Expert Commentary

Behavioral research to help you keep your New Year’s resolutions

New Year’s resolve flagging? Academic research can bolster your ambitions.


This post has been updated with new research since it first ran in January 2019.

New Year’s resolve flagging? Academic research can bolster your ambitions. We’ve collected peer-reviewed behavioral science research that might help you successfully achieve some common resolutions: spending less time on your smartphone, saving money, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, eating fewer treats, getting over your procrastination habit, and yes, even flossing. Read on to become a better you.

If you’ve resolved to SLASH YOUR SCREEN TIME … try reading: “Batching Smartphone Notifications Can Improve Well-Being”
Fitz, Nicholas; et al. Computers in Human Behavior, December 2019.

If you’re chained to your phone and unhappy about it, you might consider receiving smartphone notifications at set intervals throughout the day rather than as they come. Researchers at Duke University and Georgetown University found that study participants who received notifications batched to arrive only three times a day reported better moods, higher productivity, and greater feelings of control over their phones. They also unlocked their phones less often in comparison with participants who received notifications as usual and another group of participants who received no notifications at all.

In total, 237 smartphone owners living in India participated in the study. Participants downloaded an Android app developed by the researchers that regulated the delivery of phone notifications. Respondents also were asked to report in a daily diary various measures including: “concentration, distraction, stress, anxiety, mood, productivity, social connectedness, and work enjoyment—as well as phone-specific outcomes: feeling of being interrupted by notifications, sense of missing out on notifications, sense of control over phone, social pressure to respond to others, phone overuse, and intentional phone checking.” Participants were informed that they could always access their notifications by opening individual apps. “In other words, we only manipulated the delivery of notifications (e.g., to the lock screen), rather than preventing messages from being accessed at all,” the authors explain. The researchers also gathered data on how often the participants checked their phones as reported by the phone’s operating system.

“Compared to those in the control condition [notifications as usual], participants whose notifications were batched three-times-a-day felt more attentive, productive, in a better mood, and in greater control of their phones,” the researchers write, noting that the batched group also reported lower stress levels.  “In contrast, participants who did not receive notifications at all reaped few of those benefits, but experienced higher levels of anxiety and ‘fear of missing out’ (FoMO).” They’ve released the app, called Daywise, for personal use through Google Play. But sorry, iPhone users. So far Daywise is only available on the Android platform. “Daywise for iOS is one of the most requested queries from iOS users, so much so that a few iOS users have moved to Android just so they can use Daywise! But unlike Android, iOS doesn’t allow third party developers [to] control notifications to a degree we’d like for batching to work in a nuanced manner,” author and DayWise creator Ranjan Jagannathan told us in an email. “Till we’re able to do this flexibly enough, we will not be able to build a powerful version of Daywise for iOS.”

If you’ve resolved to CUT BACK ON DRINKING… try reading: “Young Adults Do Not Catch up Missed Drinks When Starting Later at Night—An Ecological Momentary Assessment Study”
Groefsema, Martine; et al. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, November 2018.

Trying to drink less? Consider starting your night out later. The party will be in full swing and you might avoid the hangover the next day. Researchers in the Netherlands conducted a study of 197 young adults’ drinking habits. They sent out surveys to participants’ smartphones every hour between 9 pm and 1 am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday for five consecutive weeks to record drink consumption. Here’s what they found: “no differences in drinking pace (i.e., slope) were found across the subsequent hours between evenings on which individuals started at different times; individuals do not catch up on missed drinks. Moreover, when individuals start drinking later, they consume less alcohol in total during the evening and showed less binge drinking.”

If you’ve resolved to QUIT SMOKING… try reading: “A Pragmatic Trial of E-Cigarettes, Incentives, and Drugs for Smoking Cessation” 
Halpern, Scott D.; et al. The New England Journal of Medicine, May 2018.

If you want to quit smoking, try paying yourself to do so. Research shows that cash incentives are more effective than other cessation strategies – including the strategy of trying to replace smoking with vaping. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the outcomes of five different strategies for workplace smoking-cessation programs. Just over 6,000 participants were included in the study and randomized into five groups. The groups received one of the following:  usual care (informational materials and text messages with advice and encouragement); free cessation aids (including nicotine-replacement therapy, prescription medications to help quit and, in the event that those strategies failed, e-cigarettes); free e-cigarettes; a reward of up to $600 plus the free cessation aids detailed above; or a redeemable deposit account of up to $600 plus the free cessation aids. The deposit group differed from the reward group in that money was removed from the deposit account if abstinence goals were not met. This framed the deposit account in terms of potential losses, in contrast to the incentive framing of the reward group, in which additional money was added to the reward for each goal met. The success rates of the five strategies, ranked from highest to lowest, are as follows: redeemable deposit (2.9 percent); reward (2 percent); e-cigarettes (1 percent); free cessation aids (0.5 percent); usual care (0.1 percent). In sum: Put your money where your smoke is.

If you’ve resolved to FLOSS YOUR TEETH… try reading: “Translating Dental Flossing Intentions into Behavior: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Mediating Effect of Planning and Self-Efficacy on Young Adults”
Hamilton, Kyra; et al. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, June 2017.

