It’s late January; do you know where your resolutions are?

New Year’s festivities have come and gone, and now, a few weeks into 2013, a few earnestly made resolutions may have fallen by the wayside. If you’re struggling with yours, two PLOS ONE studies could offer some hints for success.

The first report describes an investigation into three facets of goal attainment: keeping a goal active in your working memory; being aware of your current state, monitoring progress, and adjusting performance; and not behaving contrary to the goal.

The researchers used brain imaging during a simple task to explore interactions between these processes. They found that high demand for “goal maintenance” — keeping a goal active in your working memory — was correlated with lowered brain activity related to avoiding counterproductive behaviors, called “response inhibition.” In other words, if participants had to spend a lot of energy trying to remember their goals, they didn’t seem to have the brain energy to stop negative behaviors. The authors suggest that people might be able to counter this effect by increasing visual reminders of their goal, thereby decreasing the need for goal maintenance and freeing up resources for response inhibition.

Alternatively, you could try adding a financial bonus to the mix; results from a second study show that the promise of a monetary reward can immediately improve performance, even on an intermediate task not directly associated with the reward.

Participants in the study were presented with a simple aural task — identify whether two tones were high-pitched or low — and offered a financial reward for making a quick decision on the second note. The researchers found that this promised reward improved the participants’ performance for the entire task.

It isn’t clear, however, if the observed effect requires similarity between the intermediate task and the rewarded task. In this study, the two were identical, but the authors suggest that this may not need to be the case. They note that very different tasks may require similar preparation, and their results suggest that preparing for the future rewarded task is a key part of the observed effect.

So, if you’ve fallen off your resolution wagon and are looking for a way to get back on track, it’s not be too late — and you may even be able to make a little money out of the deal.

Citations:

Berkman ET, Falk EB, Lieberman MD (2012) Interactive Effects of Three Core Goal Pursuit Processes on Brain Control Systems: Goal Maintenance, Performance Monitoring, and Response Inhibition. PLoS ONE 7(6): e40334. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040334

Zedelius CM, Veling H, Bijleveld E, Aarts H (2012) Promising High Monetary Rewards for Future Task Performance Increases Intermediate Task Performance. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42547. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042547

Image: alykat on Flickr

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