At the turn of a new year, many of us make New Year’s resolutions. Aspiring to live longer, happier, and more purposeful lives, we make commitments to goals like eating healthier, learning a new language, practicing Yoga regularly, saving more money, or volunteering more to help other people. Making such commitments can spark hope in us for becoming a better person in a better new year. However, this sense of hope may be somewhat undermined if we realize that we have not done a great job living up to some important commitments from previous years, which keep bouncing back to the top of our list. Could this be turned around?
With the New Paths to Purpose Project, we can look for answers to this question in our research in the area of “Purpose in Goal Pursuit.” In identifying domains in which we may control our surroundings to evoke our motivation to achieve, we are beginning to offer insights into how we all may more effectively pave our ways to lives of purpose and success. Ayelet Fishbach, Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at Chicago Booth, a member of our team, and a leading scholar in motivation research, has identified four such promising domains, encompassing a wide range of motivational phenomena. Specifically, she proposes that, to better achieve our goals, we would benefit by sticking to the following guidelines:
Seek and receive productive feedback on our progress toward accomplishing our goals.
Wisely regulate our attention to the experiential vs. instrumental value of goal pursuit.
Effectively manage the logistical (e.g., coordination) and relationship (e.g., gratitude) demands involved in joint efforts.
Avert or overcome tempting distractions through the exercise of self-control.
Let me illustrate how each of these domains can apply to living up to our New Year’s resolutions.
Assume that you have taken it on yourself to start learning Spanish this year. In the process of learning a new language, like with most goals, feedback is a crucial aspect, as it informs us on whether we should increase or relax our effort and how we can invest it more effectively. But is all feedback equally helpful in motivating us to improve? Fishbach’s research (with Stacey Finkelstein, 2012; link to PDF) has found that in the first stages of goal pursuit, individuals are most responsive to praise and seek this kind of feedback more rigorously. Only with more expertise do they become more responsive to constructive criticism. Thus, if you just started learning Spanish, it might be wise to practice your first complete sentences on your most supportive multilingual friends rather than on those who would be fastest to correct you.
Understanding the Experience of Actions
Say you have decided to regularly practice Yoga in order to become more physically fit and mentally focused. How do you get started, and how can you help yourself keep at it? In exploring these issues, Fishbach has been conducting research to see how motivation in different phases of goal pursuit is differentially affected by focusing your attention on the instrumental goals that activities serve (e.g., Yoga increasing physical and mental strength) versus on the experience of pursuing them (e.g., relaxation, rejuvenation). In fact, one study centered specifically on practicing Yoga (Fishbach & Choi, 2012; link to PDF), and showed that directing participants’ attention to the benefits of Yoga (instrumental value) increased the intention to start practicing Yoga, but ironically decreased the willingness to stick with it. So if you have not started practicing Yoga yet, keeping its ultimate benefits in mind should help to ensure that you find the time to enroll in a Yoga class. However, once you have started, you may best keep things going by focusing your attention on the experiences you enjoy during Yoga exercises.
Pursuing Goals with Others
When upholding your commitments requires considerable effort or self-discipline, it is sometimes useful to find other people you can pursue the goal with. For example, many people seek a “gym buddy” or a “running buddy” to help themselves stick to a training routine. Pursuing goals with others like this has obvious benefits (e.g., having someone wake you up for a morning run if you failed to respond to the alarm clock), but reaping these benefits often poses various kinds of challenges. To that end, Fishbach has undertaken research on coordination of effort and relationship management issues in goal pursuit. Although results are still forthcoming, it looks like this work will be able to help us answer questions like: When will our gym buddies’ progress (e.g., in weight loss) motivate, versus demotivate us? Are we more appreciative of our running buddies’ support at certain predictable times, compared to others?
Strategies of Self Control
A major reason why many have a hard time keeping their resolutions is that our environment is filled with distracting obstacles, or temptations. For example, even if you planned to save more money and reduce your debt this year, you might find yourself in trouble after seeing an ad for the coolest new smartphone, or after walking past a showcase where a fabulous expensive handbag seems to be “calling you.” Thankfully, research on self-control has started to reveal several effective strategies for counteracting such temptations, For instance, two strategies identified in research by Fishbach and others are setting ambitious goals and anticipating strong temptations in advance (Fishbach & Converse, 2010; link to PDF). So to increase your chances of successful saving, you may want to try setting a savings goal that is somewhat higher than what you actually need to save. And before stepping into a mall, you may want to stop and imagine the pricey latest-design gadgets waiting for you there, and make a plan for how to avoid them.
Making your New Year’s resolutions can be a powerful step on the way to purposeful living. Keeping them, however, like achieving other types of goals, is not always easy. With “Purpose in Goal Pursuit” research like Fishbach’s above, the New Paths to Purpose project is using behavioral science methods to explore people’s potential to apply will and self-control in the pursuit of their goals, and to empower them with new tools to do so. We invite you to stay with us on this website to keep up with progress in this endeavor and to read about our research in more detail. Whether you plan to start learning a new language this year, practice Yoga, decrease you debt, or go on a vacation, we wish you success on your road to purpose and a happy new year!
Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.