How a little behavioural science can make New Year's Resolutions stick
How are you getting on with your New Year’s Resolutions? A few days in and are you still on track? Or do you reckon that by February those good intentions will be just that - good intentions with a whole string of excuses for why they never materialised into an actual change. To be honest you won’t be alone in this as most of us struggle with a well-known phenomenon in behavioural science called the intention-behaviour gap – where people have strong, good intentions to do something but never actually get around to doing it, or start, but don’t manage to sustain it and give up.
So what can we learn from behavioural science about how to make sure we succeed in meeting our resolutions? Below we outline 4 tips grounded in behavioural insights which can help you with your resolutions this year, be they to save more money, pay off debt, eat more healthily, or get fit.
1. Make a plan
One of the most promising strategies turns out to be that well-known concept, the action plan. Behavioural scientists have termed this implementation intentions or ‘Make a plan’ and it has been rigorously tested across many behaviour change initiatives, including health and exercise related ones.
In essence, it involves specifying when, where and how you are going to ‘do’ a behaviour or work towards a goal. Peter Gollwitzer, Professor of Psychology at New York University, who has carried out considerable research on this strategy over nearly 20 years says: “Not only do your goals have to be desirable, achievable and have a specific outcome, you also need to think about the when, where and how.”
Forming such a specific, concrete plan helps to make someone more likely to do it, because:
- It helps build memory which assists with new and unfamiliar tasks;
- It identifies potential salient cues in your surroundings which, when seen, may automatically trigger the behaviour (i.e. laying the foundations for developing a habit loop at the preparation stage of the behaviour change journey); and
- The more precise the plan is, the more it builds a sense of commitment. Once a plan is generated, there is less room for a later ‘negotiation’ with oneself.
Dean Karlan, founder of the goal-setting website Stickk.com, notes that users are more successful when they have created a specific goal supported by a corresponding plan.
So how do you make an action plan? One trial asked participants to complete the following statement to plan to do more exercise (that all too familiar New Year's resolution):
“During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”
Another initiative to increase physical activity required participants to answer four questions in order to formulate their plan:
- What leisure-time physical activity/activities are you planning to do regularly during the next three months?
- Where do you plan to practise the activity or activities regularly?
- On what day(s) of the week do you plan to practise the physical activity or activities? and
- At what time of day do you plan to practise the physical activity or activities?
In several recent large-scale reviews (known as meta-analyses) of programs to get people more active, those using action plans found a consistent uplift. Using action plans tended to see higher and more consistent physical activity levels over the long term than other initiatives. So go on and answer those four questions and make that intention a little stickier.
2. Substitute old behaviour for new behaviour
If you want to give something up, it can be hard to fill the void it leaves and can make it much more tempting to start up the behaviour again. Smoking, drinking and unhealthy eating habits are good examples of habits which leave a tricky void that seems to demand filling. Habits are wired into the neural networks of our brain. We can, with a lot of effort, overwrite them, but they will always be there, lurking beneath the surface. A habit is something we do automatically, usually cued by something in our immediate surroundings or an emotional cue - perhaps when we get stressed or upset.
So substituting a bad habit with a new, better habit can be a good solution. It helps to explain the success of e-cigarettes - people don’t have to change the physical habit of smoking, all they need to do is switch their traditional cigarettes with the new electronic type and they can vape away.
Another useful application of this rule is around getting control of our finances and reducing our spending in areas where we are apt to throw caution to the wind… The UK’s Money Advice Service (MAS) recently ran a trial with households under financial strain asking them to select a costly spending habit which they might substitute with a less expensive one, allowing them to save money whilst still enjoying a small reward.
They were given a debit/credit card holder and asked to write down specifically what they intended to avoid purchasing and what they might do or buy instead. For example, some participants avoided spending on costly food items and rewarded themselves with a cake in a local café, still creating a net saving, but also enabling them to enjoy a reward for their efforts. Participants were asked to record on the card holder when they successfully substituted a purchase.
We know from research into habitual behaviours that there is usually some kind of reward in every habit we do, whether a tangible or more psychological reward. This helps to explain why giving something up which has become habitual is hard to do because we miss the reward the habit delivers. The substitution exercise gave people a new reward so that there remained an emotional ‘hit’ and incentive.
Indeed, the MAS found that people tended to be more successful in this intervention when their substitute provided an equally enjoyable reward. Strong intrinsic motivation to succeed was also important.
Substituting a new behaviour for an old one may not only help us curb our spending but can also help us trim down after the mince-pie based indulgences of the festive season. To develop a healthier lifestyle in the new year, behavioural scientist Brian Wansink recommends replacing unhealthy snacks with healthy snacks in the house. Instead of giving up snacking entirely and breaking a long established habit, it is easier to simply replace the type of snack we munch on.
