Useful Science is a nonprofit run by 65 grad students and professionals. The author of this post is Andrew Blevins. Andrew holds a B.A. in English and Cognitive Science from the University of Georgia. He lives in Brooklyn, where he writes stories and essays and works at a legal publishing agency. He’s been summarizing scientific studies for friends and loved ones for years (whether they wanted him to or not), so it’s nice to be putting this skill to use. Other interests include philosophy, comedy, busking, and running. The most recent Useful Science post was about how not to over-eat during the holidays. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Making a New Year’s resolution is easy. Keeping one is strangely difficult – so hard, in fact, that according to a recent study by the University of Scranton, the U.S. success rate for following through on resolutions is an abysmal 8 percent.
How can we do better? Useful Science is here to answer that question – and help you make more effective resolutions – with five of our favorite strategies from the often counterintuitive psychology of motivation and willpower.
1. Focus on short-term, not long-term benefits
It’s common knowledge that weekly running is associated with longer life expectancy and reduced risk of cardiovascular-related death. But are those compelling enough reasons for a person to actually do it? Unfortunately not. In a study at the University of Wales, David K. Ingledew and David Markland found that in a population of 252 office workers, long-term goals of losing weight and improving one’s physical appearance often motivated people to begin exercising, but usually failed to keep them exercising, whereas health and fitness goals, like stress management and illness prevention, were correlated with long-term participation.
That’s largely because, as a whole host of research demonstrates, short-term goals are much more motivating than distant ones. Outsmart your short-sighted brain by focusing instead on more immediate benefits of exertion like stress relief, better sleep, and improved cognitive function.
2. Be careful what you wish for
Contrary to what countless self-help books will tell you, positive thinking does not enhance motivation. Just the opposite, in fact: in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, social psychologist Gabriele Oettingen describes a study at New York University in which participants were asked to indulge in fantasies about positive futures. Meanwhile the members of a second group were instructed to imagine positive outcomes and then also consider the obstacles that might prevent those outcomes – a technique Oettingen calls “mental contrasting.” When NYU researchers followed up on the subjects in the weeks and months that followed, the positive thinkers were much less likely than the mental contrasters to have acted on their goals. Even for low-income students in difficult environments – a population we so often encourage to “dream big” – positive fantasies at the beginning of school predicted poor academic achievement throughout the year.
3. Set a time and a place
In 2002, in this study, a group of British researchers asked 248 college students to track exercise and motivation over the course of two weeks. Participants were split into three groups: those in groups 1 and 2 read an educational leaflet about the benefits of exercise and the risks of heart disease, while group 3, the control, read a passage from an unrelated novel. When students returned a week later, those in group 2 were asked to complete the following sentence:
During next week I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on (day or days) ______________ at _______________ (time of day) at/or in (place) _______________.
Unsurprisingly, merely reading the pamphlet had very little effect, raising participation from 29 percent for group 3 (the novel readers) to only 39 percent for group 1. But in group 2, an incredible 91 percent of the students engaged in exercise – despite reporting the same amount of motivation to exercise as the students in groups 1 and 2. The difference was the way they planned their exercise.
Other studies have yielded similar results, in self-improvement activities ranging from dieting to voluntary medical examinations. The reasons for this are somewhat complicated, but the takeaway is simple: If you’re serious about making good on an intention, specify when, where, and, if possible, how you are going to do so.
4. Treat willpower like it’s finite… because it is
In this now-famous 1998 experiment, Roy Baumeister, Mark Muraven, and colleagues placed a bowl of radishes and a stack of freshly baked cookies on a table, and instructed subjects to come hungry (by skipping a meal). Then they asked one group of participants to eat the radishes and avoid the cookies, and another group to eat the cookies but avoid the radishes; whereas a third group, the control, skipped the eating portion of the experiment altogether.
Following the exercise, subjects were put to work on a puzzle which, unbeknownst to them, was impossible to solve. Those who had eaten radishes (and avoided the mouth-watering cookies) gave up on the puzzles much sooner than the cookie-eaters, who held out about as long as the non-eaters. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011), Baumeister and New York Times science columnist John Tierney cite the cookie study, and the many similar experiments that followed, as evidence for their claim that willpower is more than a rough metaphor – and that, like a muscle, it can become fatigued.
To conserve your limited supply of discipline, avoid scheduling workouts after other mentally draining tasks and in general, concentrate your resources on changing just one habit at a time.
More importantly, if you ever find yourself alone, in a room, with a plate of cookies in front of you and a feeling that you’re about to be called on to do something impossible, do yourself a favor and eat the cookies.
Unless, of course, you’ve resolved not to.