With the end of the year fast approaching, we might be thinking about the things that we would really like to achieve next year.  As we can see below, data from different countries tells us that New Year’s resolutions focus on similar areas of our lives and that we either aim to develop a new routine (exercising more, eating healthier), do something from scratch (learning a new skill), or to quit a habit, like smoking.

New Year’s resolutions by country (% of those surveyed that cited one of these goals)

Note: For comparison purposes, Germany’s goal of “spend more time with family/friends” was classified as “improve social connections”, and UK goals’ of “improving my diet” and “taking up a new hobby”, were assigned to “eat healthier” and “learning a new skill” respectively, while US’ goal of “be more active” is under “more exercise/improving fitness”. For the US, “be more eco-friendly” was also a resolution (22% of those surveyed).

While it seems that around the world, eating healthier and continuous self-development are recognized as desirable, New Year’s resolutions share another commonality: they are difficult to stick to. In fact, it seems that we give up rather quickly. For instance, based on their data, Strava, a physical activity web tracker, predicted that January 19th was going to be “quitter’s day” of 2020, the day one is most likely going to give up on one’s New Year’s fitness resolutions.

The gap between intention and action is something that, most likely, we have all experienced. So, what happens? Why aren’t we able to come through despite our initial level of motivation to pursue our goals? Why knowing that something might be good for us is normally not a strong enough incentive to change our ways?

While each case is different, Behavioral Economics can provide us with some useful insights that might come in handy when we are looking for meaningful, long-lasting change. While we might already rely on some of these “tricks”, it is interesting to know the science behind them.

In 1936, psychologist Kurt Lewin expressed that “behavior is the result of the person and their environment.” This is now known as Lewin’s Equation, and it highlights that not only our individual characteristics matter but also that behaviors are context dependent.

When it comes to habits, context dependence is particularly relevant as these automatic patterns of behavior are developed through “associative learning”, that is, in this case, the repetitive pairing of an action and an event. For example, linking feeling tired to drinking a cup of coffee and afterwards, feeling a bit more awake. Consistent with this approach, researchers have identified the following “habit loop”: a cue or signal, a routine or the actual behavior and a reward.

“The habit loop”

With this framework in mind, a good place to start to change our habits might be to become our own choice architects, which means, becoming responsible for organizing the context in which we make our decisions.

While perhaps we are unfamiliar with the scientific terms, all of us have consciously become choice architects more than once, for instance when we turn off or take our phones (or any other distraction) physically away from us in order to focus on a particular task.

Good news is that big life events (e.g. moving to another country) or temporal landmarks that represent new beginnings, such as birthdays and New Year’s, make it more likely that we take action towards a particular goal. This is known as the “Fresh start” effect. So, how can we make the best use of the window of opportunity associated with New Year’s?

Following, James Clear and B.J. Fogg advice on habit dissecting, first, we must take time to understand the “loop” of the habits that we want to change. This will help us realize which shifts in cues – our choice environment – and rewards are needed to achieve a different result.

Recalling the phone example, the introduction of physical distance is one type of “friction” that can helps us control a certain behavior and, the other way around, reducing frictions associated with our desired goals could help us to achieve them. For instance, exercising closer to our home or in a place that is on our way to school or work.

Friction is only one type of nudge – an alteration to the context in which we make our decisions. For instance, behavioral research shows that repositioning (e.g. making healthier options more salient) has been useful to promote more beneficial food choices in school cafeterias.

While we can make it easier for us to take certain actions, as the “habit loop” suggests, building a habit is a matter of consistency. In here, an important insight of Behavioral Economics to keep in mind is “hyperbolic discounting.” The latter term refers to the preference we usually have to more immediate payoffs or rewards in comparison to larger, more distant ones, therefore it is likely that it might put our self-control to test.

Hyperbolic discounting is part of the reasons why, even when we are aware that a certain action is either good or bad for us in the long run, we find it difficult to immediately modify our behavior based on that information alone.

Something that could come in handy to deal with this bias is breaking down our goals into smaller tasks, especially manageable steps. While avoiding temptation altogether or going for an ambitious goal works for many people, changing our habits gradually is also a path.

In general, breaking down our goals into smaller steps allows us to experience small successes more immediately, and thus counteract hyperbolic discounting. Gradual changes can also help us to make the process of habit formation enjoyable, which in turn could make it easier to maintain a new behavior over time.

One approach that focuses on making new behaviors enjoyable is Nir Eyal’s, “Minimum Enjoyable Action” principle. In short, we could think of it as starting a new habit by doing an easy action, instead of immediately setting the bar too high for ourselves. Of course, balance is important, as having a goal that we consider too easy can also be discouraging.

Completing each small step also has the side-effect of building self-trust. Feeling competent is an important element for motivation as well.

We must keep in mind that the personal meaning a goal has is also an important strategy to maintain a habit. Therefore, having a personalized and specific reason rather than a general statement could also push us through the days when we are less motivated.

Another strategy that could help us to achieve our goals is to share them with some else. This has been particularly useful for developing exercise habits. Having a workout buddy makes us accountable, and the socialization can provide an additional reward for this habit.

How we think about our choices or “framing” can also make a difference. For instance, thinking about each situation as a choice of the kind of person we would like to be in the future. This type of framing is related to what is expressed by James Clear and BJ Fogg, as they suggest that every decision could be influenced by habit, and that our current reality is (partly) the result of the decisions we made and the habits we fostered in the past. Therefore, the habits we build now are paving the way to the “us” of the future.

In sum, while changing something we have done for years (or not ever) is bound to be difficult, there are some strategies that could make the process easier for ourselves, while this article is a non-exhaustive list, the key message would be to make it manageable, enjoyable and meaningful. Sudden changes are hardly going to stick, it is rather by patience, conscious decision and setting the right rewards for our effort, that our resolutions will become a reality.

Finally, it is important to remember that a setback is not equivalent to definite failure. Embracing a growth mindset is useful to recognize that, while now we might not be as good as we would like in a particular aspect, we can always improve.

2020-Portrait-Alejandra

Alejandra Diaz Fuentes
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Special thanks to Isabel Cardenas, Psychologist with a MSc. Psychology from UNIL, for her contributions to this article.

 

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  • Based on Statista “America’s Top New Year’s Resolutions for 2020 “ and “The most common New Year’s resolutions for Brits”, and the article “New Year’s Eve – How to make resolutions for the new year” by Julia Vergin (30.12.2019).
  • Based on Hollingworth, C. & Liz Barker, L (2017). How to use behavioural science to build new habits.