Here we go again. Year after year, with great confidence each time, we choose all the goals we are going to start pursuing next year. Next year, we’ll start eating healthier. Next year, we’ll start going to the gym more. Next year, we won’t check email right before bed. Why do we expect so much from ourselves next year?
To understand why next year holds so much promise, it’s useful to consider why last year’s resolutions went unfulfilled. Sure, on any given day, we would all love to kick off the day with a nutritious and delicious breakfast smoothie. But who has time to peel a mango or wash a blender? And, yes, it would feel fantastic to squeeze in a gym visit on the way home from work. But who wants to lug a gym bag to work? And, oh, the relaxation that would come from a totally unplugged evening! But is everything really all set for tomorrow’s presentation? The problem for this year’s goals is that they always seem to be constrained by the pesky realities of the moment.
For better or worse those pesky realities are less likely to come to mind when planners are considering the future. Our new research, soon to be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows that the mere prospect of turning a calendar page can be enough to make planners forget about the obstacles that constrain their aspirations. Goals look greener on the other side of the calendar.
In one of our studies, conducted on July 31st, we asked a group of prospective dieters to think about eating healthier the next day. They wrote down what came to mind and then we categorized their responses. We focused on whether each thought was about achieving their desired outcomes or the constraints that threaten those outcomes. Thoughts like “I’ll have more energy,” and “I want to lose weight” went in the outcomes category. Thoughts like “mangoes are hard to peel” and “I hate washing the blender” went in the constraints category.
For half of the participants, our survey only mentioned days of the week, not months, implying that tomorrow was part of this week. In this condition, thoughts about desirable outcomes were offset by awareness of the constraints. For every two thoughts about outcomes, participants wrote down nearly three thoughts about constraints. For the other half of participants, our survey highlighted that tomorrow is August 1st, implying that it was part of next month. In this condition, participants generated far fewer constraints. For every two thoughts about outcomes, participants wrote down only 1.2 thoughts about constraints. It was as if, by seeing the next day as part of a separate period, the dieters’ concerns disappeared. They weren’t denying the concerns. The concerns just weren’t coming to mind in the first place. Why would that be?
Psychologists have known for some time, thanks to work led by Nira Liberman from Tel Aviv University and Yaacov Trope from New York University, that goals look different in the distant versus near future. Three months ago, when you booked your holiday travel, you probably had some abstract notions of “family togetherness,” “relaxation,” or “adventure.” The night before you left, however, you probably had some more immediate concerns in mind. Concerns like, “How is all this stuff going to fit in the suitcase?” and “Will I be able to get an Uber driver at 4:45 AM?” People think about goals that are off in the distance more abstractly. It is only when goals get closer that people start to think about them more concretely. Our study showed that just being on the next page of the calendar can make goals seem more like they are off in the distance.
To determine whether this affected people’s plans, we ran another experiment on a Tuesday toward the end of February. We asked prospective dieters to report their expectations about starting to eat healthier each upcoming day from Wednesday, February 27th, to Tuesday, March 4th. Some participants saw a calendar that focused them on calendar dates and others saw one that focused them on days of the week. Participants who focused on dates had low expectations for February 27th and 28th, but their expectations jumped substantially for March 1st and thereafter. In contrast, participants who focused on weekdays had low expectations for the first four days, Thursday through Sunday, but their expectations jumped substantially for Monday and thereafter. What counts as the next new period, the next opportunity, is all a matter of perspective.
So what is the upshot of these shifting perspectives? Is it good that there is always a new opportunity to get started? Or is it bad that there is always a new opportunity to put something off? There is probably not a simple answer. It depends on the conditions under which planners are looking into the future. We documented one of the potential dangers of these shifting perspectives in a final study that looked at how people use health memberships.
We ran the study in Switzerland, where Dr. Hennecke works. In exchange for completing a short health survey, participants gained entry into a raffle for one of ten memberships to a popular Swiss health program called eBalance. Bearing some resemblance to Weight Watchers in the U.S., eBalance is a paid service that tries to help people lose weight by providing calorie tracking, coaching, dietary advice, and other forms of support. The memberships were worth about $78 each.
After the survey, which we administered in mid-August, we asked participants to choose which starting date they would use if they won one of the memberships. Regardless of their choice, the membership ended on November 30th. For half of the participants, the choice was whether to start the program in one week or two weeks. In this scenario, about 60 percent chose to start on the first day. For the other half of participants, the timing was the same, but we pointed out the specific dates of the two starting options: August 25th or September 1st. In this scenario, only about 40 percent wanted to start on the first day. The prospect of starting in a new month was so attractive that many people sacrificed an extra week of valuable support.
Still, we can only say at this point that wasting a week of the dieting program was a “potential” danger. We do not know how the dieters fared in the long run. It is possible that those who waited for the 1st found it easier to initiate. That could be good in the long run, as long as they weren’t sidetracked by the constraints that they presumably failed to see foresee.
The big research question going forward, then, is how to leverage this phenomenon to both encourage initiation while also supporting persistence. It can be hard to overcome the inertia of inaction or bad habits, but the positive expectations about “next week,” “next month,” or “next year” might help people to get going. Indeed, researchers have found that people do at least take the first step on these new beginnings. For example, Google searches for health information spike on Mondays and gym visits spike at the beginning of months, weeks, years, and other salient temporal landmarks. If you miss the bus this week, no problem, another one will be pulling up shortly.
The challenge, however, is helping people to persist after these initial steps. By definition, if health searches and gym visits peak after temporal landmarks, that means they are falling at other times. This is where our results may reflect some bad news. Expectations are high for new periods because people are not thinking as much about the upcoming constraints. In the long run, this could lead to trouble because people are unlikely to be successful in long-term goal pursuits if they have not adequately planned for the obstacles they will face.
As you’re thinking ahead to 2017, remember that “next year” inevitably becomes “this year,” and the same constraints will apply. Go ahead and take advantage of the fact that next year feels like a more auspicious time to start, but make hard-to-break commitments that accommodate your constraints. Don’t just decide to eat healthier, sign up for a cooking co-op. Don’t just promise to go to the gym more, sign up for a series of pre-paid classes that fit your schedule. Don’t just vow not to check email in bed, get a router that blocks your Wi-Fi after a certain time.
And, if you fall off course, don’t get preoccupied with 2018 quite yet. Aim for next Monday instead.
References / Hyperlinks
- “goals look different…” Trope, Yaacov, and Nira Liberman. "Construal-level theory of psychological distance." Psychological review 117.2 (2010): 440.
- “Google searches for health information…” Ayers, John W., et al. "What’s the healthiest day?: Circaseptan (weekly) rhythms in healthy considerations." American journal of preventive medicine 47.1 (2014): 73-76.
- “gym visits spike…” Dai, Hengchen, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis. "The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior." Management Science 60.10 (2014): 2563-2582.
- “if they have not adequately planned…” Gollwitzer, Peter M., et al. "Planning promotes goal striving." Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications 2 (2011): 162-185.