I DO NOT KNOW whether more people watch football on New Year's than any other day of the season, but I am sure more quit smoking.
Why is it so hard for so many of us to do the things we decided to do and to quit the things we decided to quit -- being kind to our families or to our fingernails, taking up exercise or giving up coffee? And what is there about New Year's that offers support?
Many of us have tricks we play on ourselves to make us do the things we ought to do or to keep us from the things we have foresworn. We put the alarm clock across the room so we can't stop it without getting out of bed. We put things out of sight or out of reach for the moment of temptation. I have heard of a corporate dining room where lunch orders are telephoned in at 9:30; no food is served except what was ordered at that time, not long after breakfast, when food was least tempting and resolve at its highest. A grimmer example is people who have their jaws wired shut.
People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert. As a boy I saw a movie about Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition and was impressed that as a boy he had gone outdoors in shirtsleeves to toughen himself against the cold. I resolved to go to bed at night with one blanket too few. That decision was made by a warm boy. Another boy awoke cold in the night, too cold to retrieve the blanket, cursing the boy who had removed the blanket and resolving to restore it tomorrow. But the next bedtime it was the warm boy again, dreaming of Antarctica, who got to make the decision. And he always did it again.
Economics comes from the Greek oikonomia , meaning household management (oikos , house, and nomos , managing). We need a comparable art or science of "self-management." Maybe we could attach the Latin ego to the Greek nomos , and make egonomics . As a motto, a friend has suggested "No Thyself!"
I don't intend anything profound in the notion that self-management is sometimes like coping with our own behavior as though it were somebody else's. Take a simple case: What do you do with a child that scratches hives in its sleep?
Parents know that any relief from scratching is followed by enhanced itching. Many of us can resist the temptation. But not in our sleep.
Mittens are an answer. 1sppose it's not your child but yourself: You are as likely to scratch as a kid, once you're asleep. I suggest mittens. If you don't think of it yourself your doctor will; it beats having somebody tie your hands to the bedpost. (Even that's better than scratching if you haven't any mittens.)
There's not much difference between tying mittens on a child's hands and on your own. Either way there is somebody who, asleep, lacks disipline.
Then there is awakening -- both hearing the alarm (or the baby's voice, or the intruder's footfall) and overcoming those overwhelming forces when the alarm goes off. And staying awake: Sentries have been shot, truckers burned, watchmen bypassed and babies neglected when people let their lids droop or even lapsed a few seconds from full awareness.
Panic is another. Public doors now have panic bars to open them, parachute cords are wired to the aircraft, and horses are blindfolded to be led out of a burning barn. Alcohol and other tranquilizers are regularly used to induce bravery on the battlefield and calm among airline passengers.
Stage fright. I know people who use tranquilizers, both the kind sold at the drugstore and those served before dinner. Albert Edward Wiggam wrote "The Marks of an Educated Man," which I read as a boy when trying to improve myself. He wanted to be an orator as badly as I wanted to explore Antarctica. But when he faced an audience he blacked out. It lasted only a minute but not many audiences would wait a minute. Wiggam memorized a story to begin every speech with, memorized it so well he could tell it in his sleep and, he hoped, during the blackout that would occur as he walded onstage. He knew his career was secure at that glorious moment when, recovering consciousness while standing before an audience, he heard himself finishing the story just in time to enjoy the laughter that he had earned so hard.
Vertigo? It won't work if you have to drive a mountain road, otherwise shutting your eyes helps.
Fiction clarifies principles by inventing stark cases. Try this one. A person is subject to excruciating pain that will last five minutes no matter what he does and 25 more if he does nothing to stop it. He can stop it bay banging his fist on a button. If he hits the button and stops the pain before the 30 minutes are up the process is repeated next day and forever until he endures 30 consecutive minutes. Any day he lets the pain go on for 30 minutes it will end; he's released.
I think there are people, possibly most of us, who could never endure the 25 minutes without hitting the botton. What I propose is that if I were the victim and you could disconnect the button, you would disconnect it. And after 30 minutes of unstoppable pain I would thank you. But even more to the point, if could disconnect that button ahead of time myself, condemning myself to 30 minutes of unstoppable pain, I would do it.
Back to New Year's: What is its appeal? There is "investment" in a New Year's inauguration. The mid-winter solstice is a time of new beginnings, not to be wasted. Fail this time around and you lose a year. It raises the stakes.
The mechanism is more obvious when you announce to family or carpool the renunciation of alcohol, tobacco or potato chips. Shame is a deterrent.
