawn every day, then go to the gym, meditate and eat five portions of fruits and vegetables all before work.” Once one part in this magnificent edifice of intention gets chipped away (you hit the snooze button, for instance), it all comes crashing down and you find yourself eating ice cream for breakfast in bed twenty minutes after you’re meant to be at work.
Instead, I suggest you should think about life tweaks: things you might actually do, and which will make your life a little better in a lot of different ways. With that in mind, here are some fun, nerdy and easy-to-implement hacks to take with you into 2016.
How to save time at restaurants
The problem: Suppose you’re at a restaurant for dinner with six friends. The bill, including tip, comes to $140. You want to split it equally, which means that everyone should pay $23.33. Everyone has to interrupt the conversation to wrangle the approximate change while stepping lightly around the etiquette of who might be overpaying or underpaying. It’s potentially uncomfortable and a waste of time.
The solution: Randomly pick one person to pay the whole bill. You can do this by having someone turn their back, numbering everyone, and then having the person who turned their back shout out a number. Or, if you’re worried that process won’t be truly random (“John always chooses number three”), you can use a randomization website like pickatrandom.com.
Why it works: Randomly choosing one person cuts down the time spent looking for change and means no one overpays or underpays. And in the long run—if you were to do this over dozens of dinners—everyone is likely to pay the same amount as they would if you split the bill equally every time.
How to make bad events less bad
The problem: Bad events, like failing an exam or having a potential spouse reject your marriage proposal, make your life seem worse.
In effect, betting against yourself is a way of taking out an emotional insurance policy. The solution: Bet against yourself. If you think there’s a 40% chance that you’ve failed an important exam, then find someone who’ll take the following bet: you’ll pay them $80 if you pass the exam, and they’ll pay you $120 if you fail. In general, if you think something bad might happen, make a bet that it will happen.
Why it works: In effect, betting against yourself is a way of taking out an emotional insurance policy. If you get good news, then you’ll be so happy you won’t mind parting with your money. If you get bad news, then at least you’ve gained a bit of cash, and can treat yourself as compensation.
Warning: Beware incentive effects. If you bet a large amount of money that you’ll fail before you’ve sat the exam, then you might prepare less hard than if you hadn’t made the bet.
How to stay alert during the day
The problem: You often feel tired during the day.
The solution: Stock your office with really bright lights, mimicking daylight more closely. You could either use any one of many Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lamp options, or several halogen lamps.
Why it works: There’s only anecdotal evidence behind this one, but it’s easy to try out so there’s little cost to giving it a go and seeing if it works for you. It’s possible that greater exposure to light slows the synthesis of melatonin (which makes you feel sleepy) from serotonin.
How to get out of bed
The problem: Bed feels really nice and, if you don’t have an imminent reason to get up, it’s easy to sleep in.
The solution: Set two alarms in the morning: one for the time you want to get up, and one an hour earlier. When you wake up, you suffer from sleep inertia. Luckily there’s a pill for that. Leave an iced coffee, energy drink, or caffeine pill next to your bed. When your first alarm goes off, consume the drink or pill, and go back to sleep. When the second alarm goes off, you’ll find it easy to get out of bed.
Why it works: When you wake up, you suffer from sleep inertia, caused by the build up of adenosine in the brain. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, making you more alert.
Warning: You might find that the caffeine takes more or less than an hour to kick in, in which case you should alter the timing of your first alarm.
How to eat more healthy foods
The problem: Vegetables, while good for you, don’t taste as good as other, less healthy foods. It’s Kid’s Meals 101.
The solution: Buy powdered monosodium glutamate (“MSG”; available from most Asian supermarkets), and sprinkle it onto vegetables after you cook them. It’ll make them taste delicious.
Why it works: Glutamate is the molecule that gives foods the “umami” taste—a meaty, full flavor. It’s in part what makes parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and tomatoes taste delicious, and it’ll make vegetables taste much better.
Sprinkle MSG onto vegetables after you cook them. It’ll make them taste delicious. It’s also completely safe. Sadly, there’s a prevalent myth that it causes headaches or stomach problems. This idea came from an anecdote mentioned in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine in 1968; however, multiple studies have shown that there is no such effect. The only potential downside of MSG is that it’s a source of sodium, too much of which may be linked to high blood pressure. However, MSG only contains one third of the sodium content of table salt; insofar as you could use MSG as a substitute for table salt, it may even be better for you in terms of sodium consumption.
How to get smarter
The problem: Your brain doesn’t work as fast as you’d like it to.
The solution: Take 5mg (one teaspoon) of creatine monohydrate—the stuff bodybuilders take to build muscle mass, available at almost every supplements store—every morning.
Why it works: Creatine helps you to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which your body uses to transport energy between cells. Your brain is a heavy energy user, accounting for 20% of resting metabolism; increasing your levels of creatine potentially enables your brain to harness the energy it needs when faced with intellectually demanding tasks.
Some studies have demonstrated that people who take small amounts of creatine show significant improvement (pdf) on IQ and other cognitive tests, with the most promising effects occurring for vegetarians, who, unlike meat-eaters, don’t get creatine naturally in their diet. But, as the researchers suggest: “We would… expect to see a beneficial effect of creatine supplementation on brain performance in most omnivores apart from those who consume very high amounts of meat.”
Warning: The number of studies on this is still small, but the potential benefits are very great—IQ is a better predictor of educational, economic and social outcomes than any other known psychological variable—so it’s worth trying. There’s also some evidence that creatine has positive effects on mood for those taking antidepressants.
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