New Year’s Resolutions: Why We Make Them and How to Keep Them

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New Year’s is a popular time to “turn over a new leaf” and bring about positive behavioural changes, usually regarding our health and fitness. However, many of us fail to carry out our resolutions for long. Behavioural Science can help us understand why, and how to stand by them for longer.

It’s been the first few weeks of January, and someone inevitably asks: Do you have any New Year’s Resolutions? After a moment of thought, you are instantly reminded of your loose commitment to live healthier. You respond, yes, and plan to join the local gym and exercise more, and put a reminder in your phone to subscribe to a gym. This year will be different and I will be healthier, you say, and you are not alone in doing so. Many individuals will join a gym in January, in pursuit of New Year’s resolutions to be healthier. But will this year actually be different?

New Year’s is a popular time to “turn over a new leaf”, where individuals intend to make changes to their routine to pursue long-term goals. Our understanding of New Year’s resolutions has been benefited from behavioral science insights, as prominent research has highlighted two main reasons why this phenomenon occurs: 1) long-term goal pursuit is challenging, and 2) New Year’s presents a unique motivational opportunity. However, maintaining New Year’s resolutions is another challenge in itself. To preserve this motivation, behavioral researchers have explored methods to help individuals persevere in pursuit of their long-term goals.

Challenge of Long-Term Goal Pursuit

The first component defining New Year’s resolutions involves the challenging aspect of long-term goal pursuit. While we know how important a goal may be, the benefits of achieving the goal are difficult to measure in the moment. If a person hopes to live healthier, the individual may recognize the importance of the goal, but may be unable to realize the outcome of being healthier, since the rewards are distant and abstract.

Therefore, the most salient rewards are those that occur instantaneously. [5] Consider running on the treadmill: running is good for you in the long term, but is dull and effortful in the moment. The dull momentary experience of running becomes our focus when the time for decision-making arrives. Immediate rewards are the driving force behind our decisions, and in this case, the healthier option loses. [5] The short-term barriers of goal pursuit prevent us from achieving our healthy objectives. But why does the New Year see a huge increase in the creation of these objectives?

New Year’s as a Temporal Boundary

New Year’s is a unique time for goal pursuit due to the societal constructs of temporal boundaries. Temporal boundaries, also known as calendar landmarks, mark a new period of time: the start of a new week, a new month, or a new year. [3] Temporal boundaries not only indicate a transition to a new period of time, but also a transitional opportunity for individuals. We perceive the self to have different qualities before and after a temporal boundary. Our current self is stuck in our current routine, like couch-sitting instead of running, but the self after the temporal boundary is open to routine changes, due to the perception of a new chapter of time. [3] “A fresh start” in the calendar presents a fresh start for behavior.

We perceive our future self to be more capable of pursuing challenging goals, especially following a temporal boundary. [1] The future self is closer to our ideal self, in that an individual will be closer to reaching a long-term goal, and further from past mistakes. Therefore, once we pass the temporal boundary, we believe we will be more capable of pursuing challenging goals. [1]

Additionally, since long-term goals have future rewards, the future self will be the beneficiary. If in 2018, a person exercises every day, the same individual will experience a healthier life outcome in 2018. The future self can both pursue the goal more effectively, and will be rewarded for taking action. As we think of the changes we hope to make, 2018 sounds like the perfect time to make those changes.

Behavioral scientists found that in an experimental setting, individuals were more motivated to pursue long term goals at temporal boundaries. Individuals’ interest in dieting increased by 14.4% at the start of a new week, by 3.7% at the start of a new month, and by 82.1% at the start of a new calendar year. [1] Similarly, participants’ probability of visiting a gym increased by 33.4% at the beginning of the week, by 14.4% at the start of a new month, and by 11.6% at the start of a new year. [1]

So, what happens when we pass the temporal boundary? Suddenly, it’s 2018, and the couch is so inviting. After the New Year, we are still the same self, and face the same barriers to the pursuit of our goals as before. The challenging aspects of pursuing long-term goals are vivid, while the rewards are distant and obtuse. As a result, all of those January members at the gym lose their New Year’s resolution motivation.

How to Maintain Motivation

What can we do to persist through these barriers? There are two main strategies to consider: 1) introduce positive external factors to the challenging goal, or 2) set detailed implementation intentions. Both of these strategies produce positive results in the research lab, and are likely to benefit your life, too.

The first strategy is to introduce positive external factors. If the main deterrent to pursuing long-term goals is the discontent we face in the short-term, why not modify the activities? Behavioral researchers explore new ways to make unfavorable tasks more enjoyable. A group of researchers from the University of Chicago introduced some techniques to improve classroom activities for students. These techniques involved introducing positive external factors, like snacks or music, for the students to enjoy during classroom activities.

The researchers found that students spent more time on classroom activities when the music or snacks were available, compared to control groups without the external factors. The same effect happened with exercise – individuals spent more time on their workout routine with positive external factors, such as music, than the control group. [5] Individuals can modify activities to make the immediate aspects positive and enticing. Introducing positive external factors to the activities involved in long-term goal pursuit can help students or aspiring runners engage in the necessary activities in the short term with positive spins, generating better long-term outcomes.

Taking it Step by Step

The second strategy is to form detailed implementation intentions. Striving for a long-term goal is important, but often has weak motivational forces in the moment. Instead, outlining the specific steps necessary to reach the goal throughout the goal pursuit process can help motivate every action. Implementation intentions specify the details of goal pursuit, such as the place, the time, and the instructions on how to perform the action. [3] For exercise goals, aspirational runners can plan their running time, route, and intensity in advance, which provides clear guidance for action execution beforehand.

Researchers found that implementation intentions supported long-term goal pursuit of exercise goals better than other motivational tactics. In an experiment conducted on undergraduate students in the United Kingdom, the students that set implementation intentions were significantly more likely to execute their exercise intentions across three different time points, compared with the control group, and with another motivational experimental condition. [4] Students in this condition were unique from the other two conditions because they completed the following statement:

“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)______.”

All participants in the implementation intentions condition exercised at the location they planned. 97 percent of students in this condition exercised at the intended time, and 88 percent exercised on the planned day. [4] The researchers confirmed their hypothesis that individuals who form implementation intentions about the time, date, and location of exercise, will execute their actions at the specified times. Implementation intentions effectively produced lasting behavior change.

If you’re motivated to make behavior change this New Year’s, pursue it. Setting goals and making plans to achieve those goals are important skills for creating brighter futures. Keep in mind, however, that the motivation to pursue your goals may diminish in 2018. Pair your action plan with fun external factors, or create detailed plans for executing behavior change. Behavioral science research suggests that through special attention to the immediate aspects of goal pursuit, behavior change is possible. If you strategize your goals, this year really will be different.

 

References

[1] Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), 2563-2582.
[2] Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493.
[3] Hennecke, M., & Converse, B. A. (2017). Next Week, Next Month, Next Year: How Perceived Temporal Boundaries Affect Initiation Expectations. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550617691099.
[4] Milne, S., Orbell, S., & Sheeran, P. (2002). Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: Protection motivation theory and implementation intentions. British journal of health psychology, 7(2), 163-184.
[5] Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2016). For the fun of it: Harnessing immediate rewards to increase persistence in long-term goals. Journal of Consumer Research, 42(6), 952-966.

Ilana Brody
About Ilana Brody:

Ilana Brody has a BA in Psychology and Economics from the University of Virginia. In school, she researched social behavior, and her thesis studied barriers to long-term goal pursuit. Ilana hopes to apply behavioral science findings to public policy to address social problems. She currently works for a social and economic policy think tank in Washington, D.C.