Five days into the new year, and those resolutions may already be falling by the wayside. But if your new running shoes have stayed in their box, the cigarettes probably haven’t. A poll in November by Bupa and ComRes found that, of the 63 per cent of us who admit to breaking a resolution, 66 per cent did so in one month.
But whether your goal for 2016 is to increase your life expectancy or your pension contributions, how can you maximise your chances of success?
THE PLANNING FALLACY
The reason so many of us fail to keep our resolutions is because our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Behavioural experts often refer to the “planning fallacy”, coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the late 70s, when explaining why we fail to meet our goals. Even if a task has taken longer than expected to perform in the past, we tend to underestimate the time it will take us to complete a similar task this time around.
When it comes to planning, we may be our own worst enemy. Research has shown that this optimism bias only affects predictions about the timing of projects we are involved in. Indeed, we tend to be far more realistic when assessing the time the same task would take other people, giving a much larger margin for error.
Your chances of sticking to your resolutions may also be higher if you stand to lose more by failure. In 2009, research by the World Bank and Innovations for Poverty Action offered a savings account to a group of smokers who wanted to give up. Each smoker deposited funds equivalent to around $11 every fortnight into a zero-interest account over a six month period, and then took a urine test to determine whether they had fallen off the wagon or not. If they had managed to fight the urge, their money was returned. If not, the savings were donated to charity.
Smokers randomly asked to take part in the trial were 3 percentage points more likely to have given up after six months compared to the control group. Moreover, the quitters had stayed away from cigarettes even after 12 months, showing how short-term disincentives can help to make lasting changes.
But putting skin in the game need not be so punitive. Publicising our intentions can help us stick to them, perhaps because our pride is at stake. Analysing more than 100 studies, research by the University of California Irvine’s Eric Spangenberg concluded that, when a commitment is framed as a “yes” or “no” question (such as: “will I be quicker to respond to emails?”), and posed to us by a friend, we may be more motivated to realise that goal than if we had simply decided to respond to emails faster. He told Live Science that making a commitment public makes you more likely to engage in your intended behaviour.
But when it comes to resisting bad behaviour, reaching your goals may just be a question of angles. A phenomenon in social psychology known as “construal level theory” holds that people can change their attitudes to vices by shifting their focus away from the concrete characteristics of such temptations to their more abstract properties.
According to Neil Levy, professor of philosophy at Macquarie University, establishing this psychological distance may help when trying to modify your behaviour over the next 12 months. Those looking to give up doughnuts should try associating them less with their sticky sweetness, advises Levy, and focus more on their association as an unhealthy food. “In general, construing things in more abstract terms tends to facilitate more rational thought and behaviour, possibly because it makes more salient the reasons why we want to exercise self-control in the first place,” he told The Conversation.