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Beyond willpower

New year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, but using behavioral science to guide them can help make them more successful.

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[editor’s note: Brandi Bramlett, a board-certified behavior analyst, is a clinical director who helps people on the autism spectrum develop functional behaviors. In her personal life, she applies behavioral science to her passion for health and fitness. Her expertise in human behavior and her passion for a healthy lifestyle uniquely qualify her for sharing evidence-based strategies in planning (and sticking to) that new year’s resolution.]


It’s that time of year again—time to make a plan for the “new year, new you.” But are you ready for it?

If you’ve tried and failed at your new year’s resolutions in the past, it may not be a moral failing. With some knowledge of the inner workings of human behavior, you can use basic tools that increase your chances of success.

Some resolutions aim to break bad habits, like quitting smoking or reducing sugar consumption, and others aspire to form beneficial behaviors, like exercising or meditating regularly. Bramlett explains that the process is essentially the same whether you want to quit or start something: break down the goal into manageable pieces, track progress, re-evaluate along the way, and keep the big-picture goal in mind.

This guide outlines why we develop unhelpful habits and behaviors in the first place, how to set attainable goals, how to implement strategies for developing new behaviors, and where to find resources for support through the journey.


Why we develop bad habits

Identifying the reasons why we develop habits may be the key to breaking unhelpful ones. Whether it’s a conscious process or not, habits are formed for a few common reasons.


Reason 1: Belief that a behavior serves a purpose or influences unrelated outcomes

The technical term for this is “superstitious behavior.” This is an action that is inadvertently reinforced and linked to an unrelated outcome. An example in human behavior is excessive worrying or obsessive thought cycles.

Engaging in these mental processes gives us a sense of control over things we may not actually be able to affect, and the worry becomes habitual through the reinforcing comfort of perceived control over the external environment.

The solution is to work on unlinking the worry and the sense of control since worrying doesn’t actually have an effect on outcomes.

Superstitious behavior at its worst manifests itself in obsessive-compulsive disorder and should be dealt with under the guidance of a professional.


Reason 2: Lack of Preparation

People often predict that their “future self” will find it easy to make a good choice later instead of preparing the environment for success in the future. It’s basic human nature, but the lack of preparation ends up making success much harder to achieve.

For example, a person who wants to make healthier food choices may tell themselves they’ll pack a good lunch in the morning before work when mornings are always too hectic to find time to actually do it.

The bad habit in this case is choosing not to pack a lunch the night before because it seems easier not to in the moment, assuming it will be easy to do it in the morning. This makes the person more likely to choose unhealthy foods later when they’re very hungry and short on time.

The solution is to realize that it’s actually easier to pack a healthful lunch the night before, creating ease in making healthier food choices the next day.

This is known as lowering the “response effort,” making the better choice the easier one once lunch arrives.


Reason 3: Escape/Avoidant Behavior

This is another aspect of human nature: the urge to escape or avoid something that feels overwhelming.

In reality, the thoughts themselves tend to be more overwhelming than actually doing the thing. It’s often easier just to do something instead of fixating on feeling overwhelmed about doing it.

Dreading going to the gym? Try interrupting the unproductive thoughts about it and just go to the gym. See if that feels easier than wasting time avoiding it.


Reason 4: Difficulty with accountability to oneself due to low self-worth

Accountability sucks. It’s hard. That’s why a lot of people avoid things because you don’t have someone else to hold you accountable. If someone else broke their promises to you as often as you break your promises to yourself, you wouldn’t talk to you. You wouldn’t be your friend.

Work on valuing yourself as highly as you value your loved ones. You should be your own top priority.

Also, understand that your thoughts have a way of controlling your behaviors. If you think you’re not capable, you won’t apply yourself. If you can identify and correct destructive thought patterns you can begin to remap thoughts to redirect behaviors.


The process: How to stick to an attainable goal

Start small and learn your limits.

There are three essential components to achieving goals: 1) short-term, bite-sized steps that get you moving toward the “big picture” outcome; 2) intermediate-term goals that help you evaluate progress along the way; and 3) the ultimate long-term goal.

