Last year, I made four (four!) major New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Be more productive.
  2. Run a marathon.
  3. Be less stressed.
  4. Exercise more.

Did I achieve these resolutions in 2017?

Reader, I did not.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. A recent New York Times article found that 80 percent of Americans who set resolutions fail to keep them. Even for those of us who don’t follow the tradition, most of us start the new year full of enthusiasm for adopting new behaviors, or for ditching unhealthy ones. So why are we soon back to the same old habits we resolved to change?

Many people who take part in economic development projects with ACDI/VOCA across the world face this challenge. We encourage these farmers, entrepreneurs, companies, and banks to adopt new behaviors. But soon the excitement of a new project wears off, and the hard work begins. Many of them struggle to keep their resolutions.

As a social and behavior change and gender specialist at ACDI/VOCA, I help participants of our projects identify, adopt, and maintain new behaviors. I’ve discovered some best practices when it comes to behavior change, and this year, I’m even applying them to my own New Year’s resolutions in 2018. (Marathon, here I come!)

Below are my top five tips. If you work in international development, I hope these tips are as useful to your projects as they are to keeping your resolutions!

  1. Be specific.

    Keep your resolutions specific. Otherwise, it will be hard to create your plan of action, or know if you met your goals. For example, my 2017 resolution to “be more productive” was way too vague. I could have resolved “to meditate for ten minutes a day in the morning,” or committed to some other way of boosting my productivity that I could measure and track.

    Consider making your resolutions SMART, or specific, meaningful, achievable, relevant, and timely. (That means those 12 percent of Americans who resolved to “be a better person” in 2018 may want to think SMART about what that resolution really means to them!)

    For development projects, tools like ACDI/VOCA’s Activate (available soon) and a curriculum created by the TOPS Program and CORE Group help teams develop SMART goals using a behavior statement. These statements should express the visible, measurable change you want to see in a set period of time.

    In Burkina Faso, ACDI/VOCA’s affiliate, Agribusiness Systems International (ASI), held a workshop for its SE LEVER project staff to help them come up with a list of behavior statements. Having this list helped them measure and track progress on their efforts, like raising chickens, empowering women, and applying finance practices.

    ACDI/VOCA Bangladesh Livestock Production Improved Nutrition milk

  2. Choose positive goals.
    This one is simple: choose a resolution that will have a positive effect on your life. For projects focused on improving the livelihoods of people, a similar rule applies: focus on behaviors that positively influence the project’s goals.

    In Bangladesh, ACDI/VOCA created a social and behavior change communications campaign to increase dairy consumption because it would have a positive effect on the goal to improve household nutrition.

  3. Focus on a few behaviors.
    In 2017, I tried to take on four New Year’s resolutions all at once. Who has the time or resources for that? In the development world, we’re all working with limited time, resources, and attention spans, so we need to prioritize the most important behaviors and not try to change everything at once.

    Projects working to improve a market system, or a network involved in trading a product or service, could find one or two behaviors to change, rather than expecting businesses to adopt 10 new practices in a year.

    ACDI/VOCA’s Activate tool will provide a methodology for deciding which behavior changes to prioritize. This behavior change infographic from the Feed the Future Agricultural Value Chain activity and the curriculum created by the USAID/Food for Peace-funded Technical and Operational Performance Support (TOPS) Program and CORE Group, a network of practitioners and global health professionals, also provide guidance.

  4. Remove obstacles.
    In an episode of the popular Freakonomics Radio podcast, the hosts talked about how removing barriers is one of the best ways to encourage a new behavior. When I resolved to run a marathon this year, I didn’t have the things I needed to do the behavior in the first place. I didn’t have decent running shoes or the right jacket for running in cold weather. So, I never ran at all.

    Barrier analysis can tell us what barriers, or as the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Danny Kahneman calls them, “restraining forces,” exist that prevent new behaviors. Women involved with ACDI/VOCA’s project in Bangladesh said they couldn’t improve their nutrition by drinking milk because they couldn’t access dairy products every day. Farmers involved with ASI’s project in Burkina Faso said they couldn’t improve their poultry production because they didn’t know the best way to construct a coop. Once we addressed these gaps in access and knowledge, we removed the barriers to making real change.

    ACDI/VOCA Uganda RWANU training

  5. Get social.
    Looking back, I would have felt more motivated to reach my 2017 goals if I had found an accountability buddy, or at least told my loved ones or colleagues about my plans.

    Social norms and networks play a significant role in how we behave. In Bangladesh, we found women were much more likely to drink milk if their husbands approved. In Zambia, we found women were less likely to participate in marketing activities if their husbands and community leaders did not approve. When empowering women to adopt new behaviors, support from family is crucial.

With these top five tips, I wish everyone trying to adopt behaviors, make resolutions, and foster behavior change in 2018 good luck! Let’s make the world a more peaceful and prosperous place, starting with ourselves.

As for me, I’ll see you at the marathon finish line in 2018!

Sarah Sahlaney

Sarah Sahlaney is an associate director for social and behavior change and gender at ACDI/VOCA, where she works with USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Food Programme projects to identify and change target behaviors. ACDI/VOCA combines approaches from sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, and public health to identify barriers to and motivators for behavior change. Sarah works on the full gamut of human behaviors, including those in agriculture and livestock, women’s empowerment, agricultural cooperative development, finance, and marketing.