Posted: 30 Jan. 2020 14 min. read

New Year’s resolutions have been failing for 4,000 years, but behavioral science and technology could change the trajectory

By  Greg Szwartz , Life Sciences data science practice lead, and Sarah Godby , Precision Engagement behavioral science lead, Deloitte Consulting LLP

It has been a little more than a month since many of us vowed to make it to the gym more regularly, get to bed earlier, take more steps, or eat healthier (or less). The cycle of setting a New Year’s resolution—and failing to achieve it—likely stretches back 4,000 years to ancient Babylonia when the new year was tied to the spring equinox.1 Julius Caesar is credited with later restructuring the calendar and establishing January as the first month of the year (January is named for Janus, the Roman god of transitions and new beginnings).2

Many of us have already acknowledged that the lofty promises we made to ourselves at the start of the year are unrealistic…and some of us are right back to where we were before Thanksgiving. We play this game every year and we almost always fail. Only about 7 percent of people will keep their New Year’s resolutions, and most don’t make it through January.3 But the problem isn’t with us. The problem is in the way we set goals and the way we set ourselves up for making changes. When the fresh start of the new year wears off, instead of giving up and wondering why we can’t change, let’s look to science to salvage our waning resolutions.

The psychology behind resolutions and fresh starts

When we begin a new year, many of us feel as though we’ve been given a clean slate. It’s a chance to separate ourselves from our past selves and past behaviors and look ahead with optimism to the person we want to become. That’s a real feeling. As we explained in our blog last November , people are more likely to adopt new habits or change behaviors at natural transition points such as the beginning of a new calendar year, a new school year, a new work week, or a new job. The idea of a fresh start can make people more receptive to goal-setting around a vision of their future selves. However, the best predictor of future behavior is typically past behavior, and past behaviors are powerful, which is why new behaviors often fail to take root. This is often a key consideration when we work with clients who want to change behaviors within a target customer/patient population.

It has been about a year since 600 Deloitte employees (from 40 states) began a 36-week randomized clinical trial to determine if a wearable activity-tracker—combined with goal-setting, competition, and gamification—would increase physical activity among overweight and obese adults. We determined that data science and behavioral economics—if applied correctly—can lead to positive behavior changes. The STEP UP study was led by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania .

Five elements of successful goal-setting

We partnered with Penn Medicine in designing STEP UP and tried to ensure that participants felt they were succeeding early on in the trial by helping them make reasonable step-count goals and ramping them up slowly. Nudging toward an early achievable goal helped participants build self-efficacy as they entered the trial. The gamified trial combined a rewards system with well-placed “fresh starts” to keep participants engaged. Self-efficacy (the confidence that you can achieve a specific goal) is a critical behavior-change muscle that can help people start a goal and keep working at it, even as the path forward becomes more challenging.

Achieving the future of health that Deloitte envisions will likely require health and life sciences companies to think differently about their role in helping people live longer and healthier lives. One of the pillars of our vision is the ability to prevent illness, which might be accomplished through behavior change. Here are five strategies that health and life sciences companies should consider to help patients, customers, and members set and achieve their goals:

1. Create fresh starts, but not too many: A fresh start allows people to separate themselves from past behavior and set new goals for a future-self. Not being able to make progress can lead to frustration. Determining how often our participants needed a fresh start to keep them engaged was a challenge as we developed the STEP UP trial. If fresh starts occur too frequently, people could lose their motivation as the next period approaches. We established a new fresh start after each time period, but those periods varied.

2. Include goal-ramping: The goal of hitting the gym six days a week is likely an unrealistic goal for someone who doesn’t exercise regularly. Setting the bar too high is a key reason many people don’t achieve their goals. For our study, we established clear and measurable goals for participants and required weekly check-ins. If people didn’t reach their step goal one day, we didn’t want them to try to double their steps the next day, which might be unachievable. Instead, we established sets of small and achievable goals. The goals can become progressively more aggressive.

3. Offer incentives and rewards: We also found that people who were competing (alone or as part of a team) were more likely to reach their goals, as were those with social supports—at least while the rewards were in place. In addition to having rewards, companies can use the psychological power of loss aversion. The idea of losing something already earned can be more motivating than earning a new reward. In the STEP UP trial, we built a system of status levels and found better results when participants worked toward avoiding a status loss vs. a gain in game level. While including incentives and rewards in a health or wellness application can seem burdensome, they can generate a high return on the added investment.

4. Limit choice: It has been 20 years since researchers from Columbia University and Stanford University set up a display of jelly samples at a gourmet food shop and offered coupons to shoppers who participated. In one experiment, researchers set out just six samples of jelly that were available for purchase. In another session, they set out 24 varieties. While the larger display attracted far more shoppers, the display that included fewer choices led to significantly more purchases—30 percent versus just 3 percent.4 Although expansive choices might feel good upfront, we know that too much choice can prevent people from taking action.

5. Reduce friction points: We made participation in STEP UP easy by giving participants a fitness band that never needs to be charged so that they never need to remove it or think about it. Friction can create mental barriers. For example, a personalized packet of medications and detailed instructions might remove friction points for people who take multiple drugs and have to figure out dosage and timing on their own. Eliminating potential barriers could improve medication adherence.

The principles we used in our STEP UP trial can be used when setting other types of health and wellness goals, including those related to healthy eating, says Jason Riis, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist and lecturer at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.5 “The beauty of a steps program is that the behavior of stepping is easy and there are few points of friction,” he explains. “One way to apply these ideas in healthy eating is to focus on increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. A specific approach might be bringing a bag of fruits and veggies to work every day, putting it on your desk, and grazing throughout the day. Something like that is consistent with the STEP-UP approach: it can be gradual, you can add rewards, and frictions are minimal. Eventually, it could be turned into a true habit .”

Let’s start again on February 29th!

We have entered an era where technology and an understanding of behavioral science can be used to help people improve their health. The same strategies could be modified to improve medication adherence or to encourage engagement through a mobile health app on a smart device. Understanding the science behind behavior, and combining it with technology, could help health and life sciences improve the health of their patients, their members, and their customers. Let’s use fresh starts that exist naturally (like the change in calendar year), but let’s also design applications that work downstream with our behaviors and offer fresh starts when we need them. Let’s also try to design systems where well-timed, personalized fresh starts protect our future selves from overly aggressive current selves who set goals too high, and let’s make sure we have appropriate rewards to build self-efficacy through success—especially when we’re extra-motivated to avoid a failure.


1. The History of New Year’s Resolutions, August 31, 2018, The History Channel
2. On New Year’s, our calendar’s crazy history, Washington Post, December 31, 2017
3. Why 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail, US News & World Report, December 29, 2015
4. When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, June 19, 2000
5. Habits: The ultimate way to make eating fruits and vegetables easy, Jason Riis, Better Health Foundation, 2020

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