Want to achieve your post-pandemic goals? Use these strategies.
Written by: Katy Milkman
With gyms, restaurants, and workplaces reopening, people from every part of my life are asking for expert advice on how to ingrain new and healthier habits as we re-emerge from our pandemic cocoons. Their instinct that now is the right time to make a change is spot on—my research shows that having a “fresh start” is a powerful motive to initiate positive change at home and at work. But what are the chances that a new, post-COVID fitness routine or commitment to meeting-free mornings will outlast our initial fervor?
Unfortunately, even with the motivation of a fresh start, most self-improvement goals don’t pan out. One reason is that change is hard. But a more helpful explanation is that change requires the right strategy. I’ve devoted my academic career to the study of behavior change, and I’ve been startled by how often people fail to size up the obstacles they’ll need to surmount to achieve their objectives before charging forward with a strategy that’s poorly-suited to their circumstances. Setting audacious goals and visualizing success are all well and good, but most people would get farther faster if they customized their approach to counter the blockades that stand in their way.
The internal obstacles that commonly prevent change—the tendency to give into temptation, to be lazy, to be forgetful, to experience self-doubt, and so on—are surmountable. But just as different maladies respond to different treatments, so too do different barriers to change. We can’t just throw any solution at them and expect great results. We need the right one.
Take, for example, temptation. Falling prey to temptation is one of the most common reasons people fail to reach their goals. We mean to go to the gym, but Netflix beckons. We know we should prepare for an upcoming presentation, but scrolling through Facebook is more enticing.
Psychologists Ayelet Fishbach and Kaitlin Woolley have shown that when pursuing goals that require resisting temptation, most people make a crucial mistake: they approach them in the way they believe will yield the greatest long-term payoff. But a more successful strategy is to try to make this kind of goal pursuit fun.
Across multiple research studies, Fishbach and Woolley encouraged some participants (chosen at random) to choose healthy foods or exercises they expected to enjoy most while others were encouraged to choose foods and exercises they’d benefit from most. These studies demonstrated that people encouraged to approach healthy activities with a focus on short-term enjoyment persisted longer on their workouts and ate more healthy food. This research reveals that we’re better off when we harness temptation, rather than when we ignore it to focus on our long-term goals.
One way of engineering success with this insight is through what I call “temptation bundling.” This technique involves pairing something tempting (like watching lowbrow tv) with a goal-oriented activity that isn’t inherently fun (like exercising or preparing a home-cooked meal). The “indulgence” is only permitted while working towards the goal. I’ve proven that temptation bundling can help gymgoers exercise more, but I’ve also heard stories of people using this technique to get ahead in school (by bundling trips to the library with indulgent snacks), master housework (by bundling it with a favorite podcast), and even improve relationships (by bundling get-togethers with trips to a favorite restaurant).
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