How to stick to your 2019 resolutions

January 2, 2019 Lianne Jacobs

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 sights on the future.  It is no surprise that after the indulgent holiday season filled with candy on Halloween, stuffing and gravy on Thanksgiving, fried potato latkes on Hanukkah, and creamy eggnog on Christmas, that we tell ourselves, come January, we’re going to stop procrastinating and finally get in shape.  According to a poll from the International Food Information Council, 84 percent of New Year’s resolutions were diet- or exercise-related[1].

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 percent of people abandon their resolutions within seven days, and about 50 percent of people have fallen off the wagon by March[2].  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[3].  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[4].

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 relative to 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 chances 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 the fore. Vitality and RAND Europe recently announced the results of the largest behavior change study on verified physical activity, in which 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 five days  – or a full business week – of more activity relative to those engaging only in weekly Active Rewards[5].  In short, incentives are incredibly powerful tools that 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 2019 – 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 2019 your healthiest year yet – we’ll be nudging (and cheering) you on along the way.


[1]Food Insight. “Are Americans Actually Making New Year’s Resolutions?” 29 Dec. 2015, www.foodinsight.org/food-and-health-survey-new-years-resolutions.
[2]Norcross, John C, and Dominic J Vangarelli. “The Resolution Solution: Longitudinal Examination of New Year’s Change Attempts.” Journal of Substance Abuse, vol. 1, no. 2, 1988-1989, pp. 127–134, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0899328988800166.
[3]Sharot, Tali. “The Optimism Bias.” Current Biology, vol. 21, no. 23, 6 Dec. 2011, pp. R941–R945., www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982211011912.
[4]O’Donoghue, Ted, and Matthew Rabin. “Doing It Now or Later.” American Economic Review, vol. 89, no. 1, 1 Mar. 1999, pp. 103–124., www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.89.1.103.
[5]Hafner, Marco, et al. “Incentives and physical activity: An assessment of the association between Vitality’s Active Rewards with Apple Watch benefit and sustained physical activity improvements.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018., https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2870.html.
[6]An, Ruopeng et al. “Eating Better for Less: A National Discount Program for Healthy Food Purchases in South Africa.” American Journal of Health Behavior, vol. 37 no. 1 January 2013, pp. 56–61., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3433851/#__ffn_sectitle.
[7]Sturm, Roland et al. “A Cash-Back Rebate Program for Healthy Food Purchases in South Africa: Results from Scanner Data.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 44 no. 6, June 2013, pp. 567–572., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3659342/.
[8]Schwartz, Janet et al. “Healthier by Precommitment.” Psychological Science, vol. 25 no. 2, 25 February 2014, pp.538–46., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24390824.

 

Lianne Jacobs, Product Analyst, 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, and tricking her husband into eating baked goods made with hidden vegetables.

Start seeing real results with a program that works.

Talk to us