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How Behavioral Economics Can Help You Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

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Behavioral economics is a branch of economics that takes into account the seemingly irrational aspects of human behavior. Instead of treating people like robots that never make mistakes and always choose the best options, this line of research takes into account the apparent inconsistencies of our decisions. As anyone who has ever tried to change their decision-making patterns knows, it is not always easy to commit to behaviors that we know will improve our lives and lead to better long-term outcomes or goals. In a recent talk titled "Tackling Temptation," Professor Katherine Milkman outlined some of the findings of her behavioral economics research and how those insights can be put to use by both individuals and policymakers.

  1. Temptations? Bundle them together. Make a Plan The first strategy that she suggests is to bundle together temptations. For example, if you love watching a certain guilty pleasure TV show and you also frequently feel tempted to skip going to the gym, you can bundle those temptations together by only allowing yourself to watch that show while working out. Dr. Milkman conducted a study of participants who wanted to increase their gym attendance. One group was given an iPod preloaded with an exciting audio novel, and this iPod was kept in a locker that could only be accessed when the participant visited the gym. A second group was given a gift card of equal value. The first group showed much higher rates of gym attendance - it appeared that the temptation to find out what happened next in their novel overpowered the temptation to skip workouts. Dr. Milkman points out that this strategy can be applied to any number of situations in which we might want to better regulate our behavior. Hate doing laundry but love listening to horrible 80's pop? If you bundle those temptations and rewards together, you have a strong chance of success.
  2. Make a specific plan. The second strategy for tackling temptation is to make a specific plan. Dr. Milkman and her associates partnered with a large firm that was sending out flu shot reminders to its employees. Some employees were randomly assigned to a treatment group whose written reminder urged them to make a plan for when they would receive the shot. The letter included a space for them to write down the time and date they planned to get the shot, but this was only for the employee's use and was not an actual appointment card. Those who received the letter urging them to make a specific plan ended up being much more likely to receive a flu shot. The takeaway for the rest of us is that making a specific plan gives you a great head start on changing behavior.
  3. Take advantage of fresh starts. The third strategy for managing temptation is to take advantage of fresh starts. The New Year is obviously a great time to break harmful habits or kick off beneficial ones, but there are many other opportunities for fresh starts throughout the year. Dr. Milkman's research shows that people are more motivated to work to achieve their goals not only at the first of the year, but also at the first of each month, after their birthdays, and after a holiday. Even the start of each week is a mental marker that can serve as a launching point to start again on the changes you are trying to make in your life.

Have any of these strategies worked for you in the past? Sound off in the comments below.

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