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Q&A with Katherine Milkman: Keeping Your Resolutions

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What are some common roadblocks to keeping new year’s resolutions? How can behavioral strategies remove them?

Self-control problems lead us to put off doing what we resolve to do better until later.  I’ll start the diet, but NEXT week.  I’ll go to the gym, but NEXT week.  Commitment devices are a terrific behavioral solution.  They involve signing up for some kind of punishment in the future (e.g., paying a fine, being ashamed in front of friends on social media) if we don’t actually do what we’ve resolved to do.  So I might sign up for a commitment device (say using and agree that if I don’t go to the gym twice next week, I’ll owe $25 to a charity I hate.  Now, when I feel the urge to procrastinate about

exercising, I’ll realize that putting it off will cost me $25 and I’m less likely to postpone that healthy behavior.  Another solution is just to make a plan about when, where and how you’ll follow-through.  This reduces forgetting and makes procrastination more awkward because procrastinating requires breaking an explicit commitment rather than a vague one.

Would you recommend that individuals pick one behavioral strategy (temptation bundling etc.) to set themselves up for success with their new year’s resolutions, or employ multiple strategies?

The more behavioral solutions the better, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s hard to stick to goals, and so we need help.  The more things we can line up that will help us – from social support (e.g., a friend to meet at a pre-scheduled time at the gym) to commitment devices (e.g., $25 to a charity you hate if you skip your workout) to temptation bundles (e.g., linking exercise with a guilty pleasure like watching the next episode in your favorite drama on TV) – the better our chances of success.

Is there a sweet spot in terms of number of resolutions to set for the year? Could setting more than a certain number of resolutions become an impediment to keeping any?

Hmm.  That’s an interesting question.  There is research showing that planning the way to achieve too many goals can actually be harmful, so there may be a sweet spot for resolutions.  I normally set one or two, personally, but that’s not based on any hard data!

Are there particular types of resolutions that are best suited to certain behavioral strategies? If so, which ones?

The best resolutions are concrete, a little bit challenging but not impossible, and can be achieved by sticking to a straightforward set of actions.  Behavioral strategies will be most useful if it’s possible to make a plan that will facilitate reaching the goal and if it’s possible to use tactics like commitment devices and social support for motivation.  So, going to the gym twice a week is a great example of a good goal that’s well suited to behavioral strategies.  You can plan when you’ll get there, who you’ll work out with, and put money on the line that you’ll forfeit if you don’t make it.  A less fabulous goal would be to get healthier more often since it’s vague and less clear how to use behavioral tools to achieve this.