It’s that time of year when New Year’s resolutions begin to fade, and even the best-laid plans can become sidetracked as life gets busy. But as psychologists and behavioral economists have found reasons why it’s so easy to let good intentions slide, they’ve also come up with tools to help.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, many resolutions fail due to positive thinking, says Gabriele Oettingen, a psychologist at New York University. Her research has shown that optimistic thinking can actually hamper your drive to succeed.
In one study, her research team asked a group of 134 dieters to list a goal they thought they could attain in the next two weeks. Some were also asked to imagine themselves succeeding, while others were told to think about their goal but also obstacles that might stand in their way — an exercise called mental contrasting. Two weeks later, the people who had anticipated potential roadblocks reported that they had eaten fewer calories than those who had only envisioned succeeding.
“We found that positive dreams and fantasies are not only not helpful, but they might actually hurt,” Oettingen says. Further studies suggest that mental contrasting helps goal-setters prepare to deal with potential setbacks, while simply thinking positive thoughts can make them feel less energized to tackle obstacles. “It seems that people who are positively fantasizing about the future might be enjoying future success in the here and now, and they can become so relaxed that they don’t get serious about addressing obstacles,” Oettingen says.
In her new book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking,” Oettingen outlines a mental contrasting strategy called WOOP, for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.”
First, you identify your wish or goal, then you take a moment to imagine how great it will feel to attain it, next you think about obstacles you might encounter and finally you build a plan to overcome these barriers. Smartphone users can download a WOOP app to help them save goals and plans and track progress.
Some goals fail when they fall prey to a phenomenon that behavioral economists call hyperbolic discounting, in which immediate rewards seem more alluring than further-off ones, even if they’re smaller.
“The idea is that our decision-making is distorted by the immediate consequences,” says Daniel Reeves, a game theorist who, with his wife, Bethany Soule, founded a company called Beeminder to help people overcome this bug in our mental processing system. If you’re trying to lose weight, you won’t see the benefits of skipping dessert today, whereas you can experience the tasty pie right now. Beeminder brings the distant goals closer by creating an immediate payoff for the behavior with rewards in the future and a short-term punishment for choices that derail your long-term plans.
Users sign up and commit to a goal, then use Beeminder to track progress. Marking your goal on Beeminder becomes a tiny pleasure, like crossing something off a to-do list. And after a free period, the service charges your credit card an amount you’ve voluntarily pledged if you get off track. “It quickly grows to an amount that actually motivates you,” Reeves says. The program, which can be used online or via smartphone apps, integrates with and automatically uploads data from more than a dozen apps and devices, including such fitness trackers as FitBit, Up and RunKeeper.
Mirabai Knight, a 33-year-old stenographer for the deaf in Manhattan, has the Beeminder app on her smartphone and is using it for such goals as eating less junk food, riding her bike to work and losing weight. She says that Beeminder has taught her to pay closer attention to her habits and has given her important insights into how to succeed.
“I’ve learned that I need to go through a long data-collection period before I start trying to change my behavior,” she says. “It’s better to be consistent than ambitious, because all of this change is ultimately about what happens over the long haul, not the short term.”
Beeminder has helped 31-year-old software developer David MacIver manage the tension between the desire to do something beneficial regularly and the feeling of “I don’t want to do this now.” “The monetary sting means I can’t just ignore it when Beeminder is saying, ‘Today is a push-ups day,’” he says. The Android app has helped him stay on track with the exercise goals that, “historically, I’ve been very good at not quite getting around to.”
Stickk is another goal tracker that uses financial incentives for motivation. Whereas Beeminder relies on self-reports and data tracking, Stickk enlists what it calls “referees” to hold its users accountable. After setting your goal, you set the stakes, in dollars, and then select a person to keep you honest. Your referee must confirm to Stickk that you’ve done what you’ve said, or else you’re on the hook for the money.
“What we’re doing is literally raising the price of your poor decision today in real time,” says Jordan Goldberg, who founded Stickk in 2008 with two Yale behavioral economists. Your long-term self wants to be healthy as you age, but the you of today would rather watch TV than go to the gym. By forcing you to pay a fee for choosing to skip the gym, Stickk brings the long-term costs of that behavior closer.
If you fail, the money can go to a friend, a foe, a charity or what Goldberg calls an “anti-charity”— a cause that irks you. “If you’re pro-gun-control, we’ll send your money to the NRA, or vice versa,” he says. “We see the highest success rates among users who choose this option.”
New Jersey resident Sharon Klein has tried to lose weight numerous times, but nothing seemed to motivate her. “I could always start again next week,” she says. Committing to Stickk “set a fire under me,” she says. “As a Republican, I chose to pay $25 to the Democratic Party each week if I fail.” She says that selecting the anti-charity provides extra motivation, because she can’t rationalize failing by telling herself that the money is going to a cause she believes in.
Klein enlisted her sister as her referee and persuaded her husband to sign up for a Stickk weight-loss goal, too. Teaming with her spouse could boost her chances of success. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that people whose spouse takes up a healthful habit are more likely to succeed at adopting that habit than were those whose partners didn’t.