New Year's Resolutions Experiment

Throughout 2007, we tracked over 3000 people attempting to achieve a range of resolutions, including losing weight, visiting the gym, quitting smoking, and drinking less.

At the start of the study, 52% of participants were confident of success. One year later, only 12% actually achieved their goal. The study uncovered why so many people fail, and what can be done to help ensure success.

During the experiment, people were randomly placed into one of several groups, and asked to follow different advice. Large differences emerged between the approaches that best suited men and woman.

Men were significantly more likely to succeed when asked to engage in either goal setting (e.g., instead of trying to lose weight in general, aiming to lose a pound each week), or focusing on the rewards associated with achieving their goal (e.g., being more attractive to the opposite sex).

Women were more successful when they told their friends and family about their resolution, or were encouraged to be especially resilient and not to give up because they had reverted to the old habits (e.g., if dieting, treating a chocolate binge as a temporary setback rather than as failure).

These simple differences often had surprisingly large effects. An extra 22% of men achieved their resolution when they engaged in goal setting, and women were almost 10% more likely to be successful when encouraged to persist in the face of setbacks.

Men may be more likely to adopt a macho attitude and have unrealistic expectations, and so simple goal setting helps them achieve more. Likewise, women might be reluctant to tell others about their resolutions, and so benefit more from the social support provided by friends and family once they have made their goals public.

Hints for achieving New Year’s Resolutions

Make Only One Resolution – Many often people make the mistake of trying to achieve too much. The chances of success are greater when people channel their energy into changing just one aspect of their behaviour.

Plan ahead - Don't wait until New Year's Eve to think about your resolution. Last minute decisions tend to be based on what is on your mind at that time. Instead, take some time out a few days before and reflect upon what you really want to achieve.

Avoid previous resolutions – Deciding to re-visit a past resolution sets you up for frustration and disappointment. Choose something new, or approach an old problem in a new way. For example, instead of trying to lose 2 stone in weight, try exercising more.

Be specific – Think through exactly what you are going to do, where you are going to do it, and at what time. Vague plans fail. For example, instead of saying that you will go running two days of the week, tell yourself that you will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6pm.
Make it personal - Don’t run with the crowd and go with the usual resolutions. Instead think about what you really want out of life, so think about finishing that novel, or learning to play an instrument, rather than just losing weight and getting to the gym.

For men:

Set S.M.A.R.T goals
- Focus on creating goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time based (SMART). For example, instead of thinking ‘I want to find a new job’, focus on creating bite-sized, measurable goals for each week, such as rewriting your CV and then applying for one new job every two weeks. Map out the step-by-step mini-goals that will slowly but surely take you to where you want to be, make a note of them in a diary, and stick to the plan.

Carrot not stick
- Focus on how much better life will be for you, and those around you, when you achieve your resolution. For example, if you want to quit smoking, make a list of the benefits of giving up, and place it somewhere prominent in your house. If you want to motivate yourself to go to the gym, find a photograph of a fitness model that appeals to you, and put it in a place that ensures you will see it each day.

For women:

Go public
- Many people keep their New Year's Resolution to themselves. Unfortunately, this makes it all too easy to simply forget about them. Instead, go public. For example, write down your resolution on a large sheet of paper, sign it, and place it somewhere prominent in your house. Tell your friends, family and colleagues about your resolution, and ask them to provide you with helpful nudges to assist you in achieving your goal. Either way, do not keep your resolution to yourself.

Be persistent
- New habits take time to learn, and once in a while you will slip up and revert to the old you. People on diets might suddenly give in to temptation, or those trying to exercise more might not find the time to go to the gym for a week. Remember that everyone messes up from time to time. Don’t blame yourself if you falter, or allow the experience to make you give up.

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