01 Jan ‘Have you got any New Year’s resolutions?’

‘Have you got any New Year’s resolutions?’ The familiar question many of us were asked amidst the champagne corks and final throes of festive indulgence earlier this week. Each year almost 50% of us take the admirable decision to make the most of the New Year ahead with a resolution to give up one of our vices or take up something we consider to be worthwhile. Unfortunately, history tells us that within a week’s time, 25% of the people who made New Year’s resolutions will already have broken them and indeed, some studies suggest as few as 8% of us will go on to realise our goals.

That’s why we’ve taken a look at New Year’s resolutions from a Behaviour Change point of view and come up with a few tips to help you achieve yours.

Making a resolution is a commitment to change our future behaviour and is usually a very rational decision. It’s difficult to argue with the merits of giving up smoking to improve our health or taking up a language we’ve always wanted to learn. However these big, rational decisions are the relatively easy ones, since they are made in the rose-tinted dawn of the New Year and don’t yet require us to actually do anything. Much harder are all the consequent small decisions repeated every day that follows, such as ‘shall I satisfy my craving with a cigarette or hold back’; ‘shall I spend an hour conjugating Italian verbs or watch reality TV’.

Our brains use heuristics or mental shortcuts to make these highly frequent decisions quickly. Unfortunately being shortcuts they don’t always make the most rational decision for us in the long term. Instead they choose the option which will take least mental energy without doing too much harm in the short term. This is often based on repeating our previous behaviour. For example, every year lots of us take the rational decision to get fit and join the gym. By mid-February, 60% of the gym memberships we sign up for in the New Year are unused, as each day we make the unconscious choice to do something else instead – wasting £37m a year in Britain alone.

USA new year resolutions

Most resolutions involve stopping doing something e.g. cutting down on drinking, or starting doing something e.g. taking up a new hobby. Even more ambitiously, some involve doing both – for example, eating less unhealthy foods and doing more exercise to improve your health and fitness.

Whatever you are seeking to do, here are a few Behaviour Change tips to help you be successful with your 2016 resolutions.

Giving things up

•   Make it public – this doesn’t mean you need to post your weight loss goal on Facebook or email it to the entire office, but our inbuilt commitment bias means that once we have committed publicly to others that we will do something we are much more likely to follow through. Maybe start by just telling a few friends though!

•   Make the alternative more accessible – make alternatives easier to get to than what you are giving up. When Google moved confectionery in their canteens into opaque coloured containers and healthy snacks into clear containers, consumption of confectionery dropped by 30% even though it was still available, just a little less visible. Put the treats away (or even leave a trip to the store between you and temptation) and keep the healthy alternatives to hand.

•   Make rewards immediate – we know that we favour immediate benefits over ones that will arrive sometime in the future. We also discount the perceived value of any delayed reward as a result of the delay (hyperbolic discounting). Try to give yourself small rewards along the way and you’re more likely to succeed than if you get no reward until you’ve achieved your far away goal.

Taking something up

•   Priming – it is proven that exposure to stimulus influences our subsequent thoughts and actions. Leverage this effect to bring things closer to the surface of your mind by for example strategically placing your trainers by the door so they are the first thing you see when you come in, or having a small picture of the national flag from the language you want to learn in your kitchen.

•   Be social, get a buddy or join a club – our behaviour is hugely influenced by what we consider right or normal. Joining other people who are also doing or taking up the activity you want to start can be a great help and also creates a public commitment.

•   Make it the default behaviour – we have an innate bias which prefers the current state of affairs and avoids unnecessary cognitive effort. Make stopping at the gym on Tuesday nights the rule rather than the exception instead of deciding whether to go on a night by night basis. Try programming your GPS in advance to direct you straight there or book the same class each week to strengthen the default behaviour.

And finally, if you do have a blip don’t beat yourself up about it and consider your resolution irretrievably broken. Studies show that we tend to have a somewhat binary view of our behaviour which heavily influences us. This means once we stop being healthy and eat a treat, we are more likely to see ourselves as being an unhealthy person and “sin” again tomorrow. Equally if we’ve been going to the gym and feeling healthy we’re more likely to resist that extra treat. Once you have ‘fallen off the wagon’ try to reset your goal to start again tomorrow rather than simply saying ‘that’s it then, the resolution’s gone’.

Triniti Marketing is a consultancy specialising in Behaviour Change Marketing (BCM). We use the latest findings in Marketing Science and Behavioural Economics to understand how people make decisions, to help our clients win more customers. If you have a Behaviour Change Challenge you’d like to talk about please get in touch with us at: info@triniti-m.com