Ideally there might be legal arrangements. You go to the town clerk and swear out a resolution, paying the cost of publication, posting a reward for evidence leading to your own conviction for violating the oath you just swore. (I suppose it would be unenforceable, there being neither damages nor a contract).
Walter Lippmann's "plate glass window" that deters the sidewalk theif and Soviet adventures is a principle of self-management. Clear lines, plain rules, straightforward principles that cannot be made ambiguous by the most inspired casuistry, these are the stuff with which "salami tactics" are rebuffed. Just as it may be easier to ban nuclear weapons from the battlefield entirely than through graduated specifications on their use, zero is a more enforceable limit on cigarettes or chewing gum than some flexible ration. (There was a time when I allowed myself tobacco only after the "evening meal." It worked well but led to tortured reasoningg Thanksgiving afternoon, or flying west across the Atlantic with perpetual afternoon, and it stimulated lots of token sandwiches on leaving the ski slopes to drive home.
"Precautionary rules" are effective. Many annoying and unsightly small habits, involving face and fingers, are associated with "precursor" explorations, touchings and fingerings that are resistible themselves but lead unawares to irresistible sequels. People who wish to quit smoking sometimes discover that, at the outset anyhow, it helps to give up alcohol too, it being easier to rationalize the after-dinner cigarette when one's thoughts have been clarified by a few glasses of wine. And those wonderful folks who brought us potato chips are so sure of themselves that they dare us on television to eat one and stop. Just as children are best kept away from the water if you don't want them to swim, avoiding the cue or trigger is important in drug therapy and dietary regimes and the treatment of gambling. I have often wished that for a small addition to my bill the hotel would disable the television in my room during my occupancy.
One family of tactics is peculiarly unavailable in dealing with yourself. That is deceit. Drug therapists report it a source of relief to an addict just to know, once acute withdrawal is over, that there is simply nothing available. Doctors report that when patients are flatly told it is imperative they cease smoking at once, they quit not only more reliably but far more comfortably. Indecision aggravates the discomfort and the temptation; and anyone who wishes to quit should wish to be told that his next cigarette will kill him. So how do you instruct your doctor to deceive you?
For positive performance there are other tactics, some quite opposite to those for abstention. Breaking a large task into small pieces -- write a few pages each day -- works for some people. Round-number targets help motivate the joggers; and if there is no unique distance between two miles and five to offer an intermiediate goal, some runners joyfully discover the metric system with its handy five-kilometer distance.
Suspense may be the worst of it. Continually resisting temptation allegedly is what eventually become unendurable -- the anxiety and not the withdrawal, or the anxiety and not the pain of continuing on course. Failure takes the form of a dash to freedom. Not freedom from the pain or the hunger but freedom from suspense, from perpetual unfinished decision.
Ben Hur didn't have th make himself keep rowing. The man with the whip took care of that. Some people who run for exercise discover that the fear of quitting -- not the fear of running in pain but of quitting -- becomes so severe that they are tempted to quit to get rid of the fear! Once they've run the course the mental agony is gone and the physical agony bearable; so they treat themselves to a little extra when, anxiety gone, they can run for the fun of it.
Surveys indicate that most people who smoke have tried to stop. The surgeon general has been warning people for two decades that smoking is bad. Everybody knows it. If there were some way that cigarettes could be reiably put beyond reach, and people could vote on whether they would like that done, my guess is that a majority of smokers would elect to deny themselves the possibility of lighting another cigarette.
Hardly anybody thinks it could be done, and neither alcohol in the 1920s nor marijuana in the 1960s makes the effort look promising.
Smoking is only one of several addictive or habitual behaviors that most people might like to quit, especially if they could be relieved of withdrawal discomforts -- but very likely even if they had to suffer withdrawal if only they were assured of success .
There are some grounds for optimism. Since the surgeon general's findings were first made public the number of cigarettes per capita stopped increasing and has decreased slightly. The tar content has declined markedly. In my own census group, males 45-65, the proportion that smokes is declining 4 percent per year and males that age who wear neckties are diminishing with a half-life of a decade. (Not dying, just giving it up!) Old hotel employes remember when after an all-day professional meeting they emptied the ashtrays into wastebaskets; now they empty them into an ashtray.
The news is bad about some other population groups, and I am not being cheerful about epidemiological trends. But 30 million people did quit. We have no good information on how many times they quit, or even how many of them just hadn't had a cigarette for a whole day when the interviewer rang the bell. But there's a lot of information out there on our subject.