Happy New Year! After the ball drops and the champagne fizzles, we start to think about the year ahead. A new year is a time to reflect upon the past and set our intentions for the future. According to a poll from the International Food Information Council, 84% of New Year’s resolutions were diet or exercise-related .
Despite our best intentions, most of us do not follow through on our resolutions, and for many of us, this drop-off isn’t gradual over the year. In fact, about 25% of people abandon their resolutions within 7 days, and about 50% of people have fallen off the wagon by March . We may head into the new year with a “can do, will do” attitude, but inevitably, our enthusiasm wears off and reality sets in. When we tell ourselves that this is the year we will finally lose those extra pounds, it may actually be our innate optimism bias speaking. That is, people tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative ones . Another barrier to following through on health-related resolutions is the fact that any payoffs we see from eating healthier and exercising more don’t manifest immediately. Our tendency to place more value on immediate gratification, also known as present bias, makes finding the motivation to sustain engagement in activities that have long-term results challenging .
When it comes to something as important as improving our health, how can we avoid shortchanging ourselves? The key to lasting behavior change is habit formation. Habits are actions done frequently and automatically in response to one’s environment. And when that environment is full of proven behavioral science techniques for behavior change – such as nudges and incentives – one has a greater chance at success. Whether your New Year’s resolution is about your physical health, mental health or financial health, rooting your resolutions in behavioral science principles is an effective strategy for behavior change.
Pre-Committing to Change
We are, by nature, a combination of “planner-doer” – the planner thinks about the long term and the doer about the here and now. Your doer self wants the donut, while the planner is thinking about the Mediterranean diet that is central to your New Year’s resolution. Pre-commitment helps align your planner and doer selves — it is the idea that you increase your chance of success by doing things in advance to make it harder, if not impossible, for your future self to find a way to back out. Finding time and energy to exercise is tough, but if you have pre-committed to the endeavor, you are less likely to find an excuse.
Driven by Nudges and Financial Incentives
Sometimes, all you need is a nudge in the right direction – positive reinforcements that are timely and relevant, and help you stay on course regardless of the currents of daily life. Is your day filled with chaos, thwarting your ability to manage stress? Perhaps a gentle reminder from the Apple Watch Breathe app will make you more centered after a few minutes of breathing exercises.
Of course, sometimes a mere nudge is not enough to drive action, which is where financial incentives come to play. Vitality and RAND Europe conducted the largest behavior change study on verified physical activity, where members pre-committed to paying for the Apple Watch in monthly installments if they did not meet physical activity requirements. If they met the requirement, that month’s payment was nullified (i.e. financial incentive). The study found that the Active Rewards with Apple Watch benefit led to members engaging in almost 5 days – or a full business week – more activity relative to those engaging only in weekly Active Rewards . In short, incentives are incredibly powerful tools to help drive positive behavior change from physical activity to nutrition [6-8], and beyond.
Securing this Year and Far Beyond
But all of this is not simply in the service of 2023 – it is about bridging the gap between your present and future self, the planner and doer. Behavioral science tells us that we value current rewards more than future rewards (so compound interest for future retirement savings is often not tangible enough to be deemed valuable today); we tend to view any loss as twice as powerful, psychologically, as any gain; and we tend to prefer known risks over unknown risks to name but a few. But this is not a behavioral science endorsement for inertia – on the contrary, it is a call to action for this year and many years beyond. Equipped with this knowledge, we know that whether we are looking to adopt healthier diets, exercise routines, or financial behaviors, our instincts may not always be the best guiding star. However, tools exist that can help us expertly navigate the complex space of human behavior.
Turning over a new leaf is not quite as easy as one would hope – it involves a constant push and pull between our inherent motivations and the behavioral missteps that plague us all. At Vitality, we aim to help protect and enhance the lives of our members throughout the year through the combination of the right science, the right technology, and the right incentives. We look forward to helping make 2023 your healthiest year yet – we’ll be nudging (and cheering) you on along the way.
Lianne E. Jacobs, MPH, Health Communications Strategist, has a master’s degree in public health from Yale University. She is the only indoor cycling instructor who can’t ride a bike. She enjoys traveling the world, laughing at her own jokes, changing diapers, and tricking her husband into eating baked goods made with hidden vegetables.
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