- Written by KATHERINE L. MILKMAN and KEVIN G. VOLPP, The New York Times, January 3, 2014
IT’S that time of year again. Maybe it’s your waistline you’re worried about, or maybe it’s the smoking habit you just can’t seem to kick. To improve your chances of keeping your New Year’s resolutions, we offer four tips inspired by recent research on behavioral economics and health. We focus on health, but our suggestions should help with other goals, too.
First, make a concrete plan. When you do so, you both embed your intentions firmly in memory (which reduces forgetting) and make it harder to postpone good behavior, since doing so requires breaking an explicit commitment to yourself. In an experiment reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers (including one of us) contacted thousands of individuals who needed flu shots. Those individuals who were prompted to privately write down a plan specifying the date and time they would visit a clinic got shots at a 13 percent higher rate than members of a control group, who were also reminded about clinics but were not prompted to form a plan. This strategy, as the same team reported in the journal Preventive Medicine, also improved turnout for colonoscopies.
Second, put something you value on the line. In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers (including one of us) reported that over the course of a 16-week study, individuals who were given the opportunity to set aside money for forfeiture if they failed to lose weight lost 14 pounds more than those in a control group. Similarly, an experiment in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics found that smokers hoping to quit were more likely to succeed if offered an opportunity to deposit funds in an account for six months that they would lose if they failed a urine test for nicotine and cotinine. You can arrange to forfeit money if you don’t achieve your goals at stickK.com, a website founded by behavioral economists. But putting money on the line isn’t your only option: Making an appointment to exercise with a friend may be effective, too, because you are much less likely to cancel on a friend than on yourself.
Third, bundle your temptations. This is one of our favorite strategies for tackling health goals, which we tested in an experiment described in a forthcoming paper in Management Science. The idea is best illustrated with a scenario: Imagine you want to exercise more but struggle to drag yourself to the gym. Imagine you also have a fondness for trashy novels but feel guilty wasting your time reading them. The solution is simple: Allow yourself to read those novels only while exercising at the gym. Our research demonstrates that when you leave your copy of “The Hunger Games” (or such) at the gym, you exercise 56 percent more often (and 61 percent of people will even pay the gym to hold their book so it is only available when exercising).
Fourth, seek social support. You can achieve more by pursuing goals with the help of a mentor. In a study co-authored by one of us and reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, patients with poorly controlled diabetes were paired with patients who previously had poorly controlled diabetes but had since achieved mastery over their disease. The improvements in glycemic control achieved by those mentored in this study were larger than those produced by many leading drugs.
What if, despite our tips, you nonetheless fail to achieve your New Year’s resolutions? Fortunately, you will have plenty of other chances. In a paper forthcoming in Management Science, a team of researchers (including one of us) documents “the fresh start effect.” We analyzed the frequency with which Americans searched for the term “diet” on Google, students visited a university gym and people signed up to create goals on stickK.com. We found that the beginnings of many cycles — including the start of a new week, month, year and semester (for students) — are associated with increased interest in dieting as well as increases in exercise and goal creation. People also intensify their pursuit of aspirations following birthdays and federal holidays.
So although many (in fact most) New Year’s resolutions are unsuccessful, the good news is that if at first we don’t succeed, there are many other “fresh starts” on the calendar when we can try again.
Kevin G. Volpp is a staff physician at the Philadelphia V.A. Medical Center and a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where Katherine L. Milkman is an assistant professor.
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