New Year resolutions, derided though they often are, present a big opportunity for self-improvement, according to research on human behaviour. Every New Year, the urge to keep resolutions persists but the habit of letting them waste away also prevails. But the retrospection of failure leads to an uncommon surge of optimism. We rationalise that it was “the old me” who failed to change, but this year will be different. This year, the “new me” will succeed.
In the US, a full 40 per cent of Americans make New Year resolutions. It’s not clear how many succeed in keeping them but for every individual anywhere who makes a New Year resolution or two, social science fortunately offers some insights into how to break a bad habit — or start a good one, and stick with it.
Start with a bang
Several years ago, a group of 120 students at the University of Chicago were recruited by two economists — Gary Charness and Uri Gneezy — to participate in an experiment about exercise habits. A randomly assigned third of the students were paid $175 for merely attending an information session and giving researchers permission to track their gym attendance. Another third got paid if they attended the information session, allowed their gym attendance to be tracked and went to the gym at least once in the next month. The final third of the students were paid for attending the information session, for allowing their gym attendance to be tracked and for hitting the gym at least eight times in the next month.
Unsurprisingly, the group who had to make eight gym visits to get paid exercised more than the other two groups. But what’s really interesting is what happened after all of the payments stopped.
The students who had just finished a month of unusually high exercise activity (the ones who had just earned $175 for working out eight times) kept going to the gym at a far higher rate than others. They worked out at the gym nine times in the following seven weeks, and the other students in the study went roughly half as often.
What’s the takeaway here? If people (or even you) can get to try something new intensively for as little as a month (even with an instrument as blunt as a cash payment), you can kick-start lasting behaviour change. So even if you can’t promise yourself to stick with something for long, there’s a huge benefit in putting in a burst of energy for a few weeks — it may pay off for longer than you think.
Tough is good ... and doable
Many of us find it hard to stick to good behaviours all the time, which might suggest setting easy New Year resolutions to avoid the discouraging experience of failure — an experience that can lead us to give up on our goals. On the other hand, research has shown that setting tough-to-attain goals is more motivating than setting easy ones. So how can we balance these two facts? A recent study may offer the perfect solution.
Two marketing professors — Marissa Sharif and Suzanne Shu — offered hundreds of people $1 for every day in a week that they remembered to go online and complete a set of 35 annoying tasks. These wage-earners were then randomly assigned different goals and given a $5 bonus on top of their other earnings if they achieved their goal.
Some participants were randomly given the goal of completing their assignment seven days out of seven — a tough but achievable goal.
Others were randomly given the easier goal of completing their assignment on just five days out of seven but encouraged to aim to complete the tasks every day to maximise their earnings.
Finally, a “mulligan” group was given the goal of completing their assignment seven days out of seven but told “in case you need it, up to two days will be excused.” In other words, this “mulligan” group was only required to do the assignment on five days out of seven to earn their $5 bonus just like the easy goal group, but they had been given the tough stated goal of doing it every day of the week. Remarkably, even though the “mulligan” group faced exactly the same incentives as the group with the easy target, they were significantly more successful: 53 per cent of them earned $5 compared to 26 per cent of the participants with the (identical) easy goal and 21 per cent of participants with the seven-day-per-week goal.
What’s the takeaway here? That the perfect goal to set for yourself is probably a tough one but with the explicit allowance for a ‘mulligan’ or two you won’t be discouraged by the occasional slip up.
Joining the dots and temptation bundling
Research points to the benefits of what’s called a “piggybacking” strategy. This involves linking something you’d like to start doing regularly — like flossing or eating an apple a day — with something you already do regularly, like brushing your teeth or drinking a morning cup of coffee. In one small study, people attempting to kick-start a flossing habit were more successful when they were prompted to floss after brushing their teeth rather than vice versa.
Related to joining the dots is an idea my collaborators and I call temptation bundling. Temptation bundling means linking something you’d like to do more often with something indulgent that you crave. For instance, imagine you love binge-watching ‘Game of Thrones’ but feel guilty about doing this at home when you should be spending quality time with family. Imagine you’d also like to start a gym habit. Your temptation bundle might be to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ only when exercising at the gym. You’d stop wasting time at home on TV and start craving trips to the gym to find out what happens in the next episode. Not only that, you’ll enjoy ‘Game of Thrones’ and exercise more together — you won’t feel guilty watching it, and time will fly at the gym.
In one study of 151 people who wanted to exercise more, we randomly assigned 75 to a temptation bundling group. These people came to the gym for a workout and during it, they listened to the start of a tempting audio-novel of their choice (books like ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘The Da Vinci Code’). At the end of their workout, participants were told that if they wanted to hear what happened next in their novel, they would have to come back to the gym because their audiobook on a loaned iPod would be held in a locked, monitored locker at the gym for the next 10 weeks and they could only access it when exercising. The other 76 participants in our study also completed an initial workout but without any kind of temptation bundle.
Over the next seven weeks, participants in the temptation bundling group visited the gym 27 per cent more frequently than participants in the control group.
What’s the takeaway here? This is a useful trick for changing behaviour particularly when combined with other tactics.