3. Make it easy
Only the most determined of people will succeed in achieving any goal if it’s not easy to make happen. We can be lazy, cognitive misers; if something feels confusing, requires too much thinking or takes too many steps to make happen, chances are, it won’t happen. Richard Thaler, Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Chicago and co-author of the bestselling book ‘Nudge’ says:
“My number-one mantra from Nudge is, “Make it easy.” When I say make it easy, what I mean is, if you want to get somebody to do something, make it easy. If you want to get people to eat healthier foods, then put healthier foods in the cafeteria, and make them easier to find, and make them taste better. So in every meeting I say, “Make it easy.” It’s kind of obvious, but it’s also easy to miss.”
Dean Karlan, Professor of Economics at Yale agrees: “If there’s a governing insight in all of behavioral economics it’s: make it easy for people to do the things they would say they would want to do, if asked in a moment of informed and self-aware reflection.”
So, for the best chance of success, we need to make our New Year’s resolutions as easy as possible to do, day in - day out. BJ Fogg, a behavioural scientist at Stanford University and expert in behaviour change suggests sitting down initially and setting out ways to make doing a new behaviour (your resolution) easier in the future. For example:
- Do actual things that help structure future behaviour e.g. booking a personal trainer, joining a club, signing up to a class, booking some healthy eating cookery lessons, uninstalling social media apps or turning off all notifications for them, cutting up a credit card, or setting up a default so the behaviour can happen automatically (e.g. setting up a direct debit for savings).
- Do hard things that reduce future barriers to the new behaviour: For example, if your goal is to eat more healthily, at the start of the week you could buy, wash and cut up vegetables to keep in the fridge so it’s easy to make healthy meals during the week when your motivation may be flagging, or if you want to make it round your 10k race in the Spring you could take in some gym clothes to leave at work so it’s less effort to go for a run or go to the gym in your lunch break.
Our new year’s resolutions might have more success if we just make some small changes to our surroundings and how we live. Research shows us that small changes that make things easier are often incredibly effective.
Making a behaviour easy to do also helped students eat healthier food at school: three schools in northern New York wanted to encourage their students to eat more fruit. So they placed fruits in aesthetically pleasing bowls and arranged them in well-lit areas. With apples and oranges that are easier to find and that look more appetising, choosing to eat fruit became a much simpler decision for students. Within the next months, students started to eat more than twice as much fruit.
These simple interventions show us that we need to make it easy to follow through on our new year resolutions for them be successful. For example, if we aim to exercise more often in the morning before work, we could leave trainers and running kit by the side of the bed. Starting each day with a quick run is immediately much easier. Of course, if you are giving something up in 2017, then you also need to increase the barriers to doing it - you need to make it harder to do, not easier!
4. Make only one New Year’s resolution
Our final piece of advice: scrap the long list of worthy resolutions and focus on only one. Research has generally found that we are more successful in achieving goals when we set a single, clear and achievable goal. People who set themselves more than one goal are more likely to give up, lose motivation or forget one or all of their goals. We feel overloaded and lack focus.
Research on goal setting has revealed that having too many goals may lead us to focus on those that are easiest to achieve. We prefer quantity over quality and aim to accomplish a large number of easy goals instead of tackling only a few which are more difficult, or the most important ones.
Focusing on one New Year’s resolution also prevents us from being caught between conflicting goals and makes it more likely that we will achieve that chosen one. In a classic study, psychologists Robert Emmons and Laura King asked participants to write down their 15 most important goals and identify if any of them conflicted with each other. The researchers then recorded people’s feelings and perceptions of well-being on a daily basis. Across a range of experiments it became evident that conflicting goals made people unhappy: they started to worry more about completing all their goals, they accomplished less and overall and their physical and mental health suffered.
One of the reasons people often give for not meeting a goal, is that they “didn’t have time”. Yet what they are actually saying is that they didn’t make it a priority due to other demands (including other goals) in their life. So, making a success of your resolution may mean looking at your diary and working out how to move your resolution up your priority list.
Overall, our New Year’s resolutions are most likely to succeed if we focus on one specific goal. This should be the goal that motivates us the most and that we are willing and able to make a priority.
It is not too late to rethink those resolutions; cut back to one key resolution if possible, make a plan that is sensitive to our individual context, try and remove any barriers standing in the way of achieving your goal and look for ways to dial up the triggers and cues that will encourage you in your journey towards it. Anything that will make it easy or at least easier to do is a good thing. But by the same token, you might also need to devise barriers against slipping back into old habits.
One final tip - if you can divide up your goal into smaller chunks so you can feel a sense of progress as you ‘hit’ each one, you will find your goal even easier to reach.
Happy New Year.
Thaler quote - “Nudging the world toward a smarter public policy: An interview with Richard Thaler” McKinsey Quarterly 2011
Gollwitzer quote - Linda Geddes, “Achievement unlocked! Use science to keep your new year's resolutions”, Guardian 6 Dec, 2015
Milne, Orbell and Sheeran “Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: protection motivation theory and implementation intentions.” British Journal of Healthy Psychology, 2002
Godin, G., Belanger-Gravel, A., Amireault, S., Gallani, M., Vohl, M., & Pe ́russe, L. (2010). Effect of implementation intentions on behaviour: Moderation by intention stability. Psychological Reports 106(1), 147159