A Behavioral Science Perspective on New Year's Resolutions: The Reasons Behind Our Failures and How to Avoid Them
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Many of us get those sugary dopamine rushes as we set our goals and start to work towards them at the beginning of the year. But as the days go by and the initial enthusiasm fades, everyday life resumes its course, and many of these aspirations begin to wither. It is estimated that by February, 80% of the goals set in January are abandoned.1
Using a behavioral science perspective, we can explore the underlying reasons why we frequently fail in our pursuit of resolutions. These principles can also lead us to tactics that shift the tides in our favor and encourage us to stick to our long-set goals.
When revisiting a goal that we have previously failed at, it is important to keep in mind that our judgments are often clouded by information that comes to mind quickly and easily. This phenomenon, called the availability heuristic, is just one of many cognitive biases that can skew our decision-making and could discourage goal-setting in the first place.
We are likely to recall our failures and how difficult it was to continue pursuing our goals more vividly than memories of our achievements. We refer to this as the negativity bias. Don't let painful, biased memories prevent you from attempting a goal at all. To combat this, pause to consider your prior successes as well as your setbacks. Remember the occasions you saw progress toward your objectives instead of dwelling on the past and letting doubt guide you. This combo of evaluating by using the information we recall most easily, or from vividly negative memories can be the “great wall” impeding us from growing. Maybe that discipline you stopped pursuing in high school because you failed once is waiting for you to pick it up.
Do Fears of Losses Prevent Gains?
Think about a time you came across a limited-time sale and were persuaded to buy an item not because you had a genuine need for it but because you feared missing out on that special offer. According to the principle of loss aversion, we are more motivated to avoid losses than to achieve gains. We can apply this knowledge when goal-setting. Rather than considering all of the gains we achieve by sticking to our resolutions, we can also consider the potential losses that occur when we abandon them. For example, if your goal is to eat healthier, you should also explore the negative consequences of failing to achieve your goal. Since we are more concerned with losses, this can increase motivation and commitment.
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
Ready, Set… Plan?
Coming up with resolutions might seem simple, but sticking to them is a whole other story. According to behavioral research, making detailed plans for the times and locations at which you will carry out your resolutions might help close this gap. This is known as implementation intentions. Instead of just pledging to "exercise more," be more specific about the place, time, and length of each session: Tuesdays and Fridays after work, devote 30 minutes to running at the park. Our brain has an easier time convincing itself to do the workout when greater detail is provided. This may not seem like much at first, as writing out or planning our workouts appears to be an arbitrary task, but not doing so creates the extra work that our brain wants to avoid. Specifically planning out your goals can mean the difference between working out and staying on the couch. Consider that these plans are subject to change. Be ready to modify them as a function of circumstance while staying true to the ultimate objective.
You’ve Earned it!
Positive reinforcement plays a crucial role in our willingness to keep doing what we are doing. Designing a system in which we can reward ourselves after achieving goal-oriented milestones will help us to stay motivated and avoid losing steam after the first few weeks of the year. According to a study by Cornell, When compared to participants who only received prizes at the end of a long project, those who received immediate, regular rewards for accomplishing modest tasks expressed more interest and happiness in their work.2 The quantity and frequency of the reward might vary, but it should be something you can look forward to, and that will drive you to keep working toward your goal. Rewards can be treating yourself to a movie night, finally making that guilty Amazon purchase, or whatever truly motivates you.
Breaking (up) the Procrastination Cycle
Procrastination derives from our tendency to prioritize immediate gratification above long-term goals. This is one of the primary reasons our brains prefer to go for our phones and idly explore social media rather than complete what is in front of us. The same principle relates when we lose motivation when a goal appears to be out of reach. To avoid this, we should divide our goals into smaller, more urgent parts. The fragmentation makes the objective seem more feasible in the near future and allows you to celebrate the small victories. This relates to the preceding concept of keeping goals within reach through positive reinforcement in order to retain motivation.
This year, let's use behavioral science in our favor and avoid discouragement from past failures. Commit to being specific in our objectives, persistent in our search for rewards, and cautious in our milestones. The more we understand our brain and how it works, the closer we will be to making our resolutions realities.
- Jarrod Mills Staff Writer. (2020, January 3). Tips for making sure your new year's resolutions stick. The Times-Tribune.com. https://www.thetimestribune.com/news/local_news/tips-for-making-sure-your-new-years-resolutions-stick/article_8cd14b54-17fd-51a9-ab5a-89859e6e34c4.html
- Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2018). It’s about time: Earlier rewards increase intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(6), 877-890. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000116
About the Author
Jero is a Consultant at The Decision Lab with a passion for artificial intelligence and behavioral science. Prior to joining The Decision Lab he founded a startup in Mexico to develop apps for kids to encourage education, and developing web scraping bots. He also worked at Google as an account manager and technical specialist focused on ad placement across Google's products. Jero has a bachelor's degree in engineering and a postgraduate specialty degree in operations from Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City.