How many New Year's resolutions have you made in your life? How many have you successfully accomplished? The estimate is that less than 10% of New Year's resolutions are actually achieved (University of Scranton Psychology Professor John C. Norcross, Ph.D.). There's a lot of homespun folksy advice out there this time of year about how to make sure you reach your New Year's goals, but I thought I'd share the actual science of how to change behavior.
There's two main lines of brain and behavior science that influence New Year's resolutions: The science of habits and the science of self-stories.
Let's start with the science of habits.
A lot of New Year's resolutions have to do with making new habits or changing existing ones. If your resolutions are around things like eating healthier, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, texting less, spending more time "unplugged" or any number of other "automatic" behaviors then we are talking about changing existing habits or making new habits. Habits are automatic, "conditioned" responses. You get up in the morning and stop at Starbucks for a pastry and a latte. You go home at the end of work and plop down in front of the TV. Here's what you need to know about the science of changing existing habits or making new ones:
To create a new habit you have to follow these three steps (based on B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg)
If you take these three steps and you practice them 3 to 7 days in a row your new habit will be established.
Now let's tackle the science of self-stories.
The best (and some would say the only) way to get a large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-story.
Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a "story" operating about yourself at all times. These self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.
Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.
If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you'd better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you'll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.
In his book, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is "story-editing":
The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.
I've tried both of these techniques -- creating new habits using the 3-step method, and creating a new self-story. The research shows they work, and my own experience shows they work.
Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year's resolutions.
What do you think? What has worked for you in keeping your resolutions?
Timothy Wilson's book, Redirect
Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit:
My book, How To Get People To Do Stuff
B.J. Fogg's website: tinyhabits.com