Each person has a certain amount of tolerance to rates of change in habits. Your baseline of tolerance to change may be lower when you set out to achieve your goal but may increase with initial successes. Then as you master and internalize the tools you’ve taught yourself, you learn how much change you can manage at once.

People commonly fail when they jump into goals that require too much change. For example, a plan that suddenly requires dietary change 80 percent of the time will probably fail. Changing 25 percent of meals to healthier choices is more attainable at the outset and increasing the amount over time is more manageable.

For consistent progress, choose very small goals that can be accomplished in the near future. The little wins will help you gain momentum and motivate you to keep going. Increase the scope of your goals gradually as you build confidence.


Keep your personal values in mind.

How does your goal align with who you are at your core and who you aspire to be? A goal that is intertwined with your deeper sense of self will make your efforts easier to withstand.

Prepare your environment for the change you want to see.


Your environment is everything.

You must prepare the environment to set you up for success later. Lower the amount of effort it will take to make a good choice in the future, and increase the amount of effort it would take to do the thing you’re trying to avoid.

Some people find it’s helpful to create rules, conditions, or consequences for themselves.

I tell myself that fast food restaurants are closed during the times that it would be easy for me to go, removing the possibility of making the unhealthy food choice by creating the imaginary condition that they’re closed. That works for me, but you can set your own parameters.

Another way to increase the amount of effort to do something you want to avoid is to place many extra steps between you and that behavior or item.

If you’re trying to eat less junk food, don’t keep it at home. If you want to spend less money, try not storing your payment information in your online shopping accounts and freeze your credit card in a block of ice in the freezer. That would create many extra steps to engage in the excessive spending and give you extra time to realize that you can stop it.

Triggers and setting events, known as “antecedents,” are the things that happen before any given behavior.

For example, if you want to quit biting your fingernails, you have to notice and identify the antecedent. That’s what is going on before you feel the need to put your hand to your mouth to bite your nails.

Then work on replacing the action of putting your hand to your mouth with something else that is incompatible with nail biting that also helps you acknowledge the need you’re trying fulfill.

If anxiety is the reason you bite your nails, you’d need to find something else to do with your hands that tends to your anxiety (e.g., a calming activity like knitting).


Track your progress.

Bramlett recommends journaling about how things are going or tracking data in an app or spreadsheet. This provides an objective perspective on how much progress is being made and gives you insight into whether you need to adjust your plan.


Get an accountability partner or system.

If you have someone you can count on, ask them to help hold you accountable on your dedication to yourself and your goals.

You can also try accountability apps that help you stay on track, like Beeminder or Action Buddy.


Re-evaluate often instead of giving up.

Sometimes we need to re-evaluate and readjust our course. That’s not the same thing as failure.

Instead of saying “This isn’t working, I’m going to quit,” say “This isn’t working, what do I need to change?”

Try piggy-backing your desired behavior or habit to something you already find easy or feel compelled to do. You always have some form of behavior that you want to keep that you can piggyback or link to.

When to start
People often like to start working on new goals at the new year, but you can start any day. Why wait for the new year Your new year could start tomorrow or any other day.

Resources for support
If you feel like your goals require professional assistance, reach out to a counselor or life coach that aligns with your personal values and goals.

Sadly, professional guidance is often hard to come by. Luckily, there are lots of books, websites, and apps for self-guided support.

I recommend New Harbinger Publications, as they offer an impressive array of books for anyone interested in evidence-based, self-guided programs.

Also recommended are the following books: Atomic Habits by James Clear; Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport; The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris; and A Liberated Mind: An Essential Guide to ACT by Dr. Steven C. Hayes.

BehaviorFit.com will also help you track fitness goals if that’s among
your resolutions.

Final Thoughts
Your environment is everything, so prepare your environment. That could include removing yourself from toxic relationships in personal or professional life and setting healthier boundaries. Also consider how long you’ve been engaging in the behaviors you want to change, and know that the longer it’s gone on, the longer it will take to change it. So, you may need to realize that your goal is a three- or four-year goal, not a one-year goal.

To quote influential behaviorist B. F. Skinner: “A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”

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