New year, new you 2020 Behavioral hacks to help your resolutions stick

22 January 2020

New Year's resolutions tend to be about changing bad habits and changing habits is hard. The Press Room has some real, actionable ideas to help you stick to your goals.


Tanya Ott: Behavior change is hard! But the truth is, when done smartly you can actually set yourself up to succeed. It’s all about building the right environment. Today on the Press Room we’ve got a bunch of ideas—real, actionable ideas—to help you with your goals for 2020.

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I’m Tanya Ott and I don’t usually make resolutions myself because … well, I’m just not very good at keeping them. Part of my problem is I tend to be all or nothing. When I became a pescatarian I basically stopped eating all meat except fish—cold turkey. Four years later, when I gave into a momentary craving for a fast food hamburger—I know!— that was the end of that. Full stop. I was back eating meat the very next day.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can take small steps to redesign our environments in ways that encourage us to make smart choices. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today on this New Year, New You episode of the podcast.

I thought we’d look to our archives for some inspiration for how to succeed at some of the most popular resolutions. Let’s start with self-care. Who doesn’t want to live a more balanced life, with plenty of time for work and play? To just be more “present” in our lives.

Ajit Kambil is global research director for Deloitte’s CFO Program and creator of an Executive Transition Lab for people who are new to the C-Suite. He says one of the things they really struggle with is the unrelenting flood of email.

Ajit Kambil: One of the ways I manage my email, probably to the frustration of some of my colleagues, is I only respond to emails at certain times of the day. I block off email time and the rest of the time I choose to focus on what I need to get done and then I’ll get back to an email towards the end of the day. I think it’s important for folks to say, you know, technology for the first time allows us all this connectivity, but at the same time it doesn’t mean we have to instantaneously respond. It may be better if we take some time to think through our responses and not get caught up in this email cycle.

Tanya: Ajit also schedules time to think.

Ajit Kambil: If you’re multitasking and going from task to task every 30 minutes or so it doesn’t allow you that time to grapple with the big [ideas]. So blocking off an hour a day … you take a walk or whatever, the Truman walk, I think it was called. It’s a wonderful way to step back and say what is really important today and how are we going to really tackle this tough problem and get the right resources.

Tanya Ott: The world is changing so fast. If we don’t slow down, absorb, and reflect, we’re going to miss out on a lot. Does the thought of hitting the brakes freak you out? It’s all good! We’ve got some life hacks for that too, courtesy Maggie Wooll and Duleesha Kulasooriya of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge.

Duleesha Kulasooriya: One of the ideas we came across was this idea of Digital Detox—stepping away from our devices for some period of time. And the founder of Digital Detox, the first thing he told me, the easiest thing you can do is get a dumb alarm clock, something that is not connected. You know those bright red lights? The reason to do that is we’ve become so accustomed to using our phone as an alarm clock and I do it myself. The problem is as soon as you pick up that phone as an alarm clock you go into automatic mode to check your email, to check your Facebook, to check all those things. And that whole world immediately takes over everything. You have no time for reflection or no time to even think about what you might have processed in your sleep.

Tanya Ott: Have you done a full digital detox?

Duleesha Kulasooriya: We tried. We as a family tried to do Sundays.

Tanya Ott: How’s that working for you?

Duleesha Kulasooriya: Well, we also realized that our digital devices are also nannies for our kids and we don’t get a break.


Duleesha Kulasooriya: So we couldn’t keep it up ourselves. But I think we’ll keep coming back to the practice. It’s a lot like saying, okay – if we can’t do a day, then we do a half a day. If we can’t do a half a day, we do it over dinnertime. When can we actually practice Digital Detox?

Maggie Wooll: It seems so basic, you know. And another reason people have had to name these things, like Digital Detox, is because the technology becomes so pervasive that you need this external authority to help you come up with a reason for why you’re going to limit the use of the technology at the table or whatever it is.

Tanya Ott: When my oldest daughter was in middle school we discovered she was having a problem with texting too much so we tried to take the phone away for a night. And, quite honestly, you would have thought that she was a huge junkie and going through major withdrawal. I mean there was a lot of screaming and shaking and things involved in that process. And you know, maybe those of us who were all the way grown up don’t react in exactly that same way, but it can be a little bit disconcerting because you feel like you’re going to miss something.

