Why This New Year’s Will Be Different: How Behavioral Science Can Help You Keep Your Resolution

A version of this post originally appeared on the Envolve Blog.

The holiday season is a beloved time across America when we fill our houses with family, friends and laughter, and fill our bellies with meals, drink and dessert. By January 1, reality sets in along with a few unwanted extra pounds.

The end of the holiday season offers us a chance to make up for our overindulgences in the form of a New Year’s resolution. Among the 44 percent of the U.S. population that make resolutions, “be a better person,” “lose weight” and “exercise more” were the most popular in 2018.

Despite our intentions, almost 30 percent of New Year’s resolvers give up in just two weeks. Six months later, that number shoots up to more than 50 percent.

Behavioral scientists call this problem the intention-behavior gap. And it turns out to be a pretty big gap.

Why Is It So Hard to Keep Our Resolutions?

The New Year is a monumental moment, and we strive to make monumental changes. In doing so, we display an optimism bias — we’re overly optimistic about our chance of success. As a result, we set vague, unachievable goals — a recipe for failure.

Even the smallest roadblocks make it less likely that that we’ll enact our resolutions. This is known as friction costs, which refers to our tendency to be deterred by seemingly small barriers.

Adding to the challenge is a phenomenon known as ego depletion. Ego depletion suggests that our willpower gets tired the more we use it. A single act of self-control now leaves us even more susceptible to temptation later.

With our self-control depleted, we find it almost impossible to resist that delicious chocolate cake. For this, we can thank present bias, the tendency to choose immediate rewards over our long-term goals. Present bias works hand in hand with our (lack of) self-control, and together, they send us down a slippery slope.

You promised to cut back on sweets, but a single bite of chocolate cake can’t hurt, right? The what-the-hell effect describes how a small step off track can cause us to spiral out of control. Because once you have one bite, you might as well have another. And now that you’ve had two, well, what the hell … 

This Time Can Be Different

I’ll admit, the situation looks pretty dire. To keep our New Year’s resolutions, we’re up against a formidable team of behavioral biases and fallacies, each conspiring to get us to give up on exercise, eat more junk food, and leave our resolutions behind.

But there’s good news. Behavioral science has discovered the strategies that can make this New Year’s different than the rest.

  • Step #1: Make it SMART

To accomplish your resolution, you’ll need to overcome the optimism bias. Try making a SMART resolution. Revise your resolution until you can answer yes to the following:

Is your resolution as specific as possible? Can you measure your progress? How achievable is it? Is it relevant to your life goals? Do you have a time limit?

My SMART resolution: To run a half marathon by June.

  • Step #2: Break It Down and Build It Up 

Reducing friction costs requires making it as easy as possible to achieve your resolution. To do this, break your resolution down into smaller “sub-resolutions,” like running for 20 minutes on Saturday.

This sub-resolution may seem small, but that’s the point. Small goals lead to small wins, small wins build momentum, and momentum is crucial for long-term success.

Still, sustaining momentum requires making progress. Once you successfully complete your sub-resolution, try making it a little bit harder next week. Keep adjusting to keep your sub-resolution challenging, but still achievable.

This week’s sub-resolution: To run for 20 minutes on Saturday.

  • Step #3: Find Your Opportunity

Now that you have a sub-resolution in place, you’ll need to make a plan. “Opportunity plans,” or when-then plans, map out exactly when, where and how you’ll act. By planning in advance, they also lessen your chance of succumbing to ego depletion and present bias.

To make your opportunity plan, use the “when-then” formula to decide when and where you’ll do your sub-resolution.

My opportunity plan: When it is 10 a.m. on Saturday, then I will run for 20 minutes around my neighborhood. 

  • Step #4: Overcome Your Obstacles

A simple plan can also stop the what-the-hell effect in its tracks. “Obstacle plans,” or if-then plans, let us decide how we’ll behave when a challenging obstacle arises.

To make your obstacle plan, identify an internal obstacle to carrying out your opportunity plan. Then, decide on one behavior to overcome that obstacle.

To make your obstacle plan, use the “if-then” formula.

My obstacle plan: If I feel too tired to run, then I will play some music to wake me up and get moving.

The Year Ahead

Achieving your New Year’s resolution won’t be easy. Behavioral biases and fallacies leave us overly optimistic, easily deterred, tired and feeling a lack of control. But with the help of a few simple strategies tested by behavioral science, you can turn your resolution into reality. Here’s to the New Year, and each one that comes after it. Because this time really will be different.

Jonathan Cloughesy is a behavioral scientist in the Better Living and Health Group at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. He is a recent graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara, where he studied biopsychology and applied psychology. He is interested in the design and evaluation of scalable interventions that promote health behavior.

The Envolve Center for Health Behavior Change™ is a partnership between the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, The Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University and Centene Corporation. The Envolve Center advances life-centric health research to improve lives so that communities can thrive.