Given up on your New Year Resolutions already? Omar Mahmoud, Senior Consultant with the Decision Science team at =mc consulting explains why every year, fitness center subscriptions go up in January and so do the sales of slimming and anti-smoking medicines, only to decline soon afterwards.
In this blog he also explains how decision science can maybe help you stay on track or get back on track.
Exact figures vary depending on the year and source but we can make the following generalizations:
- The vast majority of people do not achieve their new resolutions, and give up within 4 weeks or less.
- Most people are confident they’ll achieve their resolutions (‘this time it’s going to be different’).
- The most common resolutions are: losing weight (the exact amount declines every month), living healthier (e.g. quitting smoking), and saving money.
There are many reasons why we don’t act on our new year resolutions, and different people have different reasons. However, the overarching reason is that our resolution-making process is rational and calculated when in reality our day-to-day behavior is not- and moreover is subject to many biases.
The rational model of decision making assumes we make benefit/cost calculations, calculate utility, and make decisions. Behavioral Economics (BE) doesn’t assume a rational human being. It takes into consideration how we make decisions, not how we should make them. This includes cognitive biases, social factors, and emotions.
Here are 11 ways we think BE can help you achieve more of your new resolutions.
Principle: Ease– Our brain is 2% of our body weight yet it consumes 20% of its energy. Make things easier for yourself, and for others.Action: Have fewer new year resolutions. Apply the rule of three and focus on three resolutions per year, or even one if it’s a big one.
Principle: Default– The easiest decision is not to make a decision. Turn some of your desired behaviors into automatic or default behaviors.Action: For example, call your mom every Sunday morning. Start the day with a glass of hot water, lemon, and honey. Read for ten minutes before going to sleep.
Principle: Availability and Salience– We pay attention not to what’s most important but to what’s available to our senses and attention.Action: Keep visible reminders of your desired new behaviors. For example, put your sports attire visible when you wake-up to remind you of going to the gym, stick your daily nutrition list on the fridge, make certain foods visible to your eyes, etc.
Principle: Attractiveness. We like to do things that are attractive to us and not just useful.Action: You obviously know that going to the gym is good for your health but you might not always look forward to it out of laziness, boredom, or loneliness. Make the useful activity attractive by combining it with something you enjoy doing. For example, watch your favorite comedy show or listen to music while exercising, go to the gym with a friend, etc.
Principle: (Re)Framing– What matters to us is not just the information but also how we frame this information.Action: If you have an ambitious annual financial savings target you may reframe it as a monthly or weekly target. For example, instead of saving $ 1,200 annually, you could think of it as $ 100 a month, or $ 25 a week.
Principle: The Progress Effect. We like to feel that we are making progress on any activity we engage in and this motivates us to keep going until we achieve our goal.Action: If you have a long-term target, set shorter-term goals so that you feel you are making progress along the way. So, if you are planning to run a Marathon (42 kilometers), set shorter-term goals of running 10 K, 20K and 30 K. Do the same for losing weight, writing a book, etc.
Principle: Mental Accounting- Rationally, we should treat equal amounts of money equally regardless of any consideration. But we don’t. We treat cash payments differently from payments by credit cards. We treat money in our savings account differently from money in our current account. We treat money coming from a tax refund or a bonus differently from our monthly salary.Action: If you want to spend less money, use cash so that you feel the immediate and tangible impact of spending; immediate because you spend the money on the spot and don’t have to wait for a monthly bill, and tangible since you see the money leaving your wallet and feel it is getting lighter.
Principle: Social Effects- Human beings are social animals. Others influence our behavior in many different ways: we like to belong and be part of a group, we hate and fear ostracism, we follow the crowd, we notice when others are observing us, and when we don’t know what to do, we imitate others.Action: Make some of your new year resolutions known to others so that you feel the social pressure and you may also benefit from their support. Do some of your planned activities with others who share your objectives or at least your interests.
Principle: Loss Aversion– We hate losing more than we like winning; the pain of a loss is stronger than the pleasure of a win.Action: When setting your new year resolutions, think not only of the benefits of sticking to them but also of the cost of not fulfilling them. For example, if you don’t quit smoking, not only will not be healthier but you also risk suffering serious health issues in the future. If you don’t save enough money, not only will you not be able to but what you want, but you may also get into trouble if you face unexpected financial expenses.
Principle: Present Bias– We have a present bias and a desire for immediate rewards. We prefer $ 100 now than $ 110 a week later.Action: Give yourself immediate rewards if the activity you are engaged in only yields long-term rewards. For example, treat yourself to your favorite (healthy) food or drink after exercise. Watch your favorite show after completing a chapter, or a page, in your book.
Principle: “If, then…” We are more likely to act if our action is connected to a specific trigger. When the initial condition materializes, it acts as a trigger to our desired action.Action: Develop a few “If, then…” scenarios related to your new year resolutions. For example, “as soon as the alarm rings at noon, I’ll go jogging,” “after I have my Sunday 9 am coffee, I’ll write for one hour.”
We hope these principles help!
=mc consulting decision science team