Maggie Wooll: I think we’ve all had that experience where we lose our phone or it’s dead for a while, and you really do feel disconnected because we’ve kind of lost track of how we used to connect with people or how we used to keep track of our time and our days.

Duleesha Kulasooriya: Try to take away a phone from an executive for an afternoon and see how they react. Inwardly they will be exactly like your daughter. Externally they may hold themselves back a bit.

Tanya Ott: Yeah. Have you seen that happen before?

Duleesha Kulasooriya: Another experiment we tried was we tried to create a locker with chargers where you can charge your phone outside the room. So, you’re going into a Digital Detox room where you don’t take your devices with you. And it just wouldn’t fly. Couldn’t get people to agree.

Tanya Ott: They were like “no… not going to do that!”?

Duleesha Kulasooriya: They’re too attached to being constantly connected.

Tanya Ott: So Digital Detox is one sort of life hack that you have. What’s another one that you think is really useful?

Duleesha Kulasooriya: Anytime I go for a conference or a meeting or to do some talks or anything like that, if I’m traveling to a new place, as much as I can I’ll try to add a day or a half a day or a few hours and have it be unscheduled so that for whatever comes up during that time that I’m there, I get to extend it and explore something new. One of the big things we are finding is that people are so busy, our calendars are completely full, that when you come across something that’s really exciting you actually don’t have any time to dive deeper, and if you have to wait for two weeks to get that free time to dive deep into it you’ve already lost that momentum.

Tanya Ott: On to one of the most popular resolutions. And this one’s a two-fer: Exercise more and make healthier choices.

Katy Milkman: So imagine that both Liz and Jenna want to start a workout routine.

Tanya Ott: That’s Katy Milkman. She’s professor of operations, information and decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Katy uses big data—as well as insights from economics and psychology – to study how people can make long-term behavior changes. Changes like not giving up if things get hard or don’t seem to be going your way.

Katy Milkman: And they decide that the best way to do this is to sign up for a month of sessions with a personal trainer. And let's say, by random luck, they end up with personal trainers who have different philosophies about the best way to kick start them on a successful and lasting workout habit.

Jenna's trainer is all about routine. So Jenna's trainer first says, hey, Jenna, when do you prefer to work out? And she says, I'm a 7 AM exercise person, that's my ideal time. And the trainer says, great, here's our plan for the next month. We're going to meet three times a week at 7 AM to exercise, and at the end of this month, you are going to have a lasting habit. You're going to have a stable routine. You're going to exercise consistently. You won't need my help anymore. You're going to be off to the races. Jenna says, great!

Liz's trainer, on the other hand, has a different philosophy, let's imagine. Liz's trainer also asked Liz when's her ideal time to exercise, and let's say Liz is also a 7 AM gym rat, but her trainer says, all right, that's great, sometimes we'll meet at 7 AM. Good to know that's your ideal time, but the key is we're going to try to be flexible. Sometimes we'll meet at other times. We're going to move things around. We'll exercise three times a week. And by the end of this month of sessions, you're going to build a lasting habit. You're going to know how to roll with the punches, deal with it when life gets in the way of your ideal time, and you're going to have built that sustainable exercise habit.

Tanya Ott: Those are two different kinds of philosophies—one is about building routines; the other stresses flexibility. They both make sense in their own way … but when Katy and her research partner surveyed professors at top psychology programs around the country, 77% of them thought “routine Jenna” would win at changing her behavior. The others said it either wouldn’t matter which approach was taken or that “flexible Liz” would win.

To test it, they launched a four-week exercise program at a well-known Fortune 500 company.

Katy Milkman: Everyone who signed up for the program did a couple things. First, as they signed up, they told us the two-hour workout window when they prefer to exercise. Just like Liz and Jenna said 7 AM, everybody says, this is my ideal workout time. So maybe it's 7 to 9 AM, maybe it's 5 to 7 PM, everybody's different. And then everybody, we haven't gotten to the experiment yet, but everybody's going to get daily workout reminders 15 minutes before the start of their 2-hour workout window.

