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Off-track with your New Year’s resolutions? Here are some tips from behavioral economics

weights
It’s particularly important, experts point out, that we make our resolutions, such as exercising daily, non-negotiable.

We’re a week into 2014. How are your health-related New Year’s resolutions holding up?

If you’re already off-track, you may want to consider some tips from the field of behavioral economics. In recent decades, research has shown that putting our money or our reputation (ego?) on the line makes it much more likely that we’ll achieve our goals, including those for improving our health.

Last week, several behavior economists offered lists of their favorite tips. If you’re having difficulty sticking with your resolutions, you may want to peruse those lists for ideas.

Fruit and friends

For example, Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, includes these two recommendations in his list for Time magazine:

Order an annual subscription to the Fruit Guy. By committing to a weekly service that delivers fresh fruit, we make having healthy food a reality. This approach has the added sweet side effect of urgency. Every week when the fruit is delivered, we know all too well that if we fail to consume the fruit in the next week, more of it will show up and we will have to waste the unused fruit. And if you like real adventures, what about a more extreme version of this? A weekly subscription to the Kale Guy?

Working out every day takes a lot of ongoing willpower. Joining a gym is nice but still requires the daily decision to go to the gym. Instead, a better approach is to set up recurring weekly “meetings” with friends or co-workers for workouts. This kind of social obligation is likely to hold you, and them, accountable to show up, and once you have shown up, you might as well start sweating.

The importance of social support for following through on health goals is also emphasized in a New York Times commentary by Dr. Kevin Volpp and Katherine Milkman, who teach behavioral economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“You can achieve more by pursuing goals with the help of a mentor,” they write. “In a study co-authored by one of us and reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, patients with poorly controlled diabetes were paired with patients who previously had poorly controlled diabetes but had since achieved mastery over their disease. The improvements in glycemic control achieved by those mentored in this study were larger than those produced by many leading drugs.”

Financial incentives

Volpp and Milkman also recommend that you put some money on the line:

In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers (including one of us) reported that over the course of a 16-week study, individuals who were given the opportunity to set aside money for forfeiture if they failed to lose weight lost 14 pounds more than those in a control group.

Similarly, an experiment in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics found that smokers hoping to quit were more likely to succeed if offered an opportunity to deposit funds in an account for six months that they would lose if they failed a urine test for nicotine and cotinine. You can arrange to forfeit money if you don’t achieve your goals at stickK.com, a website founded by behavioral economists.

Ariely makes a similar suggestion in his article for Time. He recommends that you instruct a good friend to take money out of your bank account every time he or she sees you eating something unhealthy. The friend would have to be an extremely trustworthy, however. Using stickK.com is probably a better (financially less risky) idea.

‘Bundle your temptations’

Having trouble motivating yourself to exercise daily? Volpp and Milkman suggest you “bundle your temptations.”

“Imagine you want to exercise more but struggle to drag yourself to the gym,” they write. “Imagine you also have a fondness for trashy novels but feel guilty wasting your time reading them. The solution is simple: Allow yourself to read those novels only while exercising at the gym. Our research demonstrates that when you leave your copy of ‘The Hunger Games’ (or such) at the gym, you exercise 56 percent more often (and 61 percent of people will even pay the gym to hold their book so it is only available when exercising).”

Writing on the Daily Beast website, two other professors of behavior economics, Uri Gneezy (University of California, San Diego) and John List (University of Chicago) stress that establishing behavioral rules is an important tool for making New Year’s resolutions stick. It’s particularly important, they point out, that we make our resolutions, such as exercising daily, non-negotiable.

Unless you establish such a rule, they write, “you’ll need to make a decision to exercise each and every day. Some days you will surely come up with reasons (some of which will be valid) why you shouldn’t exercise. But the slippery slope is quite steep: A few days without exercise can easily break the habit you have developed over months of hard work. Instead, you should decide not to decide — it’s much easier and remarkably effective.”

Never to late to re-start

Most New Year’s resolutions fail, unfortunately. But, as Milkman and Volpp stress, that shouldn’t keep you abandoning them forever.

“The good news is that if at first we don’t succeed, there are many other ‘fresh starts’ on the calendar when we can try again,” they write.

Like today.

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