A new year, a new batch of resolutions! Alas, these promises to ourselves rarely produce long-lasting results. (Depending on the source, nearly nine in 10 resolutions don’t take.) Worse, failed resolutions could be harmful if they lead to depression, self-loathing or what we might call “boomerang behavior,” i.e., when disappointment from a failure to tame a bad habit causes us to pile on—binge eating, say, after a broken diet. With this in mind, here are five pieces of advice, gleaned from behavioral economics and related fields, to help you make this year’s resolutions a little stickier.
Limit your promises. In a much-cited experiment, marketing professor Baba Shiv divided study participants in half, asking some to remember a two-digit number and others to store a seven-digit string. Participants then walked to another room, passing a table where they could choose either a piece of cake or some fruit salad. Result? About six in 10 of those who’d memorized a seven-digit number chose cake, while roughly the same percentage of two-digit memorizers picked fruit! Willpower, you see, is not an infinite resource. Our ability to focus on multiple goals or ideas that require self-control is limited; even the seemingly small difference between two and seven digits influenced how diligent people were about healthy eating. Although it’s tempting to pursue several related goals at the same time (losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising more), it’s likely more productive to stagger resolutions. Better to trim debt in 2012 and save more in 2013 then not accomplish either year after year.
Write them out. Tales of people who wrote down goals before achieving them get repeated frequently—and exaggerated nearly as often. That said, research suggests that it helps when we put pen to paper before embarking on projects. Tough to say why, but our best guess is that we experience the act as a kind of investment, which likely results in the sunk cost fallacy kicking in: People generally place too much importance (consciously or otherwise) to prior investment when making current decisions. Writing resolutions down, then, is a way of turning a decision-making bias in your favor. So if you haven’t already, sit and inscribe your goals in a journal or on a note card.
Involve a friend. Teaming up with others is particularly powerful given our social natures and reluctance to let other folks down. In fact, there’s been considerable research over the years into and around the subject of conformity, showing that difficult undertakings of all kinds are far easier when we have even just one ally. (There’s a reason why Mormon missionaries always come to your doors in pairs.) Some resolutions, in other words, are better achieved by including others—say, having a friend safeguard your credit cards, with instructions to let you use them only in prescribed circumstances; or by agreeing with a buddy to work out three times a week, regardless of weather or the previous night’s late partying.
Get out of your own way. Regardless of the intensity of your desire, you may still find that motivation is not enough to insure that resolve is enough to achieve a goal. This was was demonstrated years ago by researchers at Yale as part of a program to spur seniors into getting tetanus shots. After students heard a lecture on the importance of inoculation, most said afterwards that they planned to get one—but only 3% actually did so. Meanwhile, students in another group—given the same lecture—were almost 10 times more likely to get inoculated. Why? They also got a map of the campus, and were asked to plan their route to the health center and pick a date and time to go.
The lesson: Sometimes motivation isn’t the problem. The problem, rather, is “channel factors”—simple but powerful obstacles that stand between us and our goals. Put another way: If you want to cut late-night snacking, throw out your snack food. If you want to stop abusing credit cards, close your accounts. If you want to save more, use direct deposit rather than asking yourself to write a check or transfer funds every month. Removing Y-O-U from a New Year’s resolution is a great way to achieve it.
Expect missteps. Just because you smoked one cigarette doesn’t mean you’re a cigarette smoker again. But some folks experience such slip-ups as tremendously deflating, which leads them to abandon their goal entirely. One way to avoid that is to imagine—before you embark on a resolution—a wide range of ways it may turn out, then ask yourself how you would react to each. Your answers, though, are not as important as the process. Research suggests that contemplating unpleasant or surprising future outcomes will make you less likely to overreact to them. There’s no guarantee, but encountering a problem you’ve even briefly anticipated might just give you that small boost of comfort or self-esteem that will translate into useful self-control