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We've Got Resolutions All Wrong

Fireworks light up the sky over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the city skyline as part of New Year's Eve celebrations. i
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Fireworks light up the sky over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the city skyline as part of New Year's Eve celebrations.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

This weekend, Facebook's "Memories" reminded me of a post from Jan. 2, 2009: "Tania Lombrozo is generating New Year's resolutions...that look a lot like last year's."

I could, unfortunately, post the same again today. In fact, one of my resolutions for 2015 — to be smart about my smartphone — was shared here last year on 13.7, and I can report pretty imperfect success.

I'm surely not alone in failing to achieve my resolutions: How many people resolve to eat healthier diets and to exercise more regularly, year after year? It's an unfortunate reality that good intentions aren't enough to bring about good behavior, especially when that behavior is hard.

But here's a small nugget of hope, and it comes from rethinking the target of New Year's resolutions entirely. Most people focus first on foremost on how they will change themselves. Wikipedia, for instance, defines a New Year's resolution like this:

"[A] tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person makes a promise to do an act of self-improvement or something slightly nice, such as opening doors for people beginning from New Year's Day."

With self-improvement (or a small act of kindness) in mind, people focus on how they will change their attitudes, their intentions and their plans as a route to changing behavior. But one of the most effective ways to change behavior is to focus, instead, on how you can change your social and physical environment to help bring about the change you want to see in yourself. The ultimate goal is still about you and your behavior, but the target of immediate intervention becomes your environment instead.

A nice article in The Atlantic makes the point succinctly in the context of dieting, quoting a University of Vermont scientist who studies weight-loss methods: "Willpower," he states, "doesn't work." What does work is "shaping behavior over time by giving feedback, and setting up environments where people aren't stimulated to eat the wrong foods."

As an example, someone might alter her walk home to avoid the beckoning cinnamon roll shop — effectively removing the temptation from her environment.

The lesson — that changes in behavior can be brought about by changes in the environment — has certainly made it to the world of management. Peter Bregman, writing at Harvard Business Review, offers examples of simple changes to physical space — the placement of a glass partition, the location of chairs — that can change interactions in reception rooms and classrooms.

On Two Guys on Your Head, a podcast about psychology and human behavior, Dr. Art Markman applies this logic to New Year's resolutions. "If you're going to successfully change," he suggests, "then that change has to start actually from the outside in, meaning you have to change the environment first, then let behavior follow."

So, by all means, resolve to be a better person this year. But if you hope to succeed in doing so, you might stop to ask: How can I change my environment to maximize the odds that I'll act like the person I want to be?


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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