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How to Stick to Your Goals, According to Psychology

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With every New Year comes new goals for self-improvement: lose weight, exercise more, create a better work-life balance, whatever it may be. Unfortunately, however, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February, according to U.S. News. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong! Thankfully, the realm of psychology has some helpful tips for how to stick to our goals, so today's post will be focusing on some of my favourite strategies.

Positive Reinforcement

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Reinforcement is all about doing things to increase a behaviour. Positive reinforcement means that you experience something good immediately after performing a desired activity. Examples of positive reinforcement include sitting in a massage chair for 10 minutes after a workout or rewarding yourself with a lovely Epsom salt bath when you get home.

A note here: it can be really harmful to start using food for positive or negative reinforcement. Firstly, if you use food as a positive reinforcer after a workout, it can get you into the habit of “undoing” your workout to a certain extent. For example, downing a 400-calorie Frappucino that has a whopping 61g of sugar is certainly not what your body needs after it has been exerting itself. But perhaps more importantly, we can develop a very unhealthy relationship with food when we start using it as a reward or punishment. If certain foods are only enjoyed when we’ve “been good,” we begin injecting food with emotional meanings rather than seeing it as fuel for our bodies. Conversely, if we take drastic measures like skip dinner because we didn’t work out, we set ourselves up for an eating disorder.

Negative Punishment

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Negative punishment involves adding a consequence immediately after you do something undesirable. For example, if one of your undesirable behaviours is skipping meals, an example of negative punishment would be to disallow yourself from watching the newest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Your reinforcer for good behaviour—i.e. watching RuPaul for eating three meals a day—is removed in the hopes that you will stop skipping meals in the future.

The Token Economy

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A token system involves receiving “tokens” whenever a desirable task is completed so you can earn a special reward after a certain period of time.

Let’s say you vowed to work out three times a week for one month. Every time you work out, you’d give yourself a token that would go towards a big prize at the end of the month. Your “token” could take many forms; you could put $2 in a jar every time you worked out so you can put $24 towards a new workout top or a massage. Or, you could use buttons as your “tokens” and treat yourself to a full day of Netflix binging when 12 buttons are in the jar.

The Bottom Line

There are a number of strategies we can use to encourage or discourage certain behaviours. While some studies have been done on which one is most effective, my belief is that it’s all personal preference! Also, I’ve noticed that I’ll rely on different strategies at different times depending on how I’m feeling. By and large, though, I find that positive reinforcement works really well for me when it comes to working out. There was a period of time when I would only allow myself to listen to my favourite podcast (Homecoming) if I was on a bike ride!

For more tips on increasing your motivation to work out, check out my other blog post.


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