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Here’s the Solution When You Just Can’t Make Your Goals and Resolutions Stick

 Glow Wellness/Getty Images
Glow Wellness/Getty Images,

by Janice Holly Booth

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If you find yourself faltering in keeping your resolutions—perhaps that pledge to hit the gym four days a week, or to banish desserts from your life—take heart. In his new book The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results, Bob Nease, Ph.D., describes seven strategies that lead to better decision-making, helping us make good on our goals and resolutions, whether it’s exercising regularly or eating healthier snacks.

Here’s the science behind his strategies: Our brains can handle ten million bits of information per second, yet only 50 bits are devoted to conscious thought. We’re wired for inattention and inertia, a cognitive limitation that’s been with us since we lived in caves. Back then it worked in our favor: we paid attention to only a few important daily challenges—eat or be eaten—and moved as little as possible in order to retain scarce calories. Our brains still want to work that way.

So what we can do to bridge this cognitive divide? Can we deliberately overcome our nature with a little bit of nurture? Here are Nease’s seven steps.

Strategy 1: Require Choice Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight, eat healthier, or you’re experimenting with portion control. Nease says do something as simple as putting the fruits, veggies and water on the dining table and leave the potatoes, bread and wine on the counter in the kitchen. “The reason that works,” he says, “is we don’t actually choose what we’re eating; most of the time we’re on automatic pilot. But if you have to deliberately get up, you’re much more likely to be triggering the part of your brain that wants to do the right thing. If you’re willing to re-engineer your environment,” says Nease, you’ll find that you have a much better chance of achieving your goals.

Strategy 2: Lock in Good Intentions “We all know we’re going to be tempted by something,” says Nease, whose girlfriend Gina, now his wife, made him remove all the TVs in his apartment when they moved in together, not because she hated television, but because she loved it…too much. This kind of self-protective behavior is called a pre-commitment. You know you’ll eat a whole bag of potato chips as easily as you’ll eat one chip, so you just don’t have them in the house. When you set your alarm clock at night, you leave it on the dresser instead of the nightstand, making it impossible to just hit the snooze button. “You need to try things out and find the strategy that works for you, and it needs to be painful enough to point you in the right direction, but not so much that you throw in the towel.”

Strategy 3: Let it Ride The employer-sponsored 401(k) plan is a classic example of “let it ride.” You sign up, pick deductions and allocations, and then like clockwork, you’re saving money for retirement, something you likely wouldn’t do if you had to sign a check every month. Automatic refill programs on prescription medications are another example of letting it ride. If attention and inertia (aka procrastination) are our enemies, these automatic processes can be welcome allies. “Delegate the decision-making to someone else. Sign up for auto-pay on your utility bill if you’re constantly late,” says Nease. Outsourcing and delegating help us preserve more of our precious 50 bits.

Strategy 4: Get in the Flow Our scarce 50 bits go to what’s pressing or pleasurable, says Nease, and not necessarily what’s most important over the long term. “If you grab people by the shoulders and ask ‘Do you want to do this or that?’ usually what they want is the right thing.” But since you can’t grab your own shoulders, you want to go where the 50 bits already are. Put a sticky note on the bathroom mirror, where you know you’ll see it when you shave. “You have a very narrow lane of attention,” says Nease, so getting in the flow of your daily routine can help you remember all the important things you need to do, without dedicating any of your 50 bits to remembering to do them. 

The problem isn’t that people aren’t educated, or don’t care, or don’t have enough skin in the game, or don’t have enough moral grit. It’s how can I make these good intentions come to life?

Bob Nease, Ph.D.

Strategy 5: Reframe the Choices Nease says it’s the way we put things, not the things themselves, that can trigger better behavior. “My new favorite example is my nephew‘s wife Sara, who, when it’s time for their four-year-old to go to bed, will say ‘Ella, when do you want to go to sleep? In four minutes or six minutes?’ Ella chooses, and then when the clock goes off, Ella’s ready for bed,” says Nease. “It’s not about sleep versus no sleep, it’s about sleep now versus sleep in a few minutes. The words you use matter.” Nease and Gina use this strategy to manage their food intake. “We label our eating either refueling or rewarding,” he says, “and we know we need to have twice as many refueling meals as rewarding ones where we can eat whatever and however much we want.”

Strategy 6: Piggyback It Nease and Gina now have a single television in the house, but it’s down in the basement in front of a treadmill. To watch TV, you have to stand on the treadmill, so you might as well use it, says Nease. Piggybacking something unattractive (exercise) onto something pleasurable (mindless TV) is a strategy that’s been used by companies from toothpaste makers (adding mint made people happy to brush their teeth) to vitamin makers (yes, I’ll take my calcium pills in delicious gummy form, thank you!). Gina’s found a new piggyback routine, too. “She always wanted to be a ballerina,” says Nease, “so she found exercise videos that use ballet. When Gina does the moves, she looks and feels like a ballerina. For her, pursuing the image of a ballerina is fun, and the workouts are a side effect.”

Strategy 7: Simplify Wisely “This is the overarching idea of the strategies,” says Nease. “If you can get people headed the right direction, saving money or getting their prescriptions e-filled on time, then you remove all of the friction, you make it all happen automatically, If you do that, gravity will do its job,” he explains.

For anyone who’s tried and failed at their goals and resolutions, Nease says to take heart. “It’s attention, not intention that’s the problem,” he says. Through his research and writing the book, “I’ve come out of this much more optimistic about people. I’m so thankful that the problem isn’t that people aren’t educated, or don’t care, or don’t have enough skin in the game, or don’t have enough moral grit. That’s really not the problem.  Most of the time we are reasonable, well-intentioned people whose good intentions lay dormant. It’s just a much more positive thing to spend time on every day: how can I make these good intentions come to life? For me, that’s a completely different and very inspiriting approach to what is a critical problem.”