What Research Says About Sticking to New Year's Resolutions

If nothing else, there's comfort in knowing most people will fall short of their goals.
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People were less likely to commit to a goal that didn't offer an immediate (or at least an immediately obvious) pay-off.

People were less likely to commit to a goal that didn't offer an immediate (or at least an immediately obvious) pay-off.

It's January 1st, which means everyone has a fresh opportunity to tackle their latest resolutions and improve their lives in some way, whether it be eating healthier, running more frequently, or finally cracking open Mark Twain's three-volume autobiography. Unfortunately, research shows it's unlikely most will actually stick to those personal pledges.

One 2014 poll, conducted by researchers at the University of Scranton, found that, while 77 percent of people adhered to their New Year's resolutions within the first week, that figure dips to 46 percent after six months.

Given the subjects of most people's resolutions, that statistic is actually quite concerning. A series of studies, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2016, found that 55 percent of resolutions related to health, while 20 percent involved paying off financial debts.

The meta-analysis, led by Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago and Cornell University's Kaitlin Woolley, looked at participants' commitment to resolutions that centered around both "delayed rewards (i.e. improved)" and "immediate rewards (i.e. enjoyment)." The researchers found that, when it comes to resolutions, not all rewards are made equal: "[I]mmediate rewards predicted persistence in a single session of studying and exercising whereas delayed rewards did not," Fishbach and Woolley wrote. "Overall, whereas delayed rewards may motivate goal setting and the intentions to pursue long-term goals, a meta-analysis of our studies finds that immediate rewards are more strongly associated with actual persistence in a long-term goal."

Put more simply, people were less likely to commit to a goal that didn't offer an immediate (or at least an immediately obvious) pay-off.

So, what's the key to actually following through on a resolution? Here it's helpful to turn to Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. Writing in her book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, Segar says it's important that people feel like every little bit of self-improvement counts. Nobody can train for a marathon in a day, nor can they pay off their student loans with a single check; but it's important to remember that opting for the stairs over the elevator, or choosing to cook instead of eat at a restaurant, is a step toward that ultimate goal.

There are more tips to be gleaned from other research: avoid temptation; plan a course of action; and, most crucially, don't think a slip-up (say, forgetting to go out on a jog) means the goal is worth abandoning altogether.

All that being said, if nothing else, there's comfort in numbers. Even Mark Twain had trouble keeping to his New Year's promises. It was, after all, Twain who famously said: "New Year's Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."

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