The UX of a Successful New Year’s Resolution

For most of us, a resolution worthy enough to save for the New Year is usually one that is important to us. Whether it’s being healthier, reaching financial goals or spending more time with loved ones, we save our New Year’s resolutions in pursuit of the greatest reward: a happier, more fulfilled life.

Unfortunately, research shows
that only 9 percent of us are actually successful in achieving our New Year’s resolutions. But why?

Our habits get in the way of our decisions.

A Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 to 45 percent of our daily decisions are actually not
decisions at all–they’re habits.

That means nearly half of our days are spent in auto-pilot, following a script that we’ve unconsciously already written. We’ve all been a slave to our habits before: like when you snap out of a daze and realize you’ve driven all the way home without remembering how you got there.

New Year’s resolutions are similar in that regard: no matter how much we want to go to the gym, we somehow always end up watching Netflix or sleeping in instead.

But that doesn’t mean that habits are our destiny.

As the founder and principal of the design firm MSTQ
, most of my days are spent designing user experiences for products intended to shape behavior.

Applying learnings from behavioral scientists such as B.J. Fogg, Daniel Kahneman and Charles Duhigg, I’ve found that by simply breaking habits down into their chain of actions, you can identify and target key moments to rewire behavioral outcomes. A helpful framework for breaking down habitual behaviors is the Cue-Routine-Reward loop:

A Cue
is the trigger that reminds you of a possible behavior; the initiation of a chain of actions that are unconsciously linked together.

A Routine
is the chain of actions that are repeatedly performed following the cue.

A Reward
is something that provides you with gratification for completing the routine.

Hacking the Cue-Routine-Reward loop will make it easier for you to form and sustain new habits.

The secret, however, to hacking the Cue-Routine-Reward pattern that drives particular behaviors is identifying the cue and the reward within the chain of actions.

As Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
, explains:

Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day. . . .
O nly when your brain starts expecting the reward–craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment–will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.”

Make it a New Year’s habit
, not a resolution.

A successful New Year’s resolution goes beyond just simply cutting out bad behaviors or adding healthy ones.

Good habits are as much about the unconscious behavior, the actions you don’t notice, as much as it is about your conscious behavior. Like UX and product design, developing a healthy habit involves understanding the implications of actions before and after a desired behavior.

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