At HRW, we are passionate about continual self-improvement, and these core company values quite naturally translate into a team of researchers who relish a chance to have a ‘fresh start’ on January 1st, or at least think about their goals and aims for the year ahead.
We did a brief poll of the HRW team and around a third made New Year’s resolutions for 2019. Of these resolutions, half were health and fitness-related, 20% about self-care and 30% about self-improvement.
If you’re like so many of us and are a self-improvement junkie, or even if you’re just dipping your toes in to making resolutions, HRW Shift (our team of internal behaviour change experts) have some pointers for ways to help you keep your resolutions, using strategies from behavioural science.
Often New Year’s resolutions are vague (e.g. eat healthier, stop smoking, drink less) and this vagueness has two important psychological implications, in that the human brain doesn’t like things that are ambiguous or complicated.
• Abstraction aversion – humans have a natural aversion to ambiguous information and aims. Concrete terms and ideas have been shown to be more memorable and more compelling than vague ones (e.g. a V8 engine is more concrete than ‘high performance’)
• Complexity aversion – just like our aversion to ambiguity, the human mind has an aversion to complexity. When something looks complicated, the brain tends to disengage with the idea, even if the more complex option would be better for the individual (e.g. experiments with investors showed they avoided investing in companies with complicated names, and articles on stock futures with simple titles were more likely to be clicked on)
How we can use this knowledge to achieve resolutions: know that these aversions are a risk and take account of them! To avoid them, make resolutions SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) – for example, “drinking less than 12 units of alcohol per week for 6 months” or “going to at least 3 gym classes a week in January and 4 per week in February”. Making a resolution SMART ensures it is concrete enough to be understood and simple enough to be approachable.
Incentives, by definition, motivate behaviour change – the anticipated reward (emotional, social, hedonic) of engaging in a behaviour incentivises our actions. Yet, often New Year’s resolutions and behaviour change initiatives in general involve ‘giving something up’. This can be difficult because there was usually some incentive or reward in the behaviour that led you to engage in it in the first place. Many behaviours people are looking to change, are pleasurable in the short-term but harmful in the long-term (temporal discounting) and are often hedonic (pleasurable) rewards, so removing them without changing the incentive landscape can be even more challenging – they don’t call it immediate gratification for nothing!
How we can use this knowledge to achieve resolutions: to overcome this challenge, behavioural science gives us several tools to restructure our incentives to ensure there is an incentive for ‘not’ engaging in the behaviour you’re trying to limit.
• For example, a perennial favourite in behavioural science is loss aversion (this is the principle that the pain of losses hurts one and a half to two times as much as an equivalent gain) – change incentives and put yourself at risk of loss through placing of a bet that you’ll fulfil your resolution for a particular period of time, and if you don’t achieve it, the money you have bet goes to a charity, a friend, or a political candidate you don’t like. On a simpler level, buy yourself some cake that you can only eat if you do the writing you planned to do that day, if you don’t do the writing, you have to throw away the cake.
• If you’re looking to engage more in a behaviour you don’t like, there’s also the trick of ‘temptation bundling’ – wrapping together behaviours you don’t find pleasurable with those you do (for example, if you don’t like going to the gym but do like watching TV, only watch TV at the gym, or only eat dessert on days you meditate).
Facing down a whole year of the same resolution can be demoralising; there’s not a lot to celebrate and you can often feel like you’ve already let it down before you’ve even really begun, so it becomes easier to give up when you’re only a few weeks into the year. This tendency is emphasised by the psychological tendency to pay attention to ‘streaks’ (the gambler’s fallacy),
but this can be mitigated through chunking – breaking the bigger task into smaller, more achievable chunks. This has several benefits in that it gives shorter deadlines/reward periods and changes up the aims so there’s a degree of novelty (which is more attractive to our most powerful cognitive resource: attention).
How we can use this knowledge to achieve resolutions: consider ways you can ‘chunk’ your resolution. For example, if you were aiming to become a more prolific writer, you might consider ‘reading one book a week in January, attending a poetry reading in February, writing a diary in March and writing a short story in April’; or if you were looking to run a marathon, running k in January, 10k in February, joining a running club in March, half marathon in April, etc. These milestones give some degree of variety plus a feeling of accomplishment when each component is achieved.
Humans tend to want to uphold commitments that they make; large and small, public and private. This tendency is based on the desire to appear consistent, which has a strong psychological pull.
How we can use this knowledge to achieve resolutions: to help your resolutions stick, sign a commitment sheet with someone who can hold you accountable, or, if you’re brave enough, make a public pledge of your intentions to your family, friends, colleagues, or on social media. That way you’d feel more accountable to not let it lapse.
Imagine it done
Research has shown that taking the time to really visualise yourself in the future, where the behaviour has become a habit and you’re feeling the outcomes of the situation makes you more likely to persist in behaviour change in the short and medium terms. This tendency is called episodic future thinking.
How we can use this knowledge to achieve resolutions: it might sound cheesy but take a moment to really imagine how you would feel when you’ve achieved your resolution, close your eyes and visualise how you will be at that time. You’ll create a strong psychological anchor that can help make the immediate steps more likely.
By Katy Irving
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