The One Factor *Every* New Year’s Goal Needs for Success, According to a Behavioral Scientist

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What if, this January, you ignored all the voices telling you what you “should be” and instead focused on finding the healthful habits that feel right for *you*? With ReNew Year, the only thing we’re detoxing from is a restrictive mindset. Pick a goal—movement, food, self care, or all three—and hit refresh. Get the Program

There’s a reason New Year’s resolutions, goals, and intentions are so often met with apathy or straight-up dread: They tend to feel like an exercise in setting yourself up for failure—and statistics support so much. Research conducted by fitness app Strava in 2019 found that most people forgo resolutions at some point between January 19 and February 14, and a December 2021 survey conducted by wellness brand Optavia found that only 10 percent of U.S. adults stick with their intentions through the end of the year. But according to social psychologist and behavioral scientist Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, author of the forthcoming book Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation, that’s likely because the intentions often lack one key quality necessary for any long-term goal to succeed: intrinsic motivation.

Experts In This Article
  • Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

In simple terms, intrinsic motivation just refers to a feeling that something is enjoyable to do in the moment. “When something is intrinsically motivating, there is some sense of reward from doing it,” says Dr. Fishbach. “And through research, we’ve found that the degree to which a goal or resolution is enjoyable and rewarding to do is what actually predicts follow-through—and not the extent to which someone says that the resolution is useful or important or even life-changing.”

"We’ve found that the degree to which a goal or resolution is enjoyable and rewarding to do is what actually predicts follow-through." —Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, social psychologist and behavioral scientist

But, of course, the challenge with creating a New Year's goal rooted in intrinsic motivation is the fact that they tend to not be inherently fun. “The top three categories are healthy eating, exercising more, and getting out of debt,” says Dr. Fishbach. “Unsurprisingly, no one’s making a goal to eat more ice cream—even though that would qualify as intrinsically motivating.” To rewrite the script on those less obviously fun New Year's intentions, though, Dr. Fishbach suggests finding creative ways to make them more engaging, rewarding, and, yes, enjoyable in the moment.

“Perhaps, if your goal is to work out more, you create a plan to do an exercise program with someone you really like, or if the goal is to eat healthier, maybe it’s deciding on a type of fruit or vegetable that you actually enjoy eating, and finding new recipes that include it,” says Dr. Fishbach. In that way, you’re turning a good-for-you thing into a fun-for-you thing, too, which makes you all the more likely to stick with it for the long haul.

That mental shift toward intrinsic motivation also helps to resolve what psychologists call the "empathy gap," which is the difference between our current actions and how we perceive ourselves acting in the future. “People tend to have this perception of themselves as someone who will do what is good for them down the line, but often that future you is, realistically, very similar to the current you,” says Dr. Fishbach. “So, for example, you might think that running is the healthiest exercise for you, and that your future self will certainly realize that and choose to go on a run each day, but if your present self does not enjoy running, your future self is not going to run either. And it would be wiser to pick a different exercise entirely in order to move closer to that fitness goal.”

Actively choosing something enjoyable to do in service of a goal or resolution, as opposed to something to not do, is also supported by additional research on goal-setting success. “We know that ‘approach’ goals work better than ‘avoidance’ goals because of two reasons,” says Dr. Fishbach. “One is that an avoidance goal is harder to follow. When you say, ‘Try not to order fries for lunch,’ for example, all you can think about is ordering fries for lunch. And two, avoidance operates more on urgency (as in, ‘I need to stop doing this now’) than it does on stamina—and what you need to keep a resolution going is stamina.”

When your goal entails some degree of intrinsic motivation, that staying power comes naturally. But even so, Dr. Fishbach does say you might need to practice some patience at the beginning: With anything new, there’s bound to be a learning curve. “It’s okay if the feeling of joy isn’t immediate when you start doing an activity to support a new goal,” she says. “But the important thing is that there is some expectation that if you do the activity a few times, the enjoyment will kick in, and you will begin to experience it readily.” And once that’s the case? Sticking with it will become more and more like second nature.

Looking to hit refresh on your healthy habits this January? Check out our full 2022 ReNew Year program for expert-led plans for sustainable eating, exercise, and self-care routines. 

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