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This One Small Change Will Help You Stick To New Habits

Why turning your goals into questions makes you more likely to stick with changes.

This One Small Change Will Help You Stick To New Habits
[Photo: krsmanovic via Shutterstock]

If you made a New Year’s resolution, the way you declared it could make or break your chances of keeping it, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Instead of saying, "I will get up each day at 5 a.m.," for example, turn it into a question, such as, "Will I get up each day at 5 a.m.?" and you’ll have a better chance of seeing the sunrise.

The phenomenon is called the "question-behavior effect," and the technique can influence your future actions, says Dave Sprott, co-author of the study and senior associate dean of the Carson College of Business at Washington State University.

Questions remind a person of prior failures to perform a behavior, as well as social norms associated with the behavior, says Sprott. "The disconnect between what you have done and what you know you should do elicits dissonance, which in turn leads to a behavioral response," he says.

Questions also activate an intention that can guide behavior by enhancing your commitment to perform a certain action. If you want to boost productivity by checking email less, for example, ask yourself, "Will I check email three times a day instead of keeping it open all day?" The question reminds you that closing your email is good for your productivity and focus, and it can make you feel uncomfortable if you don’t follow what you should do. You’ll be motivated to stick with the new behavior to alleviate feelings of discomfort that will exist if you don’t comply.

The process is relatively simple, yet it’s an effective technique to produce consistent, significant changes across a wide domain of behaviors, says Sprott. "It is pretty easy to ask a question," he says, adding that it just takes one. "Many of the studies in our meta-analysis report changes in behavior after a single question is answered."

How To Form The Question

Some questions are more successful than others, and the study found that two rules were helpful:

Rule No. 1: The effect is strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior with personal and socially accepted norms, such as eating healthy, volunteering, or recycling.

Rule No. 2: Questions that can be answered with a response of "yes" or "no" also elicit a stronger response than questions that can have multiple answers or answers based on a ranking system (likely, somewhat likely, etc.)

Using Questions To Influence Others

The question-behavior effect can also be used to influence someone else’s behavior. "While more research is required, one preliminary finding is that anonymity may increase the effectiveness of questioning," says Sprott. His report found that the question-behavior effect is strongest when questions are administered via a computer or paper-and-pencil survey. A CEO or manager could use the technique to change employee behavior.

"You could add a question on the employment application about whether a person will perform or not perform a behavior critical to the firm, such as cheating on expense reports, act honestly in all dealings with employees, or take advantage of the firm's health and fitness programs," he says. "The research suggests that those questioned would perform the associated behavior in terms of what societal norms suggest."

The changed behavior can last more than six months after that initial question, but be careful about the kinds of actions you try to change. The technique was found to be less successful with deeply ingrained behaviors or vices, and people who were asked about vices later did them more than a control group.