Using ABA to Stick to Your New Year’s Resolution
Updated: Jun 16, 2019
Like so many others at the beginning of the new year, I was at the gym on a Saturday competing for an open treadmill to run off the holiday pounds. I mentioned to the front desk person how busy they were on weekends and asked when it is less crowded. She laughed and said that I only need to wait until February or March and the gym will be back to its normal, smaller attendance. While 77% of people are able to maintain their resolutions for the first week, only 19% are able to stay successful for up to 2 years (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988). So, how can I be sure that I am one of the gym regulars by the time the New Year’s resolution crowd disperses and not a casualty of a failed resolution?
Define your goal
The top 5 resolutions for 2017 are (Statistic Brain, 2017):
Lose weight/ eat healthier
Life/ self improvement
Better financial decisions
Do more exciting things
If we are going to change our behavior, we need to specify an observable and measurable target to change, determine how we will change it, and what the timeline for change is. One of the most popular goals, losing weight, is also one of the easiest to define and measure, but “do more exciting things” may pose more of a challenge. Define exciting. Do you have something specific in mind? How many “exciting” things do you want to get done in a year? Defining a goal will give you something attainable to aim for and a clear instance of when you have mastered your goal.
Make a plan
Resolutions fall into two categories: Goals to increase behaviors (workout more, save money, go out more with friends) and goals to decrease behaviors (stop drinking caffeine, quit smoking, stop eating fast food).
If your goal is to increase behaviors, don’t expect to change all at once. When I write a goal for a client to be able to identify 50 verbs before the next authorization period, I don’t work on all the verbs at once, we break the goal into small chunks and slowly make progress over weeks or months. If you want to work out more, do not start by going to the gym 7 days a week. Aside from the likelihood of you hurting yourself, you will also get burned out and frustrated that you’re not seeing an instant change.
If you want to decrease a behavior, try to rephrase your goal to increase a functionally similar replacement behavior. We wouldn’t expect a client to stop engaging in aggression as a function of escape without teaching them to request a break. Expecting yourself to stop engaging in a behavior without giving yourself a functional alternative is setting yourself up for failure. First, you need to determine the function of your behavior and decide on an appropriate replacement. You might drink a lot of coffee because you don’t sleep enough, so your goals should really be to go to bed at 10:00pm to get 8 hours of sleep. If you eat fast food for the convenience, then increase your behavior of packing a lunch for work the night before.
There are several behavioral strategies we can use to attain and maintain our goal.
In the book “The Willpower Instinct” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, she references a client, Jim, that was able to break his addiction to sweets by placing a bowl of jelly beans in a visible, high traffic location and gave himself the rule of no candy from the bowl. Jim could eat other candy, but just not the candy from the bowl so he could practice self-control. The first few days the sight of the jelly beans gave him the automatic instinct to eat a few, but as time went on, he felt more comfortable saying “no” to the candy and was more motivated to generalize his self-control.
This desensitization strategy can be used for a variety of goals where you’re trying to avoid something. Typically, when we start a diet, they first thing we do is clear out all the bad food from the fridge and pantry, replacing it with healthy snacks. But then the first time someone brings in cake to an office birthday party, the temptation is so great that we often cave and grab a slice. What Jim was doing with the candy was break the relationship that the sight of jelly beans functioned as an SD for reinforcement. You can’t change that contingency if you use avoidance. You can take this a step further by pairing it with your replacement behavior. If you’re quitting smoking, keep a cigarette in your desk drawer or purse, every time you see it and feel the urge to smoke, grab a piece of gum instead. You’re practicing saying “no” to the cigarette and simultaneously pairing the ‘urge to smoke’ with the behavior of ‘grabbing a piece of gum’ instead of ‘smoking a cigarette’.
When we’re living life, minding our own business, and suddenly see that delicious cupcake, that brand new $200 purse, or smell someone smoking a cigarette, we get flooded with norepinephrine and epinephrine, also known as the fight or flight response. What these hormones do is increase your heart rate and blood pressure, relax smooth muscles to take in more oxygen, shut down nonessential systems, like digestion and immunity, and impair the functions of your prefrontal cortex (Layton, 2015). That last one poses some problems when we’re not actually faced with a life or death threat. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for working memory, behavioral flexibility, and decision-making (Molina, 2015). Having impaired decision-making and increased impulsivity is definently the last thing we want when we’re faced with a hot, sweet, white chocolate mocha while we’re trying to reduce our caffeine or sugar intake.
So what do you do when your body is against your well intentioned plan to follow your goals? You need to combat the effects of the fight or flight response and regain control of your prefrontal cortex. Before anything else, take slow, deep breaths of 10-15 seconds each (it might take some practice to get to that point). These breathing exercises decrease your heart rate and blood pressure and make you more resistant to stress (McGonigal, 2012). Norepinephrine and epinephrine are short term stress responders. When you encounter a challenging situation, set a timer for 10 minutes, by the end of the 10 minutes, if you still want to give in, go ahead. By waiting 10 minutes, you will have more control of your prefrontal cortex and decision-making abilities as the flood of stress hormones ebb, and you have removed the reinforcing effects of instant gratification (McGonigal, 2012). If your goal is to do more of an activity, then instead of avoiding something for 10 minutes (like buying that expensive purse), engage in the activity for 10 minutes before stopping (like working out for 10 minutes).
Reinforcement increases the likelihood of behaviors they follow while punishment decreases the likelihood of those behaviors. You don’t always need to use punishment, but if you want to change your behavior, you need to use reinforcement at least. Your ultimate goal, or reason for choosing your resolution, cannot be your reinforcer. If you want to decrease your spending in order to buy a house, and the promise of buying a house was truly a reinforcer, you would have stopped spending extra money already. Your long term goal cannot function as a reinforcer because it cannot be presented immediately following the behavior.
Things that can function as a reinforcer are having a friend or spouse give you verbal praise on how well you’re doing, allowing yourself to engage in limited ‘bad behavior’ after 6 consecutive days of following your plan, or even seeing and tracking the progress you’re making towards you goal with some sort of visual chart. Remember that reinforcement needs to be immediate (though doesn’t need to be after every instance of good behavior, it can be after you meet a set target such as 3 consecutive days), intense enough to make it worth the effort, and it needs to actually increase your desired behavior.
Regardless of how you decide to stick to your New Year’s resolutions, make sure you have defined your goal, regularly analyze your behavior, and reinforce yourself for making progress.
Layton, J. "How Fear Works" 13 September 2005. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/fear.htm> 14 January 2017
McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: how self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery.
Molina, P. (2015). Effects of Chronic Stress on Prefrontal Cortex Structure and Function. Retrieved January 14, 2017, from https://ddd.uab.cat/pub/tfg/2015/144536/TFG_patriciamolinamolina.pdf
Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127-134
(2017, January 1). Retrieved January 14, 2017, from http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/
Melissa Druskis, M.S., BCBA has worked with children with autism for over 7 years as a speech language pathologist assistant and a Board Certified Behavior Analysis (BCBA). She is the founder of www.abcbehaviortx.com, a website to disseminate the science of ABA and provide training and materials to ABA practitioners. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience, with a specialization in cognition and human-computer interaction, and completed the BCBA Certification program at Florida Institute of Technology. You can contact her through her website at www.abcbehaviortx.com or by email at email@example.com.