Want to develop a habit of flossing your teeth? Planning and believing in yourself (a.k.a. “self-efficacy” in psychology circles) are key, finds this study of 629 Australian university students. “Controlling for baseline flossing, the effect of intentions on behavior was mediated via self-efficacy and planning, with 64 percent of the flossing variance accounted for by this set of predictors,” the authors write. Self-efficacy was measured by participants’ belief in their ability to floss their teeth daily on a long-term basis, “even when I cannot see any positive changes immediately,” “even when I am in a hurry,” and “even when it takes a long time to become part of my daily routine.” Planning was measured by responses to questions about when, where, and how to floss, as well as responses to potential setbacks. Better oral hygiene, this study suggests, requires commitment and intention, but it is within reach (just like those pesky molars – try harder!).

If you’ve resolved to SPEND LESS and SAVE MORE… try reading: “The Interactive Effects of Bitter Flavor and Mood on the Decision to Spend or Save Money”
Cai, Fengyan; et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2017.

Getting a handle on your spending can be a bitter pill to swallow. But a bitter beverage might be just the thing to keep your finances on track, according to this study. Researchers looked at the effects of mood and flavor on participants’ proclivities to spend or save. They hypothesized that happy participants would be more likely to spend and less likely to save, and that these inclinations could change depending on shifts in mood. They also thought that moods might shift based on particularly pungent tastes. The researchers put all this to the test by measuring participants’ mood measuring participants’ moods before and after randomly assigning them to drink either bitter-melon-flavored, salty or plain water. After consuming the water, the participants completed an exercise in which they indicated the likelihood that they would save an extra allowance received each month. Researchers also asked questions that got at the participants’ moods after consuming the drink. They found that baseline happy participants who consumed the bitter drink were more likely to save compared with those who drank pure water or salty water, and also expressed more worry about the future than these other groups. On the other hand, participants who were unhappy at the outset were less likely to spend money after consuming the bitter drink. “As we noted earlier, unhappy individuals are generally motivated to engage in behavior that can decrease or eliminate their negative feelings they are experiencing,” the authors explain. “If tasting a bitter drink activates thoughts about the adversity of their present life situation, it could increase their desire to spend money for this reason.” Two field experiments that involved consuming bitter melon water or pure water and comparing actual savings and spending decisions lent further support to the findings.

If you’ve resolved to STOP PROCRASTINATING… try reading: “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy as Treatments for Academic Procrastination: A Randomized Controlled Group Session”
Wang, Shuo; et al. Research on Social Work Practice, January 2017.

On deadline and doing everything but working on your assignment? We’ve all been there. The key to overcoming procrastination, one study suggests, is changing the way you think about your work. The research involved 60 undergraduates struggling with academic procrastination who received either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Participants who received CBT were encourage to challenge their thoughts, set goals and work on time management skills. The ACT group “introduced acceptance by experiential exercises, which helped members to realize that not only are efforts to manage and control our thoughts and emotions futile, but they also prevent us from doing valued life activities.” The participants in the ACT group were led through mindfulness activities and worked to “explore and clarify life values, make plans to pursue life goals, and make commitments to actions.” The good news: both methods worked. “Both therapies showed remarkable short-term effects in decreasing procrastination, but ACT had a better long-term effect,” the authors write. “While ACT significantly decreased negative affect and improved neuroticism, CBT had a stronger effect on time management.”

If you’ve resolved to EXERCISE… try reading: “Goals and Social Comparisons Promote Walking Behavior”
Chapman, Gretchen B.; et al. Medical Decision Making, May 2016.

Not meeting your goals can be demoralizing, but aiming high might have its benefits regardless. In a study that lends support to the old cliché about shooting for the moon, researchers found that participants who were assigned higher goals for daily step counts walked more than those who had medium or low goals, even if they didn’t quite reach their target. The experiment involved 148 university employees. Another experiment involving 64 individuals compared steps walked when participants received individual versus social comparison feedback. The control group simply logged their steps and received emails reminding them to input their data. When the social comparison group logged their steps, they learned how they performed relative to the other participants. They also received emails with similar information. The social comparison group walked more than those who received only individual feedback. The researchers suggest that these findings indicate the importance of reference points, either established through goals or comparison between peers, in changing behavior.

If you’ve resolved to EAT LESS JUNK FOOD… try reading: “The Taming of Desire: Unspecific Postponement Reduces Desire for and Consumption of Postponed Temptations”
Mead, Nicole L.; Patrick, Vanessa M. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, January 2016.

Whatever you’re trying to cut down on, consider putting it off for another time rather than vowing to quit it entirely. The key is not to care too much about when you will indulge again. This study features four different experiments testing “unspecific postponement.” The authors write, “We hypothesized that people interpret unspecific postponement (‘I can have it some other time’) as a signal that they do not strongly value the postponed temptation. In this way, unspecific postponement may reduce desire for and consumption of postponed temptation, both in the present moment and over time.” The findings indicate that this is in fact the case. When participants freely decided to postpone their selected (edible) temptation, they desired it less and consumed it less (they both delayed consumption and ate a smaller quantity of it). Two of the other experiments found that postponing a temptation to a specific date, in comparison to unspecific postponement, did not reduce desire or consumption. Lastly, participants presented with M&Ms who were encouraged to tell themselves that they could have them some other time ate less than those who were encouraged to tell themselves not to eat them at all.

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