Habit science to supercharge your New Year's Resolutions!
7 January 2020
Welcome to 2020!
The start of a new year (and a whole new decade!) is always a great opportunity to think about any changes you might wish to make in your life. Something about a fresh start is very motivating - at least initially - and we all love setting lofty new year's resolutions ranging from going for a run 5 days a week, to finally quitting smoking, to learning how to speak french.
The thing that most typical resolutions have in common is that they centre around habits, both good and bad. Picking up a new gym routine involves forming a good habit for example. Cutting out sugar from your diet involves breaking a bad one.
Behavioural science has a lot to say on this topic: Charles Duigg’s seminal book ‘The Power of Habit’ published in 2012 marked the beginning of a new focus on the science of habitual behaviours. More recently, ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear, and ‘Good Habits, Bad Habits’ by Professor Wendy Wood have added even more to the literature pool, arming us with tonnes of information about how to proceed in our new year’s endeavours.
If you’ve already picked out your resolutions, or you’ve been wanting to make a change for a while, here are some science-backed, habit-based tips and tricks to help you. For the purpose of this blogpost we’ll be focusing on the practical steps you can implement to support your behaviour change, but if you would like to read more about the science of habits, please check out our longer PDF on this very topic!
Tip 1 - Create a stable and supportive environment
Habits are always triggered by a cue, typically in a context that is stable and consistent in our lives. The cue triggers our memory of doing the same action or routine previously, and helps to initiate it again. Much of our routine behaviour is cued by the time of day, for example making your first cup of coffee after waking up, or eating a meal at lunchtime.
A supportive environment means removing barriers and making it as easy as possible for yourself to perform the new behaviour. A classic example of this is packing your gym bag in the evening if you want to go to the gym in the morning. This removes the friction of having to decide what to wear, what work clothes you might need, and whether or not to make a pack lunch, all at 6am in the morning! In addition to this, you might place your gym bag in front of your bedroom door so that it’s one of the first things you see in the morning. This will provide a cue for you to get up and go to the gym!
Tip 2 - Leverage the context
Research shows us that one of the best times to develop a new habit, or break an old one, is during ‘life changes’. That could mean moving house, changing jobs, a new baby or any other event that disrupts the routine behaviours you currently partake in.
Annoyingly, it’s pretty impossible to manufacture a significant life change just to help you with your new year’s resolutions (although make a note of this for next time you move house!), so another way to leverage context is to piggyback your new habit onto an existing one. This works especially well when the new behaviour is compatible with the existing habit. For example, if you want to start flossing your teeth regularly, piggybacking onto your teeth brushing routine is the smartest way to establish a new routine quickly and effectively. Perhaps you want to start a stretching routine to increase flexibility? If you already regularly partake in a form of exercise, incorporating the stretching before or after your current practise is a great idea.
Tip 3 - Start small, and make a plan
You’re better off running for 10 minutes a day consistently across the year, compared to setting a huge goal or running 10km every week and never meeting your targets. Setting goals that are too huge might initially seem like a challenge, but as your motivation starts to wane they can instead feel overwhelming, unachievable, and too difficult.
If you start by building a small habit, you can then slowly build your behaviour, piggybacking as we suggested above. A great example of this might be if you want to cut back on your alcohol intake. Many people start off the year with Dry January, which is motivating for a number of reasons not least the fact that taking part in a social movement provides us with the social norms reinforcement we crave as human beings. But after January, going completely cold turkey might start to seem impossible. What about big social events like birthdays and weddings?
Make a plan. Perhaps at first you will decide not to have an alcoholic drink on Mondays. Try that for a month or two. And then when that has become routine, add another day to the mix. The trick here is to keep building slowly, try not to be in a rush to reach the end goal. In behavioural science we call this kind of goal-setting chunking, and it’s really effective!
Tip 4 - Reward yourself!
Finally, a reward for all your hard work! Research suggests that incorporating some kind of reward during a new routine or after achieving a goal can help to incentivise and motivate us. On top of this, rewards also help to reinforce our new routines, which is crucial for developing a proper habit.
