On January 1st, many of us are geared up to get healthy and fit. But, by mid-February, our diets are faltering and our fitness routines start getting stale. Falling out of a resolution can be a fast downward spiral. If you’re someone who thrives on novelty, how can you make sure that your New Year’s goals last longer than those tempting leftover holiday cookies? There are a few sneaky forces at work when unhealthy behavior spirals out of control, but you can stop that spiral and maximize your momentum using strategies from the field of behavior science.|
Imagine yourself navigating the calorie minefield at a big holiday party: You start out innocently munching veggies and dip, migrate to more hefty hors d'oeuvres (they're tiny!), and slowly make your way to the buffet table. Before you know it, by the end of the night you’ve sidled up to a giant slice of pie, inhibitions thrown out the window. In behavior science, we have a name for this seemingly inescapable inertia: behavioral momentum. Each small slip-up we make paves the way for us to continue making similar mistakes in succession.
While behavioral momentum can work against us (think an obsessive, mindless feeding frenzy), it can also drive us to achieve difficult or challenging feats (like spending Saturday afternoon cleaning out the entire garage when you only went in to stash a box of holiday decorations).
You can let behavioral momentum drag you down, or you can use it to push you toward any healthy goal. At first glance, a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, eat better or exercise more can seem daunting and overwhelming. But, by breaking down your goal and using behavioral momentum, you can make steady progress through the weeks and months ahead. In the beginning, set a small goal (say three laps in the pool per workout or two home-cooked meals per week). Once you’ve mastered your initial goal, add a little more "oomph" to it each week (five laps in the pool, start packing your lunch, too). Soon, you’ll find that it will become easier to stay on track and that formerly rare behaviors are turning into habits.
Let’s face it, as much as we all know how important it is to practice healthy habits, the benefits of a balanced lifestyle aren’t as powerful or as immediate as the payoff of unhealthy behaviors. Sure, healthy people stay mobile longer, are less likely to develop degenerative diseases and generally live longer, more fulfilling lives—you already know that. But when you’re struggling to keep up with daily diet and exercise, there aren’t many instant, tangible incentives for your healthy choices that can compare with the instant (albeit fleeting) gratification you get from indulging in a double chocolate brownie.
Because the inherent benefits of nutritious eating and exercise aren’t always noticeable to the naked eye, it helps to program in external incentives for acting in healthy ways. Hold off on seeing that blockbuster movie, buying that new song for your iPod or having that fancy dinner out: You can use those favorite items and activities as incentives for working on your wellness throughout the week. That is why reward systems work so well when creating health, fitness or weight-loss goals.
Look at your resolutions and set a simple, specific goal each week (eat 5 veggies a day, drink 8 cups of water daily, walk 3 times a week, etc.). When you meet your goal, reward yourself! Building incentives into your efforts will help keep you motivated until your healthy actions become habits.
If self-managed rewards don't work for you, enlist your friends and family members to help. Pay them each $5-$20 (or more depending on your budget) and allow them to purchase a surprise gift for you with the money. The clincher is: You only get the reward when you reach your specific daily, weekly or medium-term goal.
The Premack Principle
The Premack principle (named after well-known psychology professor Dr. David Premack) is the strategy of using a fun activity as a carrot for accomplishing a less preferred behavior. A good analogy for this strategy is something my brother and I often experienced at the dinner table as little children. When the meal was almost over and the smells of freshly-baked apple crumble wafted from the kitchen counter, we’d push aside our half-full plates to accept a helping of the sweet treat. Then, as if on cue, we’d hear my mother’s familiar refrain: "Not until you eat all your veggies!" Way back when, mom was using the Premack principle to make sure we ate a serving of healthy foods before we indulged in tasty desserts.
If you feel your enthusiasm for your New Year’s resolutions starting to wane, you can use the same strategy to incentivize your own healthy habits. Get your Saturday bike ride out of the way before you hit the mall to check out the post-holiday deals. Load up on fresh fruits and veggies at the beginning of your meals and save the salty, starchy sides or portion-controlled dessert for last. Get tomorrow’s lunch prepped early in the evening and then allow yourself time for a favorite TV show. With the Premack principle, you get your least favorite (or more challenging) tasks out of the way before allowing yourself to engage in more preferred (or easier) activities. This way, you’re more likely to stick to your goals and create healthy routines out of your resolutions.
These behavioral psychology tricks are proven strategies that have been used to tackle everything from writer’s block to learning a new language to marathon training. The key to keeping up momentum is to point your efforts in a healthy direction—and to celebrate each step along the path. Choose something to build (a solid running base, a pantry full of healthy food, a daily meditation routine) and then pat yourself on the back for each step forward. You’ll be surprised how quickly the year goes by as you accomplish goals that once seemed out of reach!