As the first month of a new year gives way to the second, many resolutions disappear. Why are we so eager and confident when we write down our goals, yet so easily and quickly revert to our old ways?
One reason this happens is the version of our self that sets goals, the planner, overestimates the willpower our future self, the doer, possesses to keep us on track. The planner also ignores other important goal-setting tools. As a result, obstacles pop up and the doer stumbles. The planner scolds: “You’re weak. You’re a loser. I knew this would happen.” Such negative thoughts further decrease motivation and resolve.
To rescue our goals, we must consider the limited role willpower plays for most people. Willpower can be strengthened by challenging its limits. But just as with muscles, as certain levels are reached, additional gains require extraordinary effort. A woman can lift weights for years and remain unable to biceps curl more than 25-pound dumbbells. She could have stellar self-control around food most of the time, yet struggle to resist an open bag of potato chips on her kitchen counter. She could scrape and scramble to build more willpower or simply toss the chips and keep them out of the house.
Engineered limits to our future choices — like tossing out the potato chips — are known as commitment devices. Commitment devices reduce our reliance on willpower and instead focus on environmental factors that support good choices. Studies show that for goals requiring impulse control — exercising rather than relaxing, drinking water instead of soda and walking instead of smoking — commitment devices fill the gap between the planner’s well-intentioned goals and doer’s ability to achieve them.
Employers can find creative ways to incorporate commitment devices into worksite wellness efforts as a way to more effectively promote healthy habits as well as individual goal-setting. Here are some examples:
Office food rules: Agree as a team on which foods remain off limits at work. Candy bowls and baked goods in the break room quickly exhaust employee willpower.
Wellness clubs: Encourage team members to form clubs that focus on such healthy behaviors as walking, hiking, meditating, healthy eating or saving money. Social pressure from a close-knit group makes it harder for individuals to revert to their old ways.
Group wagers: Invite people to deposit money into a pot and allow those who achieve their goals to keep the money. Loss aversion has been shown to motivate people more than rewards.
Deposit contracts: Suggest employees commit to partners to forfeit a dollar amount or make donations to organizations if their goals aren’t achieved by a specific date.
Social pacts: Advise staff to enter into agreements with co-workers, spouses or their children in which they commit to achieving goals. The risk of disappointing an important person can be highly motivating.
Advanced investments: Pay for a non-refundable race, year-long gym membership or packages of personal training sessions to commit ahead of time to train consistently.
Credit card freeze: To control spending, suggest people freeze their credit cards in water to render them difficult to use.
Online grocery orders: Promote online ordering apps to avoid impulsively purchasing unhealthy foods.
Advance portion control: Suggest ways employees can control portions before eating by using small plates, serving food pre-plated or asking the server at a restaurant to box up half the meal before it’s served.
Striking a work-life balance: Establish a norm of leaving work at the office or deleting company e-mail accounts from personal cell phones so people aren’t tempted to work at home or on vacation.
Treatment centers: Provide information to employees about treatment facilities. Those with serious addictions eliminate access to drugs or alcohol by volunteering to enter a center while they receive professional support.
When it comes to health and wellness, don’t spend the rest of 2020 blaming and shaming the doer for falling down on the path toward the planner’s half-baked goals. Instead, give the doer a second chance by reviving those goals with effective commitment devices. Victory is still possible.