President Obama knows the secret to getting fit. It won him the 2012 election, and it’s called behavioral science, a blend of behavioral economics, social psychology, and cognitive psychology that explores how we make decisions.
In Obama’s case, researchers used it to identify two things the president needed to portray to win over voters—competence and warmth—and to mobilize them in the first place. As the New York Times explains, simply “identifying a person as a voter, as many volunteers did—‘Mr. Jones, we know you have voted in the past’—acts as a subtle prompt to future voting.” As Robert Cialdini, a prominent researcher in the science of persuasion, told the paper, “People want to be congruent with what they have committed to in the past, especially if that commitment is public.”
That particular idea is called the commitment and consistency principle. Health researchers and coaches are tapping into it and other tricks to help us boost performance and make healthier choices. Here are five behavioral science brain hacks to make you fitter and faster right now—no New Year’s resolution required.
Time Your Goals Strategically
January 1 is not the one and only greatest day to start anew. Research shows that people are more likely to take on big challenges on temporal landmarks, like New Year’s Day, but also on a birthday or even the start of a different month. Behavioral scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard call this phenomenon the fresh-start effect. They discovered it when they noticed that gym visits, online searches for the word “diet,” and pledges to pursue other goals all increased following salient markers of time.
Your Move: “Although it sounds obvious, the most important fresh start is signing up for a race,” says professional triathlete and coach Doug MacLean. “Once you do that, you can put everything else behind you and focus only on the goal ahead.” Next, break up your training into specific periods or blocks, “which create formal endings that give an athlete the chance to regroup mentally and physically before moving on to the next phase of training.” Perhaps most critical, make sure to include an end-of-season break. “Give yourself time to process everything that happened in the prior season, and be willing to release from it,” MacLean says. “Only then can you hit the reset button and move on with a clean slate.”
Treat Willpower Like a Muscle
Willpower is a lot like any other muscle, research shows; the more we use it throughout the day, the more it tires. Behavioral scientists call this phenomenon willpower depletion. It explains why nighttime is almost always when dieters break a streak of healthy eating. After, say, resisting the urge to eat the office doughnuts and birthday cake, there’s not much left in your willpower tank to avoid that box of Lucky Charms in your cupboard.
Your Move: Renowned psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that we can strengthen our willpower by using it more frequently. Every time you feel the urge to give in, pause, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself if the action you are about to take supports your overarching goal. Plan your next move rationally instead of acting on autopilot.
...And Give It Time to Recover
Your weaknesses can be a huge advantage. The theory of temptation bundling says that if you pair an instantly gratifying guilty pleasure (listening to your favorite pop music) with a challenging behavior that yields delayed benefits (really hard intervals), you’ll be more likely to complete the difficult behavior.
University of Pennsylvania researchers backed up this theory with a study involving trashy audiobooks and gymgoers. People who could listen to their trashy audiobooks only at the gym visited their local fitness center far more often than those who had unrestricted access to the same material.
Your Move: First, identify the particular workouts that are really, really hard for you. Next, select your pleasure—something you could live without and should probably do less of anyway. Now, pair the two. But remember: Temptation bundling is effective only if you restrict your chosen indulgence to your hardest workouts. (Note: Do not use food as your guilty pleasure.)
Another example: Pair going to the gym with watching TV. “When you pair the two, you suddenly start looking forward to trips to the gym to find out what happens next in your show,” says Katy Milkman, a Wharton School professor whose research documents the ways people make poor choices. “You stop wasting time at home watching trashy dramas when you could be doing something enriching.”
Be That Annoying Instagrammer
One of the best ways to ensure that you achieve your goals: Tell your goals to all of your friends. It’s part of the commitment and consistency principle, which says we get stressed when our actions are out of sync with our words and public image. To overcome this distress, we’ll often do anything to bring our actions into alignment with our words and social identity, says Sherry Pagoto, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who specializes in how social networks affect behavior.
Your Move: Go public with some of your bigger goals when extra accountability and support might help. People have “better outcomes when sharing their ambitions on Twitter and Facebook versus when sharing them with their in-person friends,” Pagoto says. Not on social media? You can still take advantage of the committment and consistency principle. You could, for instance, get tattoos on your lean muscles that won’t look right if your body composition changes. Bottom line: The more you do to create your desired self and public image, the more likely you are to grow into it.
Give Back to Avoid Burnout
Helping others activates reward and pleasure centers in the brain, which helps connect you to your sport in a different, positive way, explains Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of a book on giving back called Give and Take. Giving may be especially effective in endurance sports; an added sense of social purpose can help counterbalance what may otherwise seem like a self-serving pursuit. “Individual sports are perfect for the application of giving to prevent burnout,” Grant says.
Your Move: There are many ways to give back to your sport, from coaching or mentoring younger athletes, to volunteering at races, to posting advice on social media. Engaging in these types of activities helps to not only reverse burnout but also prevent it.
“When I was closest to completely burning out from 30-hour training weeks, it was working with younger swimmers that saved me,” says former University of Utah swimmer Wesley Johnson. “Coaching reenergized me and reminded me how lucky I was to be competing at such a high level.” Johnson both extended his swimming career by giving back and discovered his passion for coaching, which he now does full-time as one of Utah’s most well-known triathlon coaches.
Note: Some cases of burnout can result from severe overtraining, where the body’s hormonal profile goes haywire. While it is very hard to elicit this cause of burnout, if you think you’ve managed to do it, all the giving in the world won’t help—you need to take extended time off and see a sports medicine doctor.