5 Behavioral Design Tips for Ringing out the Year

At Doblin, we look to the emerging field of Behavioral Design to help our clients’ customers overcome “irrational” impulses and make better decisions, such as saving more for retirement or taking better care of their health. This month, I asked my colleague Ruth Schmidt, one of our design leaders, to offer some thoughts on how these principles can help us all ring out 2016 and ring in 2017--at least somewhat responsibly. This month’s post comes largely from her.

Grounded in behavioral economics—which recognizes that people aren’t always rational, often don’t have all the information required to make the best choices, and often act against their own best interest—Behavioral Design can also help businesses support their employees to make it in the new year with health and sanity intact. And what better way to close out a year and start a new one than with a top five list?

Note that the strategies (highlighted by italics) can help overcome other business challenges as well – e.g. managing employees or engaging with external customers and partners – throughout the year.

Businesses can use behavioral design to support employees in making better choices that will help them ring in the new year w
Businesses can use behavioral design to support employees in making better choices that will help them ring in the new year with health and sanity intact.

1. Battling Indulgence: Fighting the effects of the holiday party

Celebrations of both the past year and the year to come can result in next-morning headaches and extra post-holiday pounds. Much of Behavioral Design deals with removing barriers to help people achieve “correct” behaviors more painlessly, and by making things too easy not to do. But sometimes people need speed bumps—or “positive friction”—to protect themselves from themselves. What can help?

  • Setting up external rules ahead of time can help employees rein in impulses. Weight Watchers point systems, for example, famously help people stay on track by providing an external structure for food consumption, but even simple rulesets—like alternating water and booze—can reduce the chance of extra intake.
  • Suggest ways to outsource control, such as creating a social commitment contract with colleagues or friends to keep each other in check before heading off to that holiday party. Even a simple verbal agreement can help keep people on the straight and narrow, making it acceptable for them to be the bad guy if someone’s resolve weakens.

2. Setting Goals: New Year’s done right

No other time of year is as associated with setting new goals or changing deeply embedded behaviors. How can companies set up their employees for success?

  • Resolutions can go south quickly when they’re not measurable and concrete, and making progress goals bite-sized can help keep motivation high. For example, it’s easier to commit to walking 30 min three times a week than to losing 20 pounds—making it visual helps even more. Beeminder.com provides a digital platform to do just this: designate a goal and they’ll help you track it, providing visual behavioral “guardrails” to indicate when you’re heading off track.
  • Change the environment: studies show that we’re dependent on patterns of behavior, and it’s harder to make or break habits when our old habits are in charge. Help employees mix things up; even adjusting the position or orientation of furniture can provide just enough change to discourage old behaviors. [1]

3. Taking stock and the importance of reflection: Recognizing progress

Certain times of the year—e.g. birthdays, tax time—provide natural checkpoints to get organized and take stock. New Year’s is another classic example. How can employers help employees make the most of this tendency at the end of the year?

  • While reflection can be beneficial, it can also cause people to unproductively veer toward comparisons with others. This is because people tend to judge things relatively, rather than absolutely. Encourage employees to reflect on personal progress from last year—not in contrast with others—to more accurately gauge and appreciate the progress they’ve made.
  • People also tend to remember low points more than positive ones due to our cognitive tendency to fear loss more than appreciate gains—simply put, we hate losing more than we like to win. Suggesting a quick exercise to write down the year’s high points can help counter this. As basic as it sounds, writing things down and seeing them aggregate can help people more effectively grasp what they’ve accomplished.

4. Building habits and prompting actions: Keeping employees healthy

Typical seasonal flu outbreaks cost U.S. employers over $10 billion annually in hospitalization and outpatient visits, and lost productivity from illness costs the U.S. economy over $200 billion a year, according to studies by the Integrated Benefits Institute [2]. Proper hand-washing can radically reduce the chances of getting sick, yet building a regular habit is a notoriously difficult behavioral challenge.

  • Effective hand-washing takes up to 20 seconds, yet few of us carry a stopwatch into the lavatory. Extra structure can help: posting a chorus or a verse from a song that lasts just the right length can serve as a cue. When you’re done crooning, you’re done with hand-washing. Visual prompts may be even more effective: Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap, available in multiple global markets, changes color from clear to Hulk-green to provide concrete feedback that signals when the majority of germs are washed away.
  • Flu shots, while not 100% effective, can help drastically reduce the spread of flu virus. But small barriers, such as not knowing when and where shots are available or not carving out time to get one, often prevent people from doing things they fully intend to do. Studies on comparable situations have shown that simply providing details about where shots are available, or using positive social pressure to indicate how many people have already gotten their shot, can improve uptake.[3]

5. Recognizing what matters: Anticipating the year ahead

Workplace metrics often value efficiency and “always-on” behaviors, while research increasingly indicates that a lack of mental breaks and down-time leads to a decreased ability to effectively problem-solve and increases burnout. What are good strategies to keep employees feeling and doing their best?

  • Encourage employees to make a personal recharge plan. It needn’t be as significant as Google’s famous “20% time” toward personal projects—maybe it’s yoga Fridays or a day off after a big deadline—but giving employees a sense of ownership and rewarding success with experiences--not stuff--can have lasting effects.
  • Recognize where qualitative metrics may be more important than quantitative ones. It’s typically easier to compare and rate quantitative measures—numbers of hours worked or projects sold—than qualitative values, but don’t let ease get in the way of what matters. Look for places where you can help your employees set goals around true effectiveness—not just efficiency—and commit to recognizing and valuing those in the coming year.

As the year comes to a close, there are plenty of unknowns ahead for employees to manage. But helping people tackle common behavioral challenges can set your employees—and your bottom line—off on the right foot in the new year.


Ruth Schmidt helps Doblin teams and clients apply strategic design thinking and behavioral insights to innovation challenges. She has presented at multiple conferences and teaches Masters level courses at IIT’s Institute of Design on the topic of Behavioral Design. Most recently she published “Frozen: Using behavioral design to overcome decision-making paralysis” at Deloitte University Press (October 2016).


[1] Changing environment to change habits

Ouellette, Judith A.; Wood, Wendy (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 124(1), Jul 1998, 54-74. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.124.1.54

[2] Illness costs

According to the Centers for Disease Control, typical seasonal flu outbreaks cost employers some $10.4 billion in hospitalization and outpatient visits– that number doesn’t include the costs related to the worker being away from the job and lost productivity.

Lost productivity from illness costs the U.S. economy some $227 billion a year, according to a September report from the Integrated Benefits Institute, a health and productivity research organization in San Francisco. The calculation includes the productivity lost from when the employee is absent as well as when sick employees report to work but don’t perform at full capacity. They also calculated that the wage replacement cost from absent employees (including short and long-term disability and worker compensation), is costing the economy $117 billion a year.

[3] Reducing barriers for flu shots

Leventhal, H., Singer, R., & Jones, S. (1965). Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon attitudes and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 20-29.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.

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