Four psychological tricks to help you stick to your New Year’s resolutions

The conversationEvery year, millions of people around the world make New Year’s resolutions. And every year, the vast majority of us break and abandon these resolutions.

Self-control is a major problem for many of us, so failure to keep our resolutions is no surprise. But is it inevitable? Is there anything we can do to make it more likely that we will stick to our resolve?

Psychological research can help: here are four things you can do to make it more likely this year that you’ll stick to your resolutions.

Prepositions, constructions and bundles

First, you can form implementation intentions. Multiple studies show that people are much more likely to follow through on their intention to do something—say, exercise more—if they have the intention to do it when they encounter a cue.

Rather than simply intending to exercise more, you might intend to start jogging when the alarm goes off. Forming an implementation intention automates the preparation for the behavior when the cue is encountered. And that makes the sequel more likely.

In one study, for example, women who formed food-specific implementation intentions lost twice as much weight as a control group of dieting women.

Second, you can focus on abstract properties of events and things rather than concrete properties. Let’s say your goal is to eat healthier and you’re tempted by a donut.

Focusing on the properties of concrete – for example, its sweet goo – tends to promote consumption. But focusing on its abstract qualities, the qualities it shares not just with other donuts but the broader set of things you find enticing, tends to promote self-control.

You might think that the challenge isn’t “do you eat this donut or not?” but “am I eating unhealthy food or not?”.

Donuts

Focusing on the concrete qualities of a donut – for example, its sweet gooey texture – tends to promote consumption. Image credit: aesullivan2010/Unsplash.com

This is an application of what is known as interpretive level theory to the problem of self-control. In general, interpreting things in more abstract terms tends to facilitate more rational thinking and behavior, possibly because it makes more apparent the reasons why we want to exercise self-control in the first place.

It is the effects of a role model of eating donuts – not eating a single donut – that we want to avoid, and these patterns and their effects are abstract properties. Instead, the low-level properties of a temptation make apparent the ways in which it is immediately rewarding.

Relatedly, you can join the activity called by the American psychiatrist, psychologist and behavioral economist George Ainslie grouping choices.

When you combine options, you don’t see them as separate episodes, unrelated to each other. Instead, you see your current choice as representative of a recurring challenge.

You can combine choices by thinking of yourself not as simply choosing how to act now, but rather as choosing how to act now and on every subsequent occasion. I might see my choice of whether to eat a donut with my coffee as predictive of how I will act in similar situations in the future (whenever I go to the coffee shop, for example), thus combining my current choice with future, similar, choices my

Just like focusing on abstract qualities, grouping helps people make choices they are less likely to regret later.

Sustainable self-control

There is some evidence that self-control is a limited resource: the more you consume, the less you have available for future challenges until time passes and you restore your self-control abilities.

The third strategy you can employ to keep your resolutions, then, is to restore your self-control relatively quickly. Many things seem to help.

There is a positive effect, which includes boosting your mood by, say, watching a funny video. Exposure to nature also helps restore depleted self-control.

Eating sweet foods also helps, although that’s a problem if what you’re trying to control is your tendency to eat a lot of junk, especially since artificial sweeteners don’t seem to help. One experiment showed that while people who drank milkshakes with sugar had their depleted self-control restored, milkshakes flavored with artificial sweeteners did not help at all (despite the fact that people had the opportunity to guess whether their drink used sugar or not).

Cadbury's Chocolate
If you want to eat less chocolate, don’t buy the family-sized bar and rely on your willpower to ensure you stick to fewer blocks later. Image credit: Jamie Henderson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Why artificial sweeteners do not restore self-control, but sugar does, is currently unknown. Fortunately, more recent research has shown that it’s not necessary to actually consume the sugary food to get the benefits: slurping a sugary drink around your mouth and then spitting it out is just as effective.

If self-control is a limited resource, then we can avoid spending it unnecessarily: we can store it until we need it. The fourth strategy for maintaining our resolutions, in general, is to avoid temptation. This seems obvious, but its importance may not be recognized.

Perhaps people believe that willpower is more effective than it actually is. Or maybe they fail to recognize that it decreases with use and throughout the day (think how much more likely you are to eat sweets in the afternoon). Therefore, they do not use this strategy of avoiding temptation as often or as effectively as they could.

If you want to eat less chocolate, don’t buy the family bar (or fall into the old two-for-one trap) and rely on your willpower to ensure you only stick to three blocks tonight. When you’re tired, it can be hard to stick to your resolve.

Better to buy a small bar: that way, the hassle of going out to buy more will probably be too much for you to give in to your desire for another bar of chocolate.

You can avoid temptation by choosing the non-lollipops aisle at the supermarket. Choosing a route home that doesn’t go past the pub. or the bakery, and so on. There is evidence that this kind of strategic approach to self-control is more effective than relying on willpower alone.

It takes planning to stick to your decision, but if it’s a worthwhile decision, it will be worth it.

Neil Levy, Senior Research Fellow, Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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