February 2023 Using Science To Make Behavior Changes
By Cecelia Schmitt
Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? It’s already the second month of 2023 (yikes!) and it’s a good time to check in on how goals are going. If you are struggling to stick with your goals, you are not alone. Read on to learn more about how you can take an approach based on psychology, behavioral change and motivational science that can help you achieve your goals.
Change is hard
According to a survey from the Statista Research Department, only 22% of respondents kept any of their resolutions they made in 2022 by the time February rolled around. Setting and achieving goals can be challenging, especially when it comes to health and nutrition. Change is hard, but if you work to understand more about why you struggle to make certain changes then you can address your barriers to find success.
It’s all about how you start
We commonly start the new year with familiar resolutions—do you find yourself setting similar goals each year? Before you commit to trying the same goals again, ask yourself why this time might be different. What stood in the way of meeting your goal before? How are you going to address these challenges when/if they arise again? If you don’t spend time reflecting on your previous experiences, you might find yourself repeating the same cycle over and over again.
Research from the American Psychological Association shows that you’re more likely to accomplish a goal that is specific and based on doing something instead of avoiding something. When creating new goals, try choosing habits that are focused on doing and achieving something, versus avoiding and not doing something. For example, maybe you have a goal to make more nutritious snack choices. To do so, try setting a goal like adding a fruit or a vegetable to your day or trying to pack a snack the night before. These are actions you can take that move you towards your goal, as opposed to trying to avoid eating less-nutritious snacks.
Start small (like really small)
Once you decide what you want your goal to focus on, it’s important to be realistic about what you can do day-to-day to work towards that goal. Yes, you may want to ‘dream big’ but in reality, think small when it comes to daily actions you need to complete to meet your goal. Specifically, behavioral scientist BJ Fogg describes this concept as creating ‘tiny habits’. Fogg explains that these habits should be so simple and easy to complete that it would be more work not to do it.
The idea is to take a new habit you wish to incorporate into your life and scale it down so that it’s really just a tiny behavior in your day. For instance, if your goal is to improve your hydration habits, you could set a ‘tiny habit’ goal of taking a sip of water after lunch. Breaking down your big goals into simple and achievable new habits ensures that you have the best chance to continually work toward them. Even if you are in a rush or distracted, the behavior is so tiny and simple that there is almost no excuse not to do this.
By creating ‘tiny habits’ to complete daily, you will start to build up your confidence and competence at this skill or goal. You will start to really believe that you have the ability to do this behavior as you reach and exceed the bar every day. Research has demonstrated that this continued success helps develop identity. You might begin to think that you are ‘someone who reads a lot’ or ‘someone who tidies up often’. Even if it is super ‘tiny’, the habit will naturally find its way into your life in other ways if you begin to identify with it.
The science behind motivation explains how creating ‘tiny habits’ will help you achieve your goals in the long run. There are different types of motivation. Internal motivation refers to choosing a behavior because you really want to. Maybe the behavior aligns with your goals or values, or you personally feel a sense of satisfaction when you accomplish the goal. In contrast, external motivations refer to wanting to do something because someone else wants you to. Maybe there is a reward for achieving a certain goal or a consequence for not completing something. Either way, the difference is that external motivation does not arise naturally within you.
Internal motivation is a much more reliable form of motivation to create long-lasting behavioral changes. When you truly want to achieve your goal because it aligns with who you are and what you enjoy, you are much more likely to want to complete it. When you think about your personal goals—what motivates you to complete them? Is it something you truly want or is there an outside force pressuring you to do so?
Creating and completing your ‘tiny habits’ will not only help you work towards your larger goals, but will also solidify these behaviors into a part of your identity. Fogg’s research supports this, as continuing to complete small and manageable behaviors changes the way people think about themselves. Working towards the goals you set becomes inherently rewarding as it is self-affirming.
What does all of this mean for you and your goals? Even though New Year’s Resolution season has passed, it is never too late to create new goals and start working towards them! Try setting a goal that is about adding something to your life, not limiting or taking something away. Create some ‘tiny habits’ that will help you move towards this goal and enjoy the sense of accomplishment you have after achieving it. Before you know it, you’ll be on your way to the bigger and better behavior change you desire!
About the Author:
Schmitt is finishing up her final rotation in her dietetic internship with KRNC. She says “This is one of the last steps in my education journey before I hit the real world.
I am from a tiny town in northern Michigan! My dad grew up in Colorado and I have been in Fort Collins for the last few months. Loving the mountain life!
My interest areas are primarily in clinical nutrition as I love learning about how the body works and what happens when it stops working. Medical nutrition therapy was my favorite class in college and I really enjoyed my internship rotations in the hospital. My current career plans include pursuing a clinical position as a traveling dietitian! I love exploring new places and this is the perfect opportunity to do (and get paid at the same time!)
I have loved my time working with KRNC and appreciate the clients that let me sit in on appointments. My favorite experiences have been preparing for and hosting the cooking classes, as I also love being in a kitchen and working with food.”
For additional resources for healthy eating, check out these programs from our registered dietitian nutritionists. Find delicious and healthy recipes on our Recipes page! More health tips are also available at the College of Health and Human Sciences Pinterest board. Lastly, don’t forget to sign up for the KRNC monthly newsletter!