Tanya Ott: So that was the setup. They did a randomized controlled trial—that’s the gold standard of evidence-based research design—and assigned a third of the participants to the control group. They made a plan and got the reminders to work out, but nothing else. The second group was meant to work like “flexible Liz”—they were paid for going to the gym during scheduled times, but also other days and times. The final group was “routine Jennas”—they got paid for gym visits only during the regularly scheduled time.

What did they see?

Katy Milkman: The more we paid people, the more they went to the gym, so that's good. Basic economic theory held up in our data set, which always sort of makes me breathe a sigh of relief. Whenever you see something in data that you're expecting, it's like, phew, I didn't do everything wrong.

The other thing that we also expected is that when it was easier to collect your cash, because you could go any time to get it, you went more. So the flexible folks are just going to the gym more than the routine folks. We knew that was going to be, I'll call it not a confound, but a feature of our design. And that's actually why we varied the incentive amount, because what we really want to do is zoom in on two types of people who are going to the gym basically the same frequency, but one of whom is going consistently at routine times, and the other who is going at more flexibly all over the place.

Tanya Ott: Katy says she and her team were really surprised to see that—despite what psychologists predicted—routine was actually not the key to successful habit formation. Flexibility seemed to matter more.

Katy Milkman: And let me tell you what we found in the data that helped us explain this. So, let's go back to Liz and Jenna and imagine that both of them were told that 7 AM was their ideal time. The first thing that we see when we analyze our data is that “routine Jenna”—the person who is in that routine condition—does actually form a sticky routine around going to the gym after our intervention period, at the same time they were going before, so they were going more at their scheduled time.

So now you are probably thinking, okay, that's confusing, because you just said that routine lost. But this is why routine loses: if they don’t go at their scheduled time, they don't go at all. Whereas the flexible folks, they learn to go to the gym, first best at their scheduled time when they are getting reminders, but second best, some other time and that stuck with them after our intervention period.

Tanya Ott: Another approach that shows promise is one Katy built for herself … but she likes to frame it from “flexible Liz’s” perspective. Imagine Liz wishes she exercised more, but she lacks the will power to actually do it. Also imagine Liz loves trashy novels, but feels guilty wasting her time reading junk.

Katy Milkman: So what I'll propose as a solution to both of Liz's problems, and I call it temptation bundling. And the idea is very simple. What if Liz only allowed herself to read trashy novels while exercising at the gym? She'd stop wasting time at home on literary garbage and start craving trips to the gym to find out what happens next in her latest thriller, right? And not only that, she'll actually start to enjoy her novel and her workout more combined, because she won't feel any guilt about reading the novel, and time will fly at the gym.

Tanya Ott: They ran an experiment where the control group was told to exercise and they could download some free audio books as a gift for participating. The experiment group also got the free audio books, but they were also taught about temptation bundling. So they were primed to think of the audio books as a reward to be consumed only when working out.

Those who were taught about temptation bundling did significantly better sticking to their exercise routines.

Katy Milkman: It's a 10% boost in exercise that we're seeing in the treatment group relative to the control during the intervention period. And although there's a weird dip in the week right after the intervention ends, maybe everybody is just feeling a little sad, who knows, it actually is sustained. Because remember, we were looking for lasting change. And this, again, is the kind of thing that you wouldn't expect, if it's an idea we're giving to you and planting, that it should wear off. So that's exciting.

Tanya Ott: You know what else is exciting? You can find out more about all of these ideas on our website.

We’ve got a whole series of conversations with Ajit Kambil about making the transition into the C-Suite. You can also read Maggie Wooll and Duleesha Kulasooriya’s article Unlocking human potential: Proactive practices for individual elasticity. And that conversation with Katy Milkman is part of a live Nudgeapalooza event Deloitte produces with Georgetown University.

We’ve a bunch of those talks at our website,

What’s your New Year’s Resolution?? Tweet us at @DeloitteInsight (no S) and let us know what you’re planning to tackle this year.

I’m Tanya Ott for the Press Room. Thanks for listening and have a great day!

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