Shall we have a new relationship with the New Year? That could mean changing how we relate to our annual goals and goal-setting. Those who set new year’s resolutions are probably familiar with the optimistic lay-out of long-term intentions each January, only to watch behavioral follow-through wither away by winter’s end.
If we choose to continue setting goals, then perhaps we should implement an approach that supports us in reaching them. Simply telling oneself “Just do it,” like a Nike’s commercial, usually doesn’t cut it. So, let’s go to the research and see what it has to offer.
Woolley and Fischbach (2016, 2017, 2018) have published widely their studies of the efficacy of immediate rewards versus delayed gratification in the pursuit of long-term goals. They found that, even though participants believe delayed gratification to be the driving force behind their motivation (e.g., achieving the final outcome – such as weight loss), only actual immediate enjoyment of the activity predicted perseverance (e.g., people will only spend more time exercising if they enjoy it in the moment).
The sooner rewards are given, the more one’s intrinsic motivation increases, “creating a perceptual fusion between the activity and its goal.” In other words, rewards increase the positive experience of the activity, making it likely that one will continue investing in it.
The researchers also found that the timing of the reward matters even more than the size of the reward: getting a bonus sooner, even if it’s small, has a greater effect on enhancing performance and the grit required in follow-through, than the receiving of a larger reward later.
So whatever your new year’s resolutions are, it’s better to address them in a manner that you can enjoy NOW. Focus on the immediate benefits of the activity, in the moment, instead of waiting for some hypothetical payoff in the future at the task’s eventual completion.
Goal-oriented behaviors should include some element of fun and have treats associated with them, given that our brains are designed to respond to immediate rewards. No shame in that. Maybe we can just acknowledge (and appreciate) that part of ourselves upfront and approach our goals in collaboration with our hard-wired reward-orientation.
Have you considered broadening your resolutions, beyond the scope of improving your body or budget, or organizational tendencies? Intentions can also be set towards prosocial aims - helping a person in need, decreasing another's loneliness, cleaning up some small space outside one's home. It's a win-win, bringing gratification to the giver and receiver.