Effective Resolutions: Behavioral Insights on Creating Positive Change
Practical tips from behavioral science that can help us bring forth positive change in the new year.
Ushering in the New Year provides an opportunity to make resolutions about how we wish to improve and reach for our dreams in the year ahead. With 2020 in hindsight, many of us are approaching 2021 with cautious optimism. How can we effectively make and keep our resolutions in 2021?
The following tips from behavioral science can help us to bring forth positive change in the new year.
1. Set an achievable goal. We often make overly ambitious resolutions. We plan to go to the gym for two hours every single day, we resolve to avoid social media entirely, we are determined to enforce a no-sugar policy in our household, and so forth. One study showed that 77% of people who made new year resolutions maintained them for only one week and only 19% after two years.1 Sound familiar?
Rather than aiming too high, start the new year by identifying a series of smaller, attainable actionable goals, which will ultimately lead to reaching your higher ambition. One well-known mnemonic for effective goal-setting is the SMART framework, in which a goal is commonly designed to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. You might have an aspiration of being a better spouse, for example. An initial SMART goal could be to express gratitude to your spouse; focusing on one of their specific attributes or actions and expounding on the reasons that you appreciate them.
2. Create a timeline of your goal. Recognize that taking small but consistent steps toward reaching your goal is more productive than putting forth great effort once in a while. To make it more concrete, write down a schedule of your SMART goals, identifying specific days and times when you plan to complete each goal. Aim to engage in at least one small actionable behavior in fulfilment of your goal, every single day, preferably around the same time (if that neatly fits in with the nature of your goal).
3. Identify behavioral strategies to help you meet your ambition. The EAST framework is another mnemonic consisting of easy, attractive, social, and timely, conceptualized by the Behavioral Insights Team based in the UK. The EAST framework can help you identify ways to apply behavioral insights to nudge your behavior in the right direction toward the achievement of your goal.
Easy. How can you modify your schedule, time, or environment to make your goal easier to reach? Let’s say you want to exercise more. You might consider how you could do so with the least hassle, such as walking to work rather than driving.
Another way to make a goal easier is to anchor a new behavior to an existing one. For example, let’s say your goal is to finish writing a book, you might decide to write every morning for 10 minutes while you drink your cup of coffee.
You might also use visual cues as reminders to engage in a behavior to reach your goal. If your goal is to pray more regularly, for example, you might leave your Siddur on your bedside table to remind you to recite the Bedtime Shema.
Attractive. What can you do to make your goal more attractive? Your goal should be something that you are motivated to reach, but should also be fun, interesting, and satisfying. You might pair the more tedious steps involved in reaching your goal with something you find enjoyable like listening to a podcast while you stuff envelopes for your new business venture, for instance.
Social. How can your goal include a commitment and support from others? We are more likely to persevere when we involve other people. You might consider joining a social network or group with similar goals. Another effective strategy would be recruiting a friend as a support system while you work to reach your goal.
Timely. We are more motivated by costs and benefits that take place immediately rather than in the future. Consider how you can build in short-term incentives and reduce immediate costs associating with achieving your goal. Focus on incentives that are non-material, like giving yourself a verbal pat on the back (“I did it – great job!”) or listening to your favorite personally motivating song when you make another step toward your goal.
Another timely approach is to anticipate any barriers to achieving your goal that you might confront in the next few days and strategize how you might counter them. For example, you might anticipate that you will be tempted by the dessert course at an upcoming wedding. A simple, but specific plan could be to refuse the dessert plate entirely and order coffee instead.
4. Be flexible and adapt. Our lives are rarely straightforward and the achievement of our goals will also likely be anything but. We can expect numerous roadblocks and bypasses in the months ahead. View these sidesteps not as failures but as signs that you need to adapt and modify your strategies in order to meet your long-term plan. Words like “pivot”, “re-imagine”, and “shift” gained popularity in 2020, and with good reason. Being flexible and viewing setbacks as learning opportunities boosts our resilience and enables us to persevere toward our goals, even in the face of setbacks.
5. Be mindful of the bigger picture. Whatever happens, remember that each moment of our lives is meaningful. We are taught that every moment has a unique spiritual energy that allows us to achieve what is needed at that particular point.2 While we might not recognize the inherent message in each moment, we can understand these times were specifically given to us for a purpose.
In the upcoming year, we will most certainly encounter points in time when we have to shift our focus to what is happening in the here and now, rather than the achievement of a future goal. Living each moment of every day to its fullest and most productive, however that means, represents an achievement. This, in and of itself, is the loftiest goal we can strive for and attain.
- Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127-134.
- A. Tatz, (1993), Living Inspired. New York: Targum Press,