Mind & Body

Is It Harder to Maintain a Good Habit or Attain a New Goal?

The New Year is fast approaching, and if you're a resolutions type, it's worth considering strategy. Some resolutions — like "start being a pop star," or "shed my gluten allergy through force of will" — are preposterously challenging. But what resolutions are easiest?

Related Video: 10 Unlikely New Year's Resolutions

Believe, Achieve, Mispercieve

This seems like a pretty straightforward answer: The easiest resolutions require the least work. It's easier to drink a glass of water once than it is to drink eight glasses of water a day! But according to a recent study, work is just one of many factors in how challenging a resolution seems.

Researchers for this study recruited about 300 subjects on Amazon's Mechanical Turk and presented them with five types of hypothetical goals pertaining to three different things: academic GPA, personal savings, and tennis wins. One type of goal was just status-quo maintenance (for instance, "keep a 3.5 GPA"); the other types of goals required a small, medium, large, or very large improvement on the status quo.

Subjects were broken into five groups and each group focused on a specific category, ranking the difficulty of the goals within their category on a seven-point scale.

The results were mostly intuitive: Making a small improvement was easier than a medium improvement, which was, in turn, easier than a large improvement. But, strangely, maintaining the status quo ranked as slightly more difficult than making a small improvement. (It scored a 3.23 out of 7; small improvement goals had an average score of 2.82.)

When you're making a small improvement to your life, the researchers explained, "small" is the key word. The goal feels manageable. But when you're making no improvement to your life, all the factors outside your control slip into the foreground, an effect the researchers call "negativity bias." You start to think: "Can I keep saving at the same pace as last year? What if the economy tanks? What if I have a family emergency?"

In another experiment, researchers asked subjects to compare the difficulty of maintaining the status quo and making a small improvement. Which was easier? Status quo maintenance, subjects mostly responded. However, when asked which type of goal they'd choose for themselves, they, by and large, chose the small improvement goal. They knew it would be harder, but they said achieving it would feel more satisfying.

Shoot for the Moon and You'll Land Among the Status Quo

In reality, maintaining the status quo is technically easy, but psychologically difficult. It takes effort but has no clear payoff, so it's hard to get motivated.

Even worse, working to maintain the status quo makes the status quo feel unstable. Striving to improve your situation, even in a small way, works kind of like an optical illusion. It focuses your attention on changes you can make, and on tasks that are within your control.

Working to maintain the status quo, unfortunately, doesn't hold your attention as much. It's "a quirk in human psychology," as one of the study's authors put it — maintenance goals point our attention towards all the forces outside our control.

In other words: Set your New Year's resolutions ambitiously. It's true that most of us won't go from 0 to pop star in one year. But it's no fun to feel helpless and stagnant, either.

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If you want to get motivated to do more in the New Year, we suggest picking up Shonda Rimes's inspiring book "Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice December 28, 2018

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