Five months in 2021, many of us have already given up or lagging behind on our goals for the year or resolutions we made to improve our habits and lives in general. Here’s a piece in the Time magazine by Katy Milkman, a professor of behavioural change at Wharton, where she shares three practical approaches that helps us pursue and achieve our goals. The strategies are designed to overcome natural obstacles such as temptation, laziness, forgetfulness, etc that come in our way.
First, she suggests we use fun to tackle temptation:
“Psychologists Ayelet Fishbach and Kaitlin Woolley have shown that when pursuing goals that require resisting temptation, most people make a crucial mistake: they approach them in the way they believe will yield the greatest long-term payoff. But a more successful strategy is to try to make this kind of goal pursuit fun.
Across multiple research studies, Fishbach and Woolley encouraged some participants (chosen at random) to choose healthy foods or exercises they expected to enjoy most while others were encouraged to choose foods and exercises they’d benefit from most. These studies demonstrated that people encouraged to approach healthy activities with a focus on short-term enjoyment persisted longer on their workouts and ate more healthy food. This research reveals that we’re better off when we harness temptation, rather than when we ignore it to focus on our long-term goals.
One way of engineering success with this insight is through what I call “temptation bundling.” This technique involves pairing something tempting (like watching lowbrow tv) with a goal-oriented activity that isn’t inherently fun (like exercising or preparing a home-cooked meal). The “indulgence” is only permitted while working towards the goal. I’ve proven that temptation bundling can help gymgoers exercise more, but I’ve also heard stories of people using this technique to get ahead in school (by bundling trips to the library with indulgent snacks), master housework (by bundling it with a favorite podcast), and even improve relationships (by bundling get-togethers with trips to a favorite restaurant).”
Then to handle forgetfulness, she says attach specificity to the goal such as not just doing it but also when and where, which can act as triggers.
“Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer has shown that when most people make plans to attack their goals, they do it incorrectly, focusing on what they intend to do (say, saving more money) rather than what will trigger them to act. To avoid flaking out, it’s vital to link intentions with a trigger cue, like a specific time, place, or action.
Making the right kind of plan is as simple as filling in the blanks in the sentence “when ___ happens, I’ll do ___.” So “I’ll increase my monthly retirement savings” has a missing ingredient, but “whenever I get a raise, I’ll increase my monthly retirement savings” is a more useful plan because it includes a trigger.”
Finally, a strategy to deal with setbacks:
“as a behavioral scientist, Marissa realized that a missed jog could easily spiral into a series of skipped workouts thanks to the aptly-named “what the hell effect.” Research on this psychological phenomenon shows that even small failures, like missing a daily diet goal by a few calories, can lead to downward spirals in behavior—like eating a whole apple pie. Marissa came up with a clever strategy to counter this risk. She allowed herself two emergency skip days each week. If she couldn’t squeeze in a workout, she’d let herself declare an emergency, and this kept her on track.
Marissa has proven that this strategy works for other people at risk of abandoning their goals after a small failure, too. In one study, Marissa and a collaborator asked hundreds of people to do thirty-five annoying tasks every day for a week in exchange for $1 a batch. These workers were randomly assigned to three groups. Some got the tough goal of completing their work every day of the week. Others were given the easier objective of completing their work just five days out of seven. Finally, a third group was told to complete the assignment every day but got two “emergencies” to excuse missed work. Everyone knew they would get a $5 bonus if they managed to achieve their goal.
The chance to declare an emergency proved invaluable. A whopping fifty-three percent of those allowed to take “emergencies” hit their goal, compared with just twenty-six percent of people in the (objectively identical) easy group and twenty-one percent of participants with the seven days-per-week goal. The beauty of the system was that people were reluctant to use emergencies willy nilly (wisely hoarding their chits for real disasters). But having a tough goal with wiggle room kept people highly motivated even when they stumbled – blips no longer spiraled out of control because they could be written off.”