With gyms, restaurants, and workplaces reopening, people from every part of my life are asking for expert advice on how to ingrain new and healthier habits as we re-emerge from our pandemic cocoons. Their instinct that now is the right time to make a change is spot on—my research shows that having a “fresh start” is a powerful motive to initiate positive change at home and at work. But what are the chances that a new, post-COVID fitness routine or commitment to meeting-free mornings will outlast our initial fervor?
Unfortunately, even with the motivation of a fresh start, most self-improvement goals don’t pan out. One reason is that change is hard. But a more helpful explanation is that change requires the right strategy. I’ve devoted my academic career to the study of behavior change, and I’ve been startled by how often people fail to size up the obstacles they’ll need to surmount to achieve their objectives before charging forward with a strategy that’s poorly-suited to their circumstances. Setting audacious goals and visualizing success are all well and good, but most people would get farther faster if they customized their approach to counter the blockades that stand in their way.
The internal obstacles that commonly prevent change—the tendency to give into temptation, to be lazy, to be forgetful, to experience self-doubt, and so on—are surmountable. But just as different maladies respond to different treatments, so too do different barriers to change. We can’t just throw any solution at them and expect great results. We need the right one.
Take, for example, temptation. Falling prey to temptation is one of the most common reasons people fail to reach their goals. We mean to go to the gym, but Netflix beckons. We know we should prepare for an upcoming presentation, but scrolling through Facebook is more enticing.
Psychologists Ayelet Fishbach and Kaitlin Woolley have shown that when pursuing goals that require resisting temptation, most people make a crucial mistake: they approach them in the way they believe will yield the greatest long-term payoff. But a more successful strategy is to try to make this kind of goal pursuit fun.
Across multiple research studies, Fishbach and Woolley encouraged some participants (chosen at random) to choose healthy foods or exercises they expected to enjoy most while others were encouraged to choose foods and exercises they’d benefit from most. These studies demonstrated that people encouraged to approach healthy activities with a focus on short-term enjoyment persisted longer on their workouts and ate more healthy food. This research reveals that we’re better off when we harness temptation, rather than when we ignore it to focus on our long-term goals.
One way of engineering success with this insight is through what I call “temptation bundling.” This technique involves pairing something tempting (like watching lowbrow tv) with a goal-oriented activity that isn’t inherently fun (like exercising or preparing a home-cooked meal). The “indulgence” is only permitted while working towards the goal. I’ve proven that temptation bundling can help gymgoers exercise more, but I’ve also heard stories of people using this technique to get ahead in school (by bundling trips to the library with indulgent snacks), master housework (by bundling it with a favorite podcast), and even improve relationships (by bundling get-togethers with trips to a favorite restaurant).
Foiling Flake Out
Of course, many goals—like strengthening bonds with loved ones through frequent calls, staying on track with medical check-ups, and even reducing waste by cancelling unnecessary subscriptions—aren’t inherently unpleasant to pursue. We just don’t get around to them because we’re forgetful. Estimates suggest, in fact, that we flake out on anywhere from a third to two thirds of our stated intentions, and forgetfulness plays a key role. The solution here has nothing to do with fun.
Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer has shown that when most people make plans to attack their goals, they do it incorrectly, focusing on what they intend to do (say, saving more money) rather than what will trigger them to act. To avoid flaking out, it’s vital to link intentions with a trigger cue, like a specific time, place, or action.
Making the right kind of plan is as simple as filling in the blanks in the sentence “when ___ happens, I’ll do ___.” So “I’ll increase my monthly retirement savings” has a missing ingredient, but “whenever I get a raise, I’ll increase my monthly retirement savings” is a more useful plan because it includes a trigger.
Research done by myself and others shows that prompting people to think through the date and time cue that will spur them to act can increase follow-through on everything from voting to getting a flu shot or colonoscopy.
As a final example, many people fail to achieve their goals because they get discouraged by small setbacks. For over a decade, my Wharton colleague Marissa Sharif has had the ambitious goal of running every day. But, as a behavioral scientist, Marissa realized that a missed jog could easily spiral into a series of skipped workouts thanks to the aptly-named “what the hell effect.” Research on this psychological phenomenon shows that even small failures, like missing a daily diet goal by a few calories, can lead to downward spirals in behavior—like eating a whole apple pie. Marissa came up with a clever strategy to counter this risk. She allowed herself two emergency skip days each week. If she couldn’t squeeze in a workout, she’d let herself declare an emergency, and this kept her on track.
Marissa has proven that this strategy works for other people at risk of abandoning their goals after a small failure, too. In one study, Marissa and a collaborator asked hundreds of people to do thirty-five annoying tasks every day for a week in exchange for $1 a batch. These workers were randomly assigned to three groups. Some got the tough goal of completing their work every day of the week. Others were given the easier objective of completing their work just five days out of seven. Finally, a third group was told to complete the assignment every day but got two “emergencies” to excuse missed work. Everyone knew they would get a $5 bonus if they managed to achieve their goal.
The chance to declare an emergency proved invaluable. A whopping fifty-three percent of those allowed to take “emergencies” hit their goal, compared with just twenty-six percent of people in the (objectively identical) easy group and twenty-one percent of participants with the seven days-per-week goal. The beauty of the system was that people were reluctant to use emergencies willy nilly (wisely hoarding their chits for real disasters). But having a tough goal with wiggle room kept people highly motivated even when they stumbled – blips no longer spiraled out of control because they could be written off.
These findings demonstrate that allowing for a limited number of emergencies is one way to ensure small mistakes won’t derail goal pursuit.
Temptation, flake out, and the what the hell effect are just a few of the many internal barriers to goal achievement that behavioral scientists have identified, ranging from self-doubt to bad habits. As people the world over seize upon a spike in motivation to change their lives for the better at the end of this pandemic era, I’m confident that successful change will come easiest to those who diagnose the barriers they’ll face and counter them strategically.
Adapted from Milkman’s new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be