5 Science-Tested Tools to Keep Motivation High

Are you still energized and excited about your new year’s goals? Research shows[1] that only 64% of people maintain their resolutions after the first month, dropping to 46% of people after 6 months. Moreover, if you look at the course of the entire year, close to 80% will fail in keeping their New Year commitments[2].

The following five simple tools bring the science of human motivation to your finger tips, so you can defeat the stats and stay on track with your goals all year:

1) Set Your Focus First

The majority of people resolve to save money, lose weight, and get fit[3], but everyone’s situation and priorities are different. It may be that in your life today finances and physical wellness are fine but you crave a chance in your physical environment, or would like to form new friendships. As a first step always survey the different domains in your life, and pick the three that you are the least satisfied with. Then, pick specific goals in each of the three domains. Use the following list:

–      Health and wellness

–      Personal growth and passions

–      Career

–      Friends

–      Family

–      Physical environment

–      Fun and recreation

–      Finances

–      Romantic relationships


2) Scrutinize

Before you commit to your New Year’s decisions, scrutinize them to make sure that they are truly meaningful and authentic to you. Several software tools[4] and mobile apps allow you to go through this process methodically, generating a “score” for each goal you resolve to pursue, indicating how deeply you own it. You can also use a piece of paper and rate each of your resolutions on the following criteria:

  1. Avoid “shoulds”: Go after the things you would want to do even in the absence of any external reward or recognition. For each of your goals, ask yourself – would you still value it if there was no external incentive and nobody knew that you accomplished what you resolved to do? If you answer “yes”, you will experience what researchers call “intrinsic motivation”[5], a strong internal drive to go after your resolution and a sense that your truly own what you set out to do. Neuroscience research[6] shows that intrinsic motivation works very differently than external incentives, and involves activation of different brain circuitry like the Basal Ganglia.
  2. Be specific: To increase the chances that you will act on your resolutions, specify what, when, and how you will pursue them. “Stop ordering pizza weekends” is better than “eating healthier”.
  3. Chase the Good: Pursue things that will get your closer to a desired outcome rather than farther from a threat. For example, in adopting healthier eating and exercise habits, the pursuit of the feeling of alertness and health is a stronger driver than the threat of disease. Fear is a weak motivator and only works in the short term.

3) Paint a Detailed Picture of the New You:

The more vividly you can picture yourself in the active pursuit and accomplishment of your resolutions, the more likely you are to actually get there. Anything you can do to make your desired future take specific form would help: create a vision board[7] with pictures of your success after having maintained your resolutions, print it or make it the wallpaper of your computer. Make sure you have daily visual reminders of where you want to get during the year. But keep it balanced: research by Gabrielle Oettingen[8] and her colleagues at NYU shows that focusing only on desired success can actually hinder motivation. The best vision board involves pictures of both the desired outcome and the challenges of the path towards it. When you visualize the barriers that will come in your way, you end up less surprised and more prepared when you finally encounter them. Acknowledging the road blocks switches the brain into problem-solving mode and makes it spend cycles trying to work through them.

Oettingen tested this balanced visualization technique, called “mental contrasting” in several different situations. In one study participants who had a secret crush were divided into two groups: one group was asked to visualize being in a romantic relationship with their crush, and the other engaged in mental contrasting: also visualizing the barriers towards approaching the other person.  People in the second group ended up being 2-3 times more likely to actually end up in the relationship, demonstrating the efficacy of mental contrasting as a balanced way to visualize goals and aspirations.

4) Pat Yourself on the Back

Give yourself a nice pat on the back for keeping up with your New Year’s resolutions, and constantly measure the distance between your current place and your starting point. Each month write down where you started and where you are now.

Research by Heidi Grant-Halvorson[9] and Carol Dweck at Columbia University found that people view their progress in one of two ways: a “be good mindset”, assessing their success compared to their end goal (for example – how close I am to my target weight), and a “get better mindset”, assessing their success compared to their starting point (how much I’ve lost so far, regardless of my target weight). It turns out that people with a “get better” mindset do a better job at reaching their goals. In a study Grant-Halvorson and Dweck conducted with students of freshmen chemistry at Columbia University, they found that students with a “get better” mindset finished the semester with higher grades, and also reported enjoying the classes.

5) Set Triggers to Action

We all lead a busy life and have to deal with multiple competing demands on our schedule, but there are some things we do automatically without thinking too much: brewing the morning’s first coffee, releasing the parking brake, leaving the office for lunch. Such behavior is initiated by triggers that we are automatically respond to (waking up, getting in the car, the clock hits 12:00). In her book Succeed – How We Can Reach Our Goals[10], Grant-Halvorson describes a method called “If/Then Planning”, where each activity one needs to take is paired with a trigger that will initiate it. For example, if you resolved to be more active and fit, instead of “going to the gym three times a week” plan to go to the gym “right after dropping off the kids at school”. If you decided to cut calories plan to order tea when you get the desert menu. This is also where technology shines: using a mobile app or calendar reminders, you can give set reminders and alerts to trigger your action during the day. Putting triggers in your daily life makes you keep up with your goals automatically by responding, and frees you up from the need to think constantly about your New Year’s resolutions.


Ran Zilca is the Chief Scientist of bLife Inc

Check out the bLife iPad app utilizes the latest science to help you on track with your New Year’s resolutions. Check it out in the Apple app store: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/blife/id491503649?mt=8



(or better yet embed video):

<iframe width=”640″ height=”390″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/FDUQ4RQsHwA” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

[1] Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers, by John C. Norcross, Marci S. Mrykalo, Matthew D. Blagys , University of Scranton. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Volume 58, Issue 4 (2002).

[3] http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/New-Years-Resolutions.shtml

Photo credit: ‘Man with Gears’ by Big Stock


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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