It’s no surprise that many of us are ready to say goodbye to 2020 and remain optimistic for 2021. While New Year’s resolutions are a common tradition for many, studies suggest that most people do not follow through with their resolutions. Here are some ways to use ABA principles to set yourself up for success and increase the likelihood of sticking to your 2021 resolutions.
You’ve probably already heard of SMART goals. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. Let’s break down this acronym and review the applicable behavioral concepts.
Goals should clear and specific. “Getting fit” is too vague of a goal because that could mean many different things and does not have a clear way to track progress, which brings us to the next tip…
Target measurable behaviors rather than results. For example, “I will engage in physical activity three times per week for at least 30 minutes each time” versus “I will lose 20 pounds.” We can track if we engage in physical activity for the specified time and frequency. While we can also use a scale to measure our weight and track weight loss, the issue is that we could engage in appropriate behaviors, such as exercising, but still not see the outcome (weight loss) that we’d like, which often leads to us giving up on our goal because the effort is not met with the desired consequence.
It is important that we select goals that are realistic for our current circumstances or else we risk setting ourselves up for failure. For example, if you are currently only able to run half a mile, it would be unreasonable to choose running a marathon as a new year’s resolution. Instead, realistic goals should be chosen and they can be broken down into smaller goals.
It is important to consider your values when setting goals. Values are what give our lives meaning, and unlike goals, cannot be achieved. Instead, values guide our decision-making, depending on what is important to us. For example, somebody who values athleticism is much more likely to successfully adhere to a resolution involving physical activity than someone else who does not share that value. That being said, it is important to know your “why” because different people could still meet a common goal but hold different values. For example, some people could set a goal regarding physical activity because they value athleticism and sportsmanship (e.g., participating in sports for the physical challenge and competition), while other people could set the same goal but because they value family and friendship (e.g., engaging in physical activity as a way to spend time with friends and improve their stamina for playing with their children).
Goals should be time-based to keep ourselves accountable. It is much easier to put off working on a goal if there is no time frame for achieving the goal. Once you choose a deadline for a goal, work backwards to set smaller goals to ensure you can feasibly achieve the goal. For example, if your goal is to complete a 5K race in three months, plan out each run you’ll need to complete week-by-week leading up to the race. Accomplishing each run along the way will hopefully feel rewarding, allowing your behavior of running to contact reinforcement, and gradually increasing your speed/distance/duration will get your closer to your final goal (shaping).
Other Tips and Tricks
Use antecedent manipulations
Antecedent manipulations are modifications made to the environment to make desired behaviors more likely and undesired behaviors less likely to occur. When developing antecedent manipulations, consider the obstacles that personally keep you from meeting your goals. Below are some examples:
- If your goal is to eat more healthful foods at home, it could be helpful to purchase only the foods that you align with your goal and have some prepared in advance to make it less likely for you to swing through the drive-thru for a last minute meal.
- If your goal is to engage in physical activity in the morning, lay out your workout clothes the night before in a convenient location.
- If your goal is to save money, arrange to have a portion of your money automatically deposited into a savings account with each paycheck. If impulse spending is an issue for you, plan out a budget and go into a store with only the amount you wish to spend in cash.
- If your goal is to wake up earlier, set an alarm that is away from your bed, forcing you to get out of bed. There are apps you can download that require you to solve a math problem or scan a product barcode to disable the alarm.
- Use reminders (prompts). Reminders could be in the form of notifications on your phone, handwritten sticky notes, etc.
- Use the Premack Principle: complete the tasks associated with your resolution before other more preferred tasks (e.g., complete a run before watching tv shows).
- Contrive motivating operations. The goal is to make tasks more pleasant and less aversive. Examples include working out with a friend if you prefer the company of others, downloading a podcast to listen to while working on your goal, eating before grocery shopping to avoid being surrounded by tempting foods with an empty stomach, etc.
Use consequence strategies
To increase the future probability of a behavior occurring, it is important that the behavior is reinforced, or in other words, the behavior is followed by a consequence (either addition of a pleasant stimulus or removal of an aversive stimulus) that strengthens the behavior. Everyone is different so what is reinforcing to one person’s behavior may be punishing to another, therefore it is important to individualize the consequences. Below are some examples:
- Create a behavior contract. The contract should outline the desired behaviors (your resolutions) and the consequences for meeting the goals.
- Get an accountability buddy to help make sure you meet the terms of the behavior contract.
- Develop rewards for meeting your resolutions and smaller goals along the way. The rewards should be things that you cannot obtain unless you meet your goals.
- Track your progress. Simply checking off that a desired behavior goal occurred on your calendar may reinforce that behavior and create motivation to continue.
We hope these suggestions help you crush your goals in 2021! Remember to reflect upon your goals and progress monthly. If you aren’t making quite as much progress as you anticipated, that’s okay! That doesn’t mean there is a problem with you personally, it just means that the environmental variables need adjusting. Make modifications using antecedent manipulations and consequence strategies and reassess. Best wishes for a healthy and happy new year!