New Year’s Resolutions Are Notoriously Slippery, but Science Can Help You Keep Them

Every January nearly half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. We resolve to eat better, exercise more, get organized, spend less money, and so on. Unfortunately, several studies suggest that most of these resolutions don’t stick. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’ve made a resolution this year and would like help keeping it, you’re in luck: Ayelet Fishbach, one of the world’s foremost researchers on the science of motivation, has written a book designed for you.

Fishbach is a social psychologist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. I am a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. I recently interviewed Fishbach about her work on what it takes to motivate us not only to get started on goals but also to see them through all the way to the finish line. In particular, she explains how adjusting our context and circumstances—for instance, our social support and how we frame progress—can help us stay motivated to finish a large project.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

This book came out right after the start of the new year. Could you give us one tip from research on how people can better set themselves up for success with their New Year’s resolutions?

The book is about how to motivate yourself, so I’m going to choose a strategy that captures self-motivation best: give advice to someone who is struggling with a similar issue. You might hesitate to give advice about something you haven’t yet mastered, but ultimately, you will not only help them, you will also motivate yourself. A paper by psychologists Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, Angela Duckworth and I found that unemployed people who gave job-hunting advice to others were more motivated to look for a job than another group of unemployed people who received advice from an expert. Giving advice also helped those struggling with losing weight, saving money and controlling their temper.

When you give advice, you recall your past successful behaviors and form specific plans of action for the future. As a result, you become more confident and committed to your success.

You advocate putting a number on goals. Can you explain what you mean by that and why it is important?

I think of goals like baking recipes. You need to list the exact quantities: “walk 10,000 steps a day” is better than “walk a lot” because it tells you how much (10,000 steps) and how soon (by the end of the day). In fact, as I discuss in my book, that specific goal, which came out of a marketing effort and not health research, is so powerful because 10,000 is a memorable and exact quantity.

Targets make it easier to monitor progress. You’ll know when you’re halfway through or almost there. Targets also pull you toward them. If you set your target at saving $10,000 this year, you’ll be disappointed if you “only” save $9,900.

A study led by Eric Allen at the University of California, Riverside, analyzed data from about 10 million marathon runners for whom a popular target time is four hours. The team found that far more people finish in three hours and 59 minutes rather than four hours and one minute. Having a good chance of beating the target time, runners push harder and run faster.

I am really fascinated by what you call “the middle problem.” Could you describe what it is and what can be done about it?

We’re highly motivated at the beginning. Over time, our motivation declines as we lose steam. To the extent that our goal has a clear end point, such as graduating with a diploma, our motivation picks up again toward the end.

In the middle, it’s harder to get things done and to do them right. In a study, Rima Touré-Tillery now at Northwestern University and I found that people literally cut corners. We handed people a pair of scissors and asked them to cut out five identical shapes. At first, they neatly cut their shape, but by the time they got to the third shape, they started cutting through more corners. Then, toward the fifth shape, their shapes became neat again.

The trick is to think of middles differently. Katy, your “fresh start effect” is one intervention that does this. It encourages people to use temporal landmarks such as the first day in the month to “restart” a goal, so instead of being in the middle, you feel like you’re at the beginning again. Alternatively, I suggest that you keep middles short: a monthly saving goal is better than an annual saving goal.

To keep motivated, when should we focus on what we’ve accomplished and when should we focus on the work that lies ahead?

How we monitor progress matters. At the beginning of pursuing a goal, you should look back at your completed actions. Beyond the midpoint, you should look ahead at what’s still missing. In a study Minjung Koo at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and I conducted with a restaurant in Seoul, diners who purchased a few meals were more likely to come back if they were enrolled in a reward program that emphasized how many meals they had already purchased. But diners who had already purchased many meals were more likely to come back if they were enrolled in a reward program that emphasized how close they were to winning a free meal.

Looking back at what you’ve done reaffirms your commitment. If you’re unsure whether a goal is worthy or whether you can do it, look back at what you’ve achieved. Looking ahead makes you realize how far you are from your target. If you’re already committed, you’ll want to make more progress when you look ahead.

How does our experience of fun or discomfort influence our motivation?

You and I both have done research showing that finding the fun path to a goal is a key for persistence. But why is fun so important? The reason is that humans respond more strongly to immediate outcomes. If doing something makes you feel good while you do it, you’re more likely to persist than if you think it’ll make you feel good at some distant point in the future.

Fun is an immediate outcome. It increases intrinsic motivation, the sense that we are doing something for its own sake. You found that people who listen to an audiobook when they exercise, exercise more. They’re intrinsically motivated to engage in the exercising-plus-listening combo.

We also respond to the feeling that we’re learning. In a very recent paper that is currently in press at Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that even slight discomfort—to the extent that it’s immediate—can increase motivation if it’s appraised in a certain way. When students in improvisation classes sought discomfort as a sign that they were growing their abilities, they were more engaged in the learning process. We all like immediate results.

A common mistake is to envision your future self as more goal-oriented and less fun-seeking than your present self. When you think you won’t care about fun, you choose the wrong job, workout or healthy meal.

You devote a whole section of your book to social support. What kind of social support do you think is most important to achieving a goal, and how can people go about finding it?

When I watched the Olympic Games last summer, it didn’t inspire me to exercise. But when my spouse expects me to join him in our basement for our morning workout, it motivates me to get out of bed and into my yoga pants. The best social support comes from someone who wants you to succeed.

If readers could remember just one thing from all the research you cover in Get It Done, what would you want it to be and why?

You influence yourself by changing your circumstances and how you think of them. Often, framing the same situation in a different way can provide a substantial boost to your motivation.

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