To make the most of this incentivising effect, you should try to include a variety of different types of reward: tangible rewards such as rewarding yourself with a latte from a nice coffee shop when you manage to cycle to work instead of driving; or more subconscious rewards like getting more quality time with your family if you succeed in cutting down your ‘screen time’. Varying the size of the rewards also helps: small rewards can pave the way to succeeding at a larger goal which is coupled with an equivalent prize.
Excellent article on covid fatigue and numbing to risk as the pandemic wears on. Insights from Paul Slovic and Ann… https://t.co/KVNuJKApkw2 weeks, 1 day ago
How can organisations contribute positively to the government's new campaign against obesity? Our latest article in… https://t.co/S9JwoWG86R1 month ago
How to make physical distancing easy - our latest guide https://t.co/rtERhnhM1r1 month, 2 weeks ago
The Behavioural Architects' articles are always stimulating, entertaining and informative and make BE principles both engaging as well as usable for all our readersEditor Impact Magazine and Research-live.com
Our digital clubhouse which is designed to inspire, share best practice and delight would be very different without The Behavioural ArchitectsGemma Greaves Global Managing Director The Marketing society
Its client testimonials show it has made behavioural economics accessible and actionableMRS judges ‘best new agency’ award
TBA have brought behavioural science thinking to some of our challenges in a way that is accessible for colleagues from across the business and has created actionable outputsMartin Bryant, Senior Consumer Insights Manager, KFC UK and Ireland
The Behavioural Architects did a great job of understanding our needs in this multinational project. They used a behavioural-led methodology to deliver clear and actionable outputRuchika Khattar, Global Marketing Innovation Manager, PepsiCo
One of the best articulated deliveries of insight I have seen in 20 years in the research sector.Damian Stevenson, Head of Insight at the Amateur Swimming Association
The behaviour change research has been the lynchpin of our entire new strategy to get more people swimmingNick Caplin, Amateur Swimming Association, Director of Participation
I’ve worked with TBA on a number of studies... all of them have allowed us to get to a depth of insight into basic behaviour that has transcended borders.Catherine Moffatt, Vice President Global Shopper Planning & Customer Marketing, Diageo
The magic comes from how TBA works with us to get to simple, actionable ideas using the BE principles.Catherine Moffatt, Vice President Global Shopper Planning & Customer Marketing, Diageo
Every project has resulted in activities that have unlocked growth for Diageo but, importantly, they’re also pieces of work that we keep going back to and that continue to inform new activities long after the original studies were run.Catherine Moffatt, Vice President Global Shopper Planning & Customer Marketing, Diageo
We tasked TBA with a challenging brief on a national survey and they exceeded all our expectations throughout the processJennifer Bufton, Sport England
Their enthusiasm and relevant application of this theory alongside highly actionable and impactful insight delivery that really engages our stakeholders.Jacinda Norman, Category Insights Manager, Waitrose
The team at The Behavioural Architects Sydney have played an instrumental role in uncovering the key behavioural challenges for the Bundaberg Rum brand.Clara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
By using behavioural principles in analysing research, we’ve been able to go beyond the rational system 2 responses and tap into the deeper, subconscious system 1 responses that are often difficult to articulate.Clara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
For the first time in over a decade, we have clarity on the shift that we need to make to bring our brand back into growth.Clara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
The TBA team are a friendly, highly organised and intelligent bunch of people to work with. We consider them an extension of our internal Insights teamClara Lee, Senior Insights Manager, Diageo Australia
The behavioural science work conducted by The Behavioural Architects Sydney team has uncovered insights that we would never have uncovered by asking consumers questions directlyAlla Nock, Marketing Research, Analytics & Capability Manager, Kimberly-Clark Australia
Observing consumer behaviour through a Behavioural Science lens has uncovered key nuggets that we have now used to influence behaviour.Alla Nock, Marketing Research, Analytics & Capability Manager, Kimberly-Clark Australia
The Behavioural Architects Sydney are a valued business partner of the Water Corporation (Perth), who’s expertise and insights into behaviour change has been instrumental in helping to shape our communications strategy and to deliver an outcome that produces results.Paul Tuffin, Customer Insights Manager, Customer Strategy & Engagement Water Corporation (Perth, Australia)