Want Your New Year’s Resolution to Stick? Implement immediate rewards as you pursue that long-term goal

New study finds that immediately rewarding oneself is key to adhering to long-term goals.

If you are one of the many vowing to exercise regularly and lose weight in the New Year, consider your approach before mindlessly jumping on the treadmill.

A new study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that immediate rewards are strongly associated with persistence in a long-term goal, despite a delayed reward being the underlying motivation. In other words, if your goal is to lose weight but you sincerely dread each minute of your run, consider enlisting a running companion or trying a Zumba cardio class instead. Choosing a fun workout provides an immediate reward, enjoyment, and ultimately increases your chances of repeating the process and staying committed to your exercise and weight loss goals.

Ayelet FishbachIn “Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals,” Chicago Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach and Booth Ph.D. student Kaitlin Woolley detail five studies that examine the relationship between immediate versus delayed rewards while pursuing a long-term goal. The researchers tested adherence to New Year’s resolutions and tracked individuals’ study habits, gym routines and vegetable consumption. In each study, the presence of immediate rewards for goal-oriented behavior proved to be far more effective than the presence of long-term, delayed rewards.

“Overall, whereas delayed rewards may motivate goal setting and the intentions to pursue long-term goals, a meta-analysis of our studies finds that immediate rewards are more strongly associated with actual persistence in a long-term goal,” Fishbach said.

The researchers’ findings provide a new perspective on goal-setting. While an alluring end-goal in the distant future might be motivating at first, over time it may become more difficult to conceptualize. The solution, this study suggests, is to introduce immediate rewards into the process.

“People are more successful at pursing their resolutions, persist longer studying and exercising, continue engaging in healthy habits over time, and eat more of a healthy food to the extent that immediate rewards are available when pursing [goal-related] activities,” said Fishbach.

Fishbach recommends engaging in activities that offer both immediate and delayed rewards during pursuit. So, if you pick a fun workout and add music to your routine, you are more likely to stick with the program long-term.

“Maximizing the presence of immediate rewards when pursuing long-term goals, rather than relying on the importance of the goal to carry her through, should increase goal persistence.” And weight loss, hopefully.