Keeping to goals or new habits is not easy — so much so that there’s a cottage industry of life coaches, motivational speakers and stationery companies offering you tricks, hints, motivational journals and other products apparently designed to keep you on the straight and narrow.
But there might be an easier — and considerably cheaper — way of doing things. Rather than trying to motivate ourselves alone, Katie S. Mehr and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania argue in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, copying the strategies that our friends use may provide us with some much needed drive.
The team asked 1,028 participants, all of whom said they wanted to exercise more, how many hours they’d spent exercising in the previous week, before randomly assigning them to one of three conditions.
Participants in the “copy-paste” condition were asked to pay attention to how people they knew motivated themselves to work out, and were told they could ask them directly for strategies and tips. Those in the “quasi-yoked” control condition were told that the research team would “help [them] learn about an effective hack or strategy that motivates people to exercise” — no mention of friends. In another, simple control condition, there was no message.
Two days later, participants completed a second survey, describing what strategies they planned to use in the next week to exercise more. More specifically, those in the copy-paste condition were asked to summarise the strategy they’d copied from a friend, while those in the quasi-yoked condition were provided with one of 358 exercise strategies another participant had copy-pasted in a pilot study.
Finally, a week after the second survey, participants in all conditions were asked how many hours they had spent exercising in the last week and how motivated they had felt to exercise on a scale of one to five.
Those in the copy-paste condition — that is, those who had copied their friends’ fitness strategies — spent significantly more time exercising than those in the simple control (55.8 more minutes on average) and quasi-yoked control condition (32.5 more minutes). They were also more motivated to exercise.
What made copy-paste prompts so effective? To figure this out, the team also asked participants nine questions about the strategies they used, such as how useful, new or appealing the strategies were, and how committed they felt to them. The team found that, compared to the quasi-yoked condition, those in the copy-paste condition found the strategies more useful, were more committed to them, and had more social interactions with others who exercise — and these differences could explain why these participants in turn spent more time exercising.
This makes sense: general advice about exercise or habit-forming may not particularly resonate with someone, while finding appealing strategies from one’s own social circle could be more personally relevant. Further research could look at the nature of the strategies participants “copied and pasted” from their friends: is the motivation of seeking and applying strategies from friends enough to keep somebody interested in their new habit, or do particular types of strategy work better or worse?
Whether copy-paste strategies would work in the long-term is also not yet clear — it’s easy to start a new lifestyle with good intentions and high levels of motivation, but not so easy to keep it up. If you’re looking to change a habit, however, you could do a lot worse than looking to a friend for advice.