New websites and apps make it easy to stick to your New Year's resolutions.
Making resolutions has become something of a New Year's tradition, though the stereotype of the January gym-goer fizzling by MLK Day (January 16, 2012) suggests a lack of resolve in those resolutions.
Luckily for would-be resolvers, there are a host of new websites and apps aimed at helping more people hit their targets by using new techniques based on research into goal-achievement and motivation. Having an important goal integrated into your digital life can be an easy way to keep it front-and-center and enlist support from friends and family.
But even the slickest web app isn't a magic bullet for changing habits and can't compensate for poorly constructed goals or a lack of motivation.
"Seeing other [online goal-setters] succeed could provide vicarious reinforcement that allows people to imagine succeeding at their own goals. Seeing others fail could help people avoid letting a missed goal discourage them. People can commiserate through their failures," says Dr. Susan Whitbourne, University of Massachussetts psychology professor and author of The Search for Fulfillment.
Here's a round-up of some of the more popular goal-setting sites:
Stickk was founded by economists on the heels of a smoking cessation study in which participants who were paid to quit had significantly greater success rates than those who didn't. The core features include the ability to set a goal, tell a support group of friends, enlist a "referee" who judges your success, and set stakes. The optional stakes are usually monetary--lay $50 on the line and keep it if you succeed. If you fail, the funds automatically go to a friend, a charity, or, even more effective, an "anti-charity" whose mission you don't support.
Stickk employs multiple strategies, including enlisting social support, accountability, and the carrot/stick of the stakes, but it's distinguishing feature is the accountability created by having a referee confirm your success or failure. Stickk reports that at least 60 percent of their goals are fitness and health-related and that 18 percent of all their goals are set during the month of January.
This diet-specific offering is a custom social network that focuses on what you're putting in your mouth. You create a profile, set goals for weight loss, activity, and/or calorie consumption, then report your food intakes and progress on your goals. Users can accumulate points which are then redeemable for actual goods and services (the motivational "carrot"). You can also alert your other social networks (both real and virtual) to enlist their support and put the peer pressure on.
The downsides: There's no impartial judgement of progress so the prizes from points are necessarily modest and there's no protection against cheaters who might fudge their reporting to avoid embarrassment. Also, entering accurate diet details can be a part-time job and difficult to sustain.
Tracking progress on goals can feel like a chore, and Joesgoals fights the tedium with a super-simple interface. Set a number of goals and negative goals (things you don't want to do i.e. smoking, eating out) and then simply check off if you did the activities.
The concept works because the day-by-day interface forces users to focus on process (go to the gym) rather than outcome (lose 30 pounds), so the challenges are smaller and daily rather than long-term. However, it's simplicity means there aren't the robust features of other sites in terms of rewards and accountability.
This popular to-do list or bucket list-style site is a simple concept: write down a list of goals (you don't need to have 43 of them). The site features an iPhone app as well as the ability to set up e-mail reminders, alert friends on Facebook, and join the 43things community for support.
The downsides: The setup tends towards audacious, bucket list goals (bike across Europe, make a million dollars) which are long-term and more susceptible to disruption. E-mail reminders can only come as frequently as once-a-month, making it easy to lose track of these goals.
No matter how clever, these sites can't compensate for a poorly constructed goal, so here are 3 tips for setting a challenging, yet manageable goal:
1. Get Real. Whitbourne says would-be goal-setters need to be honest with themselves about their ability to plan ahead before embarking on a resolution binge. Write down 5 examples each of goals you've met and goals you've missed. Also write down why you succeeded or failed and examine your result to decide what type of goals will work for you. "People vary in their distractability. If you're more towards the ADHD end of the spectrum, you should set short-term, manageable goals and make the reward for success something shiny and exciting to you," Whitbourne says.
2. Set Multiple Goals. It may seem counterintuitive, but Stickk.com marketing director Sam Espinoza says their site sees higher success rates when people set up supporting goals such as "bring lunch to work every day" when the primary goal is "lose 15 pounds."
3. Avoid All-or-Nothing Goals. Being specific and measurable is important, but goals such as "finish a marathon" or "lose 50 pounds" can set up a pass/fail mindset and failure can lead to a negative spiral. If you do set audacious, long-term goals, make sure to recognize that you may experience setbacks. "Say you have a very bad day. You don't say, 'This proves I can't control myself so I'm doomed to fail.' If you know at outset you'll come up short sometimes, setbacks are only proof that there will be setbacks and you can get back on track quickly," Whitbourne says.