Three Research-Based Ways to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions
Vol. 13 No. 12
New Year’s resolutions are popular to make, but just as notorious to break. After all, you wouldn’t have to dedicate yourself to the formation of a new habit if it were easy—you’d already be doing it! But it is possible to keep your commitments this year, if you follow the conclusions found by researchers looking to discover the panacea for personal behavior modification.
1. Don't beat yourself up come February 1st.
There’s a myth floating about that it takes 21 days to adopt a new behavior. From regular flossing to going to the gym, everyone says that if you make an effort to do it for three weeks, you’ll be golden and inclined to perform the action forever after.
As it turns out, that number may or may not be right, depending on how complicated a habit you’re looking to establish. The University College of London (UCL) published a study in which 96 volunteers sought to establish healthier behaviors in their daily lives. On average, it took participants 66 days for a new habit to form—a far cry from the 21 day hypothesis—but even this number varied wildly.
According to UCL’s blog, “simple” behaviors (e.g., drinking a glass of water) were formed much more quickly than “complex” behaviors that required more commitment (e.g., doing sit-ups every morning). The time it took for habits to solidify was also dependent upon the person involved. Volunteers trying to adopt the same habit could accomplish the task in as little as 18 days and potentially take as long as 254 days!
So don’t think that less than a month’s commitment to a new habit will make it rock-solid—and don’t feel bad if someone else achieves it before you do.
2. Put your money where your mouth is.
Financial incentives do wonders—especially, as it turns out, with forming new habits. Using behavioral economic theories like “loss aversion” (someone’s strong desire to avoid losses rather than acquire gains) and “prospect theory” (people make decisions based on previous biases rather than rational outcomes), researchers offered economic incentives for overweight participants to lose weight. Those who had something financial to gain—or lose!—in the incentive groups lost more weight than those who merely showed up for weigh-ins.
Another study examined smokers who wished to quit smoking. The researchers provided certain participants with a savings account in which they could deposit funds. After six months, if they tested clean for nicotine in a urine test, they could take back their funds, plus the accumulated interest. If they failed, all money would be donated to charity.
The savings accounts meant that participants were literally invested in the outcome of their habit formation. The results showed that the smokers who participated in the savings account were more likely to have quit smoking by the end of the six months than smokers quitting by conventional means. Not only that, but smokers who had the savings account were more likely to pass a follow-up urine test 12 months after the study start, which indicates that the financial incentive lasts for an extended period of time.
The effect financial investment has on establishing new behaviors is now so widely accepted, there are apps available for you to invest in your own habits. Stickk and Habit21 are both popular, simple apps for you to put your money where your habit is (or will be).
3. If A, then B.
Finally, nebulous resolutions will gain no traction toward permanency in your life. For example, “I will do the dishes more often” is vague—what does “more often” mean? Will you do them before someone else washes them, or just when you see they need to be done? These questions result in a hazy sense of apathy lacks the resolve to complete the desired action.
The solution to this conundrum is to use something called “implementation intentions,” or “if-then” plans. In a collated report examining 94 studies of habit formation, researchers found that connecting the desired behavior to a specific “trigger” event substantially increased the likelihood of success.
The trick is establishing a solid trigger so that “if” you see it, you’ll “then” complete the task. The hope is, of course, that eventually you won’t need to look for the trigger behavior—you’ll just complete the action automatically.
If we follow this philosophy, the earlier resolution of “I’ll do the dishes more often,” could become, “If I’m by the sink, I’ll do whatever dishes are there.”
In this case, the sink becomes the trigger—and by looking at the sink, you’re reminded of your resolution and have a greater drive to complete it.
In the end, all these methods require a certain level of willpower and commitment. Resolutions need to be habits you truly desire to form, otherwise the motivation to complete the task will leave once February rolls around. But—with a little luck—these tips should help you immensely to keep your resolutions in 2015.
Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 30 No. 11 Change and the Implementation Dip