The new year is historically a time to reflect on where we are in our lives — and where we would like to be. Research suggests that the most common resolution people make in the New Year is related to living healthier, such as exercising more or eating healthier foods. As you may know from experience, this is never as simple as it sounds. One study of 3,000 people found that only 12% had actually achieved their goal one year later.
Health behavior change is not an easy process, or else we would all have a handle on it. But there’s good news: You can boost your chances of success through some tips and tactics borrowed from behavioral science.
At Oura, health is the cornerstone of everything we do — and my goal as a behavioral scientist is to transform the way people think about lifestyle change. Here are 3 common mistakes people make when attempting to improve their health, plus science-backed solutions that you should try instead.
Mistake #1: You set unrealistic goals and/or too many of them.
We all know someone who decides this is the year they will go to a CrossFit class every day of the week and stop eating all processed foods and sugar forever. The result? They usually make it until February — at most.
Solution: Set small, SMARTER goals.
The SMART criteria are a relatively well-known set of rules for goal specification for anyone working in business culture. Health psychologists have developed this concept into their own version, which is SMARTER: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, Timed, Evaluated, Reviewed. Let’s break it down to some simple questions to ask yourself when setting goals:
- Specific: What exactly will I do?
- Measurable: How many times a week will I do it? How many will I eat/take/do?
- Action-oriented: What do I need to do to make it happen? (i.e., travel, preparations, materials, shopping needs)
- Realistic: How confident am I that I can do this on a scale from 1 to 10? (if any part of you questions the plan, reduce it to smaller steps and work your way up)
- Timed: When will I start? What times of day work for me?
- Evaluated: When and how will I evaluate how it’s going?
- Reviewed: What will I do to adjust depending on how it’s going?
The key thing that makes this strategy smarter is not just the acronym, but the inclusion of long-term thinking. This allows for flexibility in evaluating your progress and adjusting your goal if needed. This may mean doing less than you planned, or upping the challenge, and allows for the plan to succeed even in the messiness that is everyday modern life.
Say your goal is to eat veggies every day in the new year. However, life gets in the way, and suddenly, you’ve gone a whole day without something green on your plate. It’s okay! You might then reflect on your goal, and adjust it to eating veggies at least 3 days a week. After all, you’re 100%* more likely to win with flexibility than beating yourself up for “failing” and giving up altogether.
*Not scientifically tested but still totally true.
Mistake #2: You want to change something you feel bad about.
All too often, people want to change something that they feel bad about. There is even a psychological theory for this: Control Theory, which suggests that negative feelings lead people to act in order to try and close the gap between their current state and their desired state.
For example, someone may think, “I’m not as fit as I used to be!” or “I’m not in shape for my holiday!” Cue a starvation diet or obsessive exercising to attempt to reach their goals. They beat themselves up, and try to suffer their way to success.
The problem: Doing things for our health because we feel we ought to, out of a sense of pressure or shame, is more likely to lead to us procrastinating, hating every second, and eventually falling off the wagon. In other words, feeling bad about ourselves is a motivator that, if at all, only works in the short term. At worst, it can lead to unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Solution: Make the journey itself more enjoyable.
Behavioral science reveals that when people experience positive emotions during new health behaviors, they are more likely to do those behaviors and keep them up in the long run. This is known as the Upward Spiral Theory, which weaves together insights from behavioral neuroscience and psychology.
You’ve probably heard of a “runner’s high,” or a burst of feel-good endorphins released during exercise that you feel afterwards. What research on the Upward Spiral Theory shows, however, is that when you feel positive emotions during an activity, you are more likely to do it again in the future.
For example, instead of setting a goal to become a disciplined weight lifter for the umpteenth time, choose your workout based on the “fun” factor. Get in touch with your inner child with calisthenic handstands, go to a climbing gym, or try roller derby!
Alternatively, consider how you can make more conventional workouts more enjoyable, such as listening to your favorite music, podcasts, or audiobooks, or trying a gamified app like Zombie Run!
RELATED: The Importance of Staying Active
Mistake #3: You frame your goals as something to avoid.
When we set a resolution to avoid something, our brains have to work overtime — not only to suppress one behavior, but also to come up with a replacement action. For instance, if your goal is to “avoid junk food,” you’re focusing on avoiding all those tempting treats, while also working to think of, find, and consume healthier foods.
Solution: Frame your goals as something to approach or learn.
Define your goal as something to approach, rather than something to avoid. This gives your brain something practical to focus on. A 2020 study has shown that these kinds of “approach goals” are associated with greater positive emotions, thoughts, and self-evaluations and greater psychological well-being compared with “avoidance goals.” For example, make a list of your favorite fruits and vegetables and make sure some of them are available in your house and during your workday.
Another strategic goal-setting trick: Focus on “mastery goals” rather than “performance goals.” While performance goals involve judging your ability to do something (i.e. going to the gym every day or running a marathon), mastery goals are about increasing your existing abilities or learning new skills.
For example, instead of pledging that you will work out every day of the week, set a goal to learn how to dance, build up your running stamina, or develop your tennis skills. Setting goals around learning encourages problem solving and active engagement, and helps you stick with the change in the long run.
If you have a story of how Oura helped you achieve your goals, we’d love to hear it! Share your story here.
About the Oura Expert
Sofia Strömmer, PhD, is a behavioral scientist at Oura. She is from Finland, but lived in the UK for 16 years before moving back to join Oura. She is a Chartered Psychologist and has a PhD in Psychology focusing on the motivational determinants of exercise behavior. Her area of expertise is in motivational aspects of health behavior change and how motivation for health behaviors arises and is maintained. Before joining Oura, Sofia worked as a researcher at the Medical Research Council at the University of Southampton.