When we set a goal for ourselves, it inevitably involves changing our behavior in some way. Science not only gives us wonderful things like smart phones and electric cars but it also gives us reliable ways to understand and change our behaviors in order to improve our lives. Behavioral Science may prove to be our most important science because most problems can be solved by changing human behavior.
Here are some evidence-based strategies to help you with your New Year’s Resolutions and your on-going behavior-change goals:
Pick SMART Goals: Choosing the right goal is the first step in behavior-change. Goals should be Specific – what is the actual goal, in detail; Measurable – What is the objective measure of change; Achievable – the goal should be realistic and attainable; Relevant – is the goal appropriate and reasonable; Time-bound – how long will the goal take, set an objective length of time.
Goals Connected to Values: Make sure your goal connects with something in your life that you deeply value. Values are the individual things in our lives that give us meaning and direction; they help guide us in the direction we want our life to go. You will tend to have more motivation to engage in behaviors that are linked to your values.
Baby Steps (Shaping): Behavior doesn’t change overnight. Shaping is the key to behavior-change. Small, consistent, achievable steps will be more effective long-term. Break larger goals into smaller steps. When a goal is too far away from your baseline levels (where you currently are at) it can be problematic; rather set goals that are just slightly higher than your current level. Want to start a meditation practice – don’t start your initial practice sitting for 45 minutes, rather begin with 5 minutes and add a minute each week you practice.
Reduce the Response Effort – Make it Easy: When you have defined your goal, look for ways to make it easier for you to engage in behavior related to that goal. Think of ways to minimize the effort for that behavior; adapt the environment to support your goal. Making it easy to engage in the behavior can create simply Nudges that can lead to significant change. Want to eat healthier – put the bowl of vegetables in a closer proximity. Want to reduce your use of plastic bags – store reusable bags in the trunk of your car.
Identify Barriers and Obstacles: Think through what things may get in the way of you accomplishing your goal. What will be the barriers; things that may prevent you from engaging in the desired behavior? Identifying what will get in the way can help you plan ahead. Planning ways to address the obstacles can give you a way around them. If your barrier to health is junk food – keep the chips out of the house.
Replacement Behavior – What will you do instead: If you want to decrease a certain behavior related to your goal, think about what to replace it with. What is it that you could do instead of the undesirable behavior? Want to quit smoking – time to start a new hobby.
Positive Reinforcement: Celebrate your successes! Think about ways to reward yourself when you engage in the behavior you want to increase and larger rewards when you meet your goals. Make sure the rewards are connected to your motivation.
Premack Principle: This is also called Grandma’s Law – first eat your broccoli and then you can open the cookie jar. Set up a contingency that requires you to engage in the desired behavior before doing a more preferred activity. First exercise; then watch TV.
Use Cues in the Environment to Prompt Your Behavior: Often simple visual aids or auditory cues can be very powerful tools to prompt behavior. This could be a picture taped to the fridge or a timer on your phone to remind you to drink more water.
Use Social Feedback and Accountability: Share your goals and progress with other people; collect data on your goals and share it. Set up accountability – ask someone to check-in with you about your goal. Getting feedback from friends, co-workers or coaches can be a powerful influence on your behavior.
Happy New Years / Behavior-Change Season!