Is this the year you’re going to hit the gym five times a week, lose the weight, or save more?
Not to shatter your hopes, but the odds aren’t with you: according to various research studies, some 80% of us who make resolutions will bail on them within a couple of months.
Now for the good news. A ton of academic research in the field of behavioral psychology has been dedicated to figuring out how we can better achieve our goals. Turns out, there are some easy nudges—or tricks, if you will—that can greatly increase your odds of success.
Pair the pain with pleasure
When Wharton School business professor Katherine Milkman was a grad student, she loved low-brow audio books. She found that she could coax herself to work out more often if she only allowed herself to listen to them while on the gym treadmill. “It made me crave trips to the gym to find out what would happen next in my book,” she says.
As a professor, Milkman and two colleagues turned this observation into an academic study that tracked more than 220 gym-going college students during the fall semester. Those who listened to a favorite book only while at the gym visited the gym 51% more than study participants with no restrictions (at least until Thanksgiving, when all the students lost their workout mojo).
The pain-pleasure combo can be adapted for other goals too. Maybe you allow yourself a nice glass of wine at dinner only when you cook a healthy meal. Or save your visits to a favorite restaurant for when the demanding relative/friend you’ve vowed to spend more time with comes along.
In a 2011 study, people who were coaxed to write down a date and time to go get their annual flu vaccine were more likely to follow through than people who were sent educational material on how important it is to get a vaccination, or people who were only assigned a date.
So forget vague promises like,”I’m going to save more money.” The more specific, “I’m going to save $500 a month,” is closer, but not enough.
Instead, try this: “On the 1st and 14th of every month, at 9pm, I’m going to transfer $250 from my checking account to my savings.” Bonus points if you write it down, or add it to a calendar app on your phone—with reminders.
Several studies have found that people are more likely to stick to their goals if they share it with others, a task that’s basically tailor-made for social media.
But you don’t have to constantly update your Facebook page or post your Whole30 menu on Instagram, if social media’s not your thing.
Try the “commitment contract” website stickK.com,which lets you assign a “referee” (usually a loved one or friend) to help you stay on course towards a goal. You can also pledge to donate money if you fall off the wagon.
The site says that users who have a referee are two times more successful reaching their goal than those who don’t—and users who put some money on the line are three times more successful.
Visualize your future self
Delayed gratification is the kryptonite for many resolutions. There is nothing easy about staying on task when the payoff may be months or decades away.
But thinking about your older self can help you pursue a delayed gratification goal, by making you feel more connected to your older self, and the life you envision in the future.
A recent study tracked the gym-going habits of nearly 500 college students who were prompted to write a letter to themselves in the future explaining what they thought their life would be like. Some were asked to consider a date 90 days in the future, and others 20 years.
Participants who focused on their self two decades out, reported working out 1.4 times more than those with the three-month frame.
Leave some wiggle room
In one study, participants were assigned one of four goals to complete an online exercise task: seven days a week; five days a week; five days a week, but with an admonition that seven days would be better; or seven days a week with an explicit direction that “in case you need it, up to two days will be excused.”
The last condition—setting a challenging goal (seven days), with wiggle room—proved to be the most effective.
More than half of the participants with the explicit wiggle room to have two days excused, hit the goal of completing the task five times a week, compared to 26% of participants simply instructed to complete the goal five times a week.
“This study shows that when you see yourself slipping you don’t have to say, ‘what the hell, and give up,'” Milkman says, “You can say, ‘That’s alright. I am going to use a get out of jail card and get back on track.'”
And if you really slip up?
Another study by Milkman and other colleagues found that picking a vivid date to embark on a goal serves as a powerful line in the sand where we separate ourselves from our past failure and focus on our (more perfect) future self.
So if you don’t quite manage to keep your New Year’s resolutions, pick another date—perhaps your birthday, or the beginning of a new season.
And then consider your stalled resolution merely a fresh start waiting to happen.