It’s been a week since that annual three-part tradition: You made a New Year’s resolution, attacked it for a few days, and then let it fall by the wayside as various distractions sapped your will to stick to it.
That’s how it goes for most of us, at least.
Your resolution doesn’t have to fail, though. The important thing to keep in mind is that a lot of subtle, under-the-radar factors affect our decision-making and our ability to stick to goals we’ve laid out.
With that in mind, here are three basic, behavioral-science-informed tips to help you keep your 2014 New Year’s resolutions.
1. Understand the Power of Defaults
When you fill out a form, you probably think you’re simply evaluating each item and deciding what to enter into the box, whether to check “yes” or “no,” and so forth. With yes/no-style questions, however, researchers have found that it’s a bit more complicated, that a little design decision—whether the default option is yes or no —is profoundly, weirdly powerful.
The New York Times had a solid story tying the power of defaults to user-interface design in 2011, and it includes one of researchers’ favorite examples: organ donation. Specifically, a 2003 study (PDF) which “showed that while large majorities of Americans approved of organ donations, only about a quarter consented to donate their own. By contrast, nearly all Austrians, French and Portuguese consent to donate theirs. The default explains the difference. In the United States, people must choose to become an organ donor. In much of Europe, people must choose not to donate.”
It’s remarkable that people’s decisions about organ donation—a subject often loaded down with religious considerations and unhappy thoughts about death—could be so easily tweaked by changing the default. It points to the power of defaults—our tendency to hew to whatever the current status quo is (another name for this tendency is “the status quo bias”—there’s a good rundown here).
So, to the extent possible, figure out which defaults are likely to stymie your New Year’s goals, and change them. Take weight loss: If you want to go to the gym more and live in a city, sign up for one that’s close to work, or change your route to work so you end up walking right by it every day. Sign up for a Google Alert that will send you a reminder of your weight-loss goals once or twice a week. Have a standing appointment to go with a friend. Anything you can do to make going to the gym an established part of your regular routine could reap dividends down the road: the better a job you can do establishing it as your new default, the harder it will be to slip out of it.
2. Make It a Social Thing
As humans, we like to think that we carefully deliberate our actions, that what we do is informed by deep thought, by ideological conviction. The truth is, though, that in terms of what we do (as opposed to what we say we believe), we’re extremely vulnerable to what is effectively peer pressure. We’re very attuned to what psychology researchers call social norms—if the people around us frown upon or admire certain behaviors, it tends to have a powerful effect on us. It’s a finding that some policy makers think has great promise for fighting undesirable behaviors like bullying and gang violence (PDF).
It’s also one that can be applied to New Year’s resolutions. Again, take weight loss: it appears that lacking a network of social support can make it much harder to attain. As a group of University of Bath researchers wrote in a 2013 paper (PDF), “Participants’ motivation to maintain weight loss was further challenged by a lack of support from the immediate social context, i.e. family and friends. Negative reactions from family and friends are likely to undermine a person’s sense of relatedness (i.e., feeling of belonging to, and being valued by others), and lead to negative emotional consequences” (the paper also noted that when the women being studied sensed that their weight-loss goals sprung not from their own desires, but from external media pressure, “this motivation was felt to be controlling, and undermining of the need for autonomy”).
Simply hanging out with gym rats isn’t going to automatically get you on a treadmill, of course. But it’s an important counterpoint to the “rugged individualist” notion that we are all making behavioral decisions in a vacuum.
3. Recognize That We’re Loss-averse
Another important finding about human behavior is that we tend to be loss-averse. In other words, all things being equal we tend to react more to the threat of losing $50 than to the prospect of winning $50. There’s something hard-wired in us to be more worried about losing something than excited about getting something we don’t.
One website, stickK.com, applies this principle: it asks users to effectively make a bet against themselves that they can achieve a certain goal, whether weight loss or smoking cessation. If they don’t meet their goals, the money goes to a charity of their choice (perhaps, to maximize loss-aversion alarm, a cause they loath). I haven’t had a chance to look into whether the site’s effectiveness has been rigorously evaluated, but it was founded by academics who have strong backgrounds in the right areas (there’s a 2006 NPR interview with them here).
Now, it’s one thing to learn a little bit about the subtle factors that inform human decision-making—it’s quite another to, you know, actually make better decisions. None of the above should be seen as a panacea, a magic wand that can be waved at weight-loss or smoking-cessation goals with instant results.
Rather, they should be seen as tools in a wider arsenal for those of us trying to live better and healthier in 2014.