Hack Your New Year’s Goals by Using Behavioral Design
Sean Higgins
behavioral design

If you’ve ever looked at the calendar in February and wondered where your winning hand for the New Year went, I have news for you: those cards you were holding are cards that someone else gave you.

You may have heard the expression, “Actions speak louder than words”. You might even agree with said expression. After all what we do matters more than what we talk about, right? It shows our ability to follow through, our ingenuity, our willpower. “Talk is cheap”, as the saying goes. And yet why then do 80% of Americans fail to hit a single resolution that they make for themselves in the new year? Did they really not care about those things (It wasn’t who they really were?). Did they not actually have the ability to tackle common resolutions like: talking to mom & dad every week, or going to the gym?

Something seems wrong about those explanations. We care about mom and dad, and we have the ability to call them. So why don’t we actually do it?

Enter Behavioral Design

If you’ve ever wondered why they make you walk past the soda machines to get to your seat at the movie theater, or looked at your phone and thought, “Where did the last 40 minutes go?” you’ve encountered behavioral design. Behavioral design is the act of influencing behaviors by changing the context that those behaviors occur in. For example; if I am on Instagram my default options are to scroll, look at stories, or go to my profile. Instagram uses this context to influence my behavior, making it harder to get off the platform at any given moment. 

Think Instagram is a fluke? Think about your resolutions. The ones that really matter: family time, health, travel, career. Now take a look at your screen time. The average American spends more time on Instagram, Netflix, and Youtube in a week than they do with their families.

Hacks like these work. So how can you use them in your favor?

Designing your New Year

Bj Fogg, the godfather of behavioral design tells us that there are three things we need for an action to occur:

  1. Motivation: We have to want to do something. This can be intrinsic (some sort of self benefit), or extrinsic (for example: adding funds to your personal vacation jar for every workout)
  2. Ability: You need to be able to actually perform the action. This means that your perceived ability and perceived difficulty of the task match up.
  3. Trigger: A prompt to take action

So while you might find it difficult to get more motivated about a resolution or to improve your current ability to complete certain goals (running a marathon for example), you can most certainly add triggers to your life to increase your likelihood of resolution completion. 

Willpower is for Chumps

Say you have a small child who struggles brushing their teeth on a regular basis. They have the ability to brush (they know how to do it), and they understand why it’s important to do it (They get candy from the dentist, they don’t need to get teeth pulled, etc.). Rather than scolding them over a lack of willpower you might instead teach them to leave their toothbrush by their bed stand. This way they face an external trigger, the toothbrush itself every time they wake up and every time they go to bed. This prompt would be enough to lift the frequency of tooth brushing in your home. 

So how can you apply the same types of behavioral design prompts in your life?

Hack # 1 Default Bias

Just like we saw with Instagram, we most often pick from options that are in front of us. These defaults become easy habits. Using this same technique we can amplify our social and physical resolutions.

We’ve found pictures most helpful when creating defaults for social goals.  You are most likely to call or message a family member or friend when you see a picture of them. Have a few in your home or place of work to add some nice external triggers. You can also set your phone wallpaper to be a group shot of the people you most want to stay in touch with for 2020.

For physical goals, we can use defaults by putting our workout gear next to our bed so we encounter it first thing in the morning. If going to the gym is our goal,  is there a gym that we see on our morning route to work or school already that we can use? The added external reminders will pay dividends when we look at our sessions logged at end of year.

Hack #2 Loss Aversion/Streaks

We all hate losing. That’s why streaks are so effective at keeping us engaged. 

For social goals, set days where you will talk with family or see your friends. Keep a running tally of how long you can go without missing a “Friend Day” or family call. This creates a sense of loss aversion. You don’t want to be the one to break the streak. You can even establish a monetary penalty (donate to a charity that you dislike) to add an extra dose of loss aversion here.

If you have attendance problems you can set up a streak for being on time to work or class more regularly. Everyday you show up on time mark your calendar. If you break the streak you have to buy lunch at your least favorite restaurant for your friends. 

Hack #3 Facilitators

Sometimes we give up on a goal because it is simply too hard. Rather than saying, shoot I picked a bad resolution first come up with some facilitators. A facilitator is a trigger that breaks a big task into smaller ones. Instead of focusing on running a marathon right away, focus on running a mile, then 3 miles. Create a plan based on your exercise experience to go from where you are to where you want to be. If you’re not sure what to choose, look at some guides or courses for inspiration.

This same idea can be applied to your career goals. Instead of worrying about that professional certification, start by creating smaller goals and find your facilitators. Maybe it’s 1) enrolling in a certification class, 2) taking a practice exam, 3) Talking with an instructor for 2 hours a month

Hack #4 Use your device not the other way around

  The average person looks at their phone 80 times per day. How can you maximize your digital time to achieve your goals? Keep simple triggers on your device to keep you motivated. These can be turning your wallpaper into a photo of loved ones to remind you of them, or turning it into a Question: Have you gone for a run today? Group similar apps together (cut down on your phones clutter and make it easy to find what you’re looking for). If you waste 5 seconds per day looking for apps you end up using 30 hours each year standing still. A little organization here goes an awful long way.

With these types you can set your resolutions up for success.

So don’t worry, what you do may not be who you are in 2020, but it will be who you want to be.

BetterYou can help you effectively make these behavioral design changes. Schedule a meeting with our team to take your New Year’s goals throughout 2020.

The BetterYou app uses behavior science to improve digital health and make it stick.

Want to learn how?