To prepare for the season of resolutions — or goal-setting, habit-making, maybe habit-breaking — we asked alumni experts for their recommendations of how to make changes in the new year and make those changes stick. Here’s what they told us:
Adam Alter *09, an associate professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of Irresistible, a book about our addiction to screens, says he doesn’t make resolutions — nor does he particularly recommend them. Instead, he says people have more success instituting small habits that “bridge desirable acts with small rewards.”
“So, for example, if you’re trying not to spend so much time on your phone, build a habit of not using your phone for at least two hours a night, maybe a bit before dinner till bedtime,” he says. “Instead, lock your phone in a drawer in another room, and do something else that’s rewarding but you usually don’t have time to do.”
“Over time the habit of spending additional two hours a night on your phone is replaced by the habit of doing this other thing that you find rewarding — and, as you can see, none of this requires a resolution. Instead of tethering the change to an arbitrary date in the calendar, start right now. That way you don’t think of it as a resolution, but rather as an internally or intrinsically driven change that’s important to you.”
Robert Davis ’86, a health journalist, author, and the CEO of Everwell, a health-video production and distribution company, suggests using financial incentives and rewards to stick with resolutions, a technique known as loss aversion. After making a goal, set aside some of your own money and give it either to a website designed for this purpose, or to a friend, either of which will pocket the money if you don’t hit your goal. For even more of a challenge, have your friend donate the money to the campaign of a politician you don’t support if you fall short of that objective.
As founder of The Breakfast Project, a nonprofit that brings culinary arts education to public school students in San Francisco, Joyce Lin-Conrad ’02 often thinks about resolutions in terms of community-building and cooking. She asks herself: “What are some things that I can do in the new year to build stronger connections?” Moving into January, she wants to expand a current program that invites her students to cook breakfast from a different country each week. Both inside and outside of the classroom, Lin-Conrad suggests taking time out of the day to slow down and cook your own meals.
Justin Kerr ’00 believes the techniques that helped him build a successful career in HR translate to his personal life. The author of 13 books, including How to Be Great at Your Job, as well as the host of the Mr. Corpo podcast, Kerr doesn’t recommend creating year-long resolutions. Rather, he believes in operating on a shorter time scale, around 30 days, with a clear start and end date. Building smaller skills in short bursts of time will help you make real progress towards achieving a larger goal, he says. So for example, instead of setting your sights on a promotion, begin working on individual, personal skills that will one day lead to that larger goal.
Similar to Kerr, Wharton School professor and behavioral scientist Katherine Milkman ’04 says people think about time as a series of episodes marked by important moments, like academic semesters, anniversaries, or birthdays. “These episodes create these breaking points and they give us a sense that we have a clean slate,” she says. “They let us leave behind our past failures. It gets people optimistic about doing things they might normally feel are beyond their capability so they set goals.”
“The bad news that people tend to focus on is that most New Year’s resolutions fail, which is true,” Milkman says. “I tend to be on the optimist side, which is that you can’t change — you can’t quit smoking or start a new exercise habit or succeed with a diet — unless you try, and New Year’s is this moment that propels many more people to try than normally would.” Her resolution last year, to get better at brushing her toddler’s teeth every morning, was a success.
Jeff Kreisler ’95, the co-author of Dollars and Sense, runs the website People Science, which uses behavioral economics and science to guide people towards achieving their goals. He suggests trying a technique that Milkman made popular in a 2013 paper: “temptation bundling.” For example, if you want to exercise more but also enjoy watching The Real Housewives, tell yourself you can watch two episodes each time you visit the gym.
“The hard thing [working out] becomes part of that positive emotional thing,” he says. “You get rewarded with that binge instead of just working out and thinking about living 20 years longer, which is hard to connect to.” Kreisler also recommends creating resolutions and goals that follow the acronym “SMART”: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
Annamaria Lusardi *92, an economics professor and financial literacy expert, believes that now more than ever, it’s important for people to take charge of their finances. The change in calendar year offers an opportunity to think critically about what you want to improve, like tracking your spending or learning better how to save. “It’s part of our well-being,” she says. “In the case of finances, we often don’t pay enough attention. Just by improving our awareness, we are taking a step forward.”