Behavioral Economics, Personal Development

5 Science-Based Strategies for Sticking to Your New Year’s Resolution

With 2021 around the corner, it only makes sense that I write about New Year’s resolutions on my personal development blog, right? Whether your resolutions are looking a little different this year due to what feels like a never-ending pandemic, or you have a goal to press “Restart” on your 2020 resolution(s), I’m here to help you stick to those goals.

That’s why this week, I’m taking a step back and diving into some bigger-picture behavior change strategies, which are backed by scientific research. As a public health researcher with a focus on healthy behavior change, I have a particular affinity for this stuff and have decided to sum it all up for you in a way that is easy to digest (AKA not a 25-page dissertation). However I can provide sources if you’re into that kinda thing.

Without further adieu, here are five strategies for developing good habits and sticking to your resolutions (in no particular order).

Create (and sign) a commitment contract.

A commitment contract (also called a “commitment device”) is used as a mechanism to provide an incentive to achieve your goals. It can be as formal or informal as you choose, but essentially the idea is that you sign a contract or make an agreement either with yourself or with others, to meet a certain goal.

Say you and your friend both want to quit smoking in 2021. You both agree to get urine tests on a monthly basis. You also both agree to contribute $1,000 to a “pool”. If the test comes back positive for nicotine for either of you at any point, the other wins the money. However, if you both stay quit and achieve your goals, you both get your $1,000 back.

This is actually the deal that Dean Karlan, the founder of StickK.com, used as a commitment contract for his study on this concept. StickK is a platform that allows you to create a slightly more formal contract to achieve your goal – and money IS at stake as an incentive to stay on track. Check out StickK.com for more info. Similar but different: check out Dietbet.com for a similar strategy, but specifically for weight loss.

Try Habit Stacking“.

James Clear, author of the New York Times best seller Atomic Habits, pioneered the concept of “habit stacking”, which he writes about in his book and on his blog. The idea here is to pick a habit that you already have – brushing your teeth, making your coffee, taking a shower – and attaching the new habit you wish to develop to an existing one of your choice.

An example of this: if you wish to practice gratitude more often in 2021, resolve to think about something you are grateful for everyday as you brush your teeth. Alternatively, if you’re not much of a multi-tasker, resolve to write down your gratitudes after you’ve finished brushing your teeth each morning. Whether the new habit is “stacked” simultaneously, before, or after your existing habit, this method is an easy and effective way to build new habits.

Write down your long-term goal.

And mount it somewhere you will see it regularly. On your computer screen. On your bathroom mirror. On your refrigerator (which might be especially useful if your goal is to eat healthier). Research shows that writing your goal on a piece of paper is an effective strategy for achieving your goal. Keeping your goal where you will be constantly reminded of it can have a seemingly magical effect on your ability to continue working towards it.

An even more effective way to do this is to convert your bigger picture goal into a SMART goal. SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. You want to be sure that your goal meets all of these criteria. For example, “I want to be healthier” is rather vague, and would not be considered a SMART goal. A SMART goal would be, “I want to walk 10,000 steps a day, every week day.” This is more concrete and specific, and will be easier for you to evaluate how well you are staying on track.

Choose an accountability partner.

Got a co-worker who also wants to step it up at the gym in the new year? A friend who wants to read more? A family member who wants to start saving more money? Ask them to be your accountability partner and make sure you stay on track to your goals. As a reciprocal, you can provide the same service for them. Even if you don’t use a commitment contract to incentivize achieving these goals, it can be just as effective (and cheaper, especially if your goal is to save $$!) to simply pick someone to “report back” to on your goals and your progress.

Alternative #1: This person doesn’t even need to have a goal of their own, as long as they are a human being who you are checking in with, and who is invested in helping to hold you accountable to achieving your goals.

Alternative #2: If this person has the same or a similar goal as you, take it a step further and plan to work towards your goals together if possible. Read at the same time every night, coordinate making healthy recipes, go to the gym together – whatever it is, it’s probably easier with a buddy.

Alternative #3: Share your goal on social media! This method might not be for everyone, but research shows that sharing your goals to the masses helps motivate you to uphold that goal. This way, your Facebook friends and Instagram followers are now invested in your goal too, and they can act as “virtual” accountability partners.

BONUS! Check out Supporti, an accountability partner app that allows you and your partner to hold yourselves accountable through technology.

Establish a reminder system.

Research has also proved that receiving reminders can improve your habits and help you achieve your goals. One study found that after just one week of receiving company-wide e-mail reminders to eat healthy and stay active, employees at the company in the trial reported improvements to their health habits.

There are several ways to set up such a system, but the most convenient (for iPhone users, at least) is to set up regular reminders in your phone that relate to your goals. I’ve talked about this in previous posts, as the Reminders app has legitimately changed the game for me in terms of my ability to stay on track with my goals. It has helped me to do my budget every Monday night after dinner, and to commit to being a more active citizen every Sunday morning as I sip my coffee. All that said, I highly recommend this method.

If you aren’t good with your phone or don’t have a phone with a built-in app for reminders, try signing up for text message alerts or reminders through Google Calendar. It’s meant for client appointment reminders, but it is free and can work for goal setting as well. Another option could be to set up automated e-mail reminders to yourself, either through your work or your personal e-mail (I recommend personal since you will need to set it up again if you leave your job, but up to you).

Or, as a last resort, ask someone – like an accountability partner – to call, text, e-mail, etc. you on a regular basis as a reminder. This could get annoying if it is too often, but if not, it could be more effective since it is more personal and you will likely feel obligated to respond with a “Yes, I did it, thanks!” after doing that thing, and less likely to ignore it.

Hoping that these help, but in any case, here’s to 2020 finally coming to an end. Happy New Year!

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