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Practical Tips for your 2014 Goals

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It’s the 3rd day of 2014. Have you gotten started on your resolutions yet?

We’ve already discussed how to set good resolutions, and why telling Facebook about them might not be wise (unless you are thinking of this act in a very specific kind of way). But what about the actual process of trying to accomplish those resolutions? Are there any ways that you can make it feel easier to actually pursue your new, lofty goals?

In social psychology, we often talk about the shockingly profound importance of channel factors — tiny, seemingly-insignificant details about the environment that can have remarkably huge effects on actual behavior. One of the most well-known demonstrations of channel factors occurred back in the 1960s, when Howard Leventhal and colleagues wanted to encourage Yale students to go to the student health center and get vaccinated against tetanus. Although most of the students responded favorably to the scare tactics used by the researchers and indicated interest in receiving the vaccines while they were in the lab for the study, only 3% of the students actually ended up going to the health center and getting the shot. However, one simple change managed to increase participation by a factor of nine, raising the participation rate to just over 25%. That change? Providing the students with a map of the campus (on which the health center was circled) and asking them to check their schedules and find a time when they would hypothetically be available to get the shot. Keep in mind that these were all college seniors; they presumably already knew where the health center was by that point in their college careers. They also all presumably knew how to check their schedules before the researchers told them to do so. That wasn’t the point. The point was that all it took to translate good intentions into healthy actions was the simple channel factor of making the action seem convenient and manageable. Once the students saw, very plainly, that there was an easy route to the health center and an open gap in their schedules, they became much more likely to actually make their way to the health center and get the vaccine.

Similarly, research on implementation intentions has demonstrated the utility of forming “If — Then” statements for goal-directed behavior. Intentions that specify the how, what, when, and where of enacting goals are much more successful at motivating actual behavior than simply setting the more general goal to do something. So, for example, I’ve previously suggested that around election time, encouraging potential voters to form an “If — Then” implementation intention for Election Day (e.g. “If it’s my lunch hour, then I’ll head over to my polling place and cast my vote”) could help boost voter turnout, along with things like asking potential voters to figure out where their polling places are and identify a free gap of time in their schedules well before Election Day.

With this research on channel factors and implementation intentions in mind, it’s easy to see some useful parallels for how you can help yourself pursue your new goals!

Most people have good intentions when it comes to their resolutions. However, extending what we know about the importance of channel factors and implementation intentions, you can greatly increase your likelihood of following through on those goals by thinking about those tiny things that just make the entire goal pursuit process seem “easier” or more doable.

Want to get to the gym more? Sit down and figure out where the closest gym to your home (or work) happens to be, routes that you could take to get there, and convenient times when you could go. Maybe it’s easiest for you to fit gym-time into your schedule if you make yourself go before work, or go straight there after work without allowing yourself to go home and get distracted first. Or, if you must stop back at home between work and the gym, set yourself an implementation intention — “If it’s 5:00 PM, then I will put on my sneakers and go for a run.” Treat this like a hard-and-fast rule.

Want to save money? Figure out how much you need to save each month in order to meet your goal for the year, and identify specific things that you could change about your current spending habits in order to save that amount. Does the amount that you want to save translate to one dinner out at a restaurant per week? Per month? One trip to the movies? One nice dress or pair of shoes? Once you’ve figured out the specific spending habits that you’d like to change, set that If-Then goal again. “If my husband/wife and I want a nice date night dinner, then we will look up a recipe that we can cook ourselves at home,” or “If I know I’ll be at work late and won’t have a chance to make dinner, then I will bring my own food in so I don’t have to buy takeout.”

Want to quit biting your nails, smoking, or any other bad habit? Identify the “channel factors” — those who, what, when, where, and whys — that tend to encourage those bad behaviors. Do you partake in that bad habit more when you’re stressed? Tired? Angry? Hungry? Happy? Drunk? Once you’ve identified the channel factors that encourage the bad behavior, try making it just as easy for those factors to encourage something better. If you’re a nail-biter (or a nail-picker like me!) carry around sucking candies or a stress ball. For whenever you feel the urge to bite or pick, set that If-Then goal — “If I want to bite my nails, I’ll chew a piece of gum instead.” (For me, it was, “If I want to pick my nails, I’ll put on hand lotion instead.” Then, the only problem was making sure I always had hand lotion on me!) Make it easy and convenient to do the other activity. If it’s just as easy to chew a piece of gum as it is to bite your nails, you’ve just removed one of the big barriers to goal pursuit — the fact that it is often “easier” not to pursue our goals than it is to pursue them.

Even when we set good intentions, our follow-through can often falter. To increase the likelihood that you and your loved ones will actually accomplish your goals, try setting intentions that lay out how you will go about that goal pursuit (like how you will save that money or fit those group fitness classes into your schedule), rather than setting more nebulous intentions to simply “lose weight” or “eat better” or “save money.”

As an example, this is a Facebook status that I posted the night before Election Day 2012 to encourage this type of thinking: “Think about when and where you’re going to vote tomorrow. Figure out where your polling place is, the best route to take to get there, and the best time during your day to go — make it like scheduling an appointment. And when that time comes tomorrow, make sure you go vote!”

If you engage in that same sort of thought process with your goals for the new year, you might be amazed at how much easier it becomes to actually start new, good habits. Happy 2014!


Leventhal, H., Singer, R., & Jones, S. (1965). Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon attitudes and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 20-29.

Leventhal, H. (1970). Findings and theory in the study of fear communications. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 119-186.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.

To Do List image available through Creative Commons via Flickr [user: Vic / vvvracer]

Elliptical Machine image available through Creative Commons via Wikipedia. Photo by www.localfitness.com.au.

Piggy Bank image available through Creative Commons via Flickr [user: Ken Teegardin]

No Smoking image available through Wikipedia. Image in the public domain.

This post is an edited version of an earlier post on my old WordPress blog, written about voter turnout around the 2012 election. To see the earlier post, click the From The Archives icon on the left.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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