Study says doing this once frowned-upon thing will help you reach your goals

Goals, both long and short term, usually feel much more attainable during the planning phase. When it comes time to put those plans into action, reality sets in, and many goals get left on the shelf for another day. If you’re struggling to achieve some of the lofty expectations you’ve set for yourself, a new study has a novel suggestion. Just copy your friends.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say that deliberately “copying” or imitating how friends have reached their goals usually results in more determination and perseverance in comparison to just following an impersonal, pre-prepared strategy. 

For this study, researchers focused on perhaps the most common self-improvement goal out there: personal fitness. They found that participants stuck with their new fitness regimen much longer and more strictly when they had copied a friend’s exercise routine. 

The study’s authors call their theory the “copy-paste prompt,” and define it as the notion that people should emulate goal-achievement strategies already proven to be successful among friends or acquaintances. 

Such an approach to meeting one’s goals is “easy to implement, virtually costless, and widely applicable with the potential to improve outcomes ranging from healthy eating to academic success,” the authors write, via an excerpt provided by a press release.

We live in a world and society that values originality, and for good reason. The greatest works of art, innovation, and philosophy wouldn’t have been impossible if it weren’t for mankind’s engrained desire to stand out from the pack and be different. We all want to be our own person, but this research isn’t suggesting that you go out and copy your best friend’s 10th-grade writing assignment. You’re still reaching your goals and ambitions, you’re just getting some help from friends instead of an online article written seven years ago or some “guru” charging $9.99 per month for advice.

But, why exactly does mimicking friends’ strategies lead to more focused determination? The research team theorizes that behaviors or actions are generally more appealing when learned through first-hand observation. Also, it probably doesn’t hurt that when we adopt friends’ successful strategies, we have indisputable proof that the approach works. All in all, when we take a page from a friend’s book it motivates us to hold ourselves that much more accountable, which in turn raises our expectations for ourselves and makes it more likely we’ll use all the information we’ve been given.

Of course, no one wants to appear vulnerable and many people are flat out afraid to ask for help. So, in many cases, people miss out on everyday opportunities to pick up helpful tips or recommendations from friends or acquaintances. That’s why, according to the study’s authors, we should all lookout for more “copy-paste” opportunities when considering how to achieve a new goal.

The best way to reach your goal may be right under your nose via a sibling, friend, or co-worker.

Over 1,000 people took part in this study, and each person was asked how many hours they spent exercising over the previous week. Then, all of the participants were separated into three groups: a copy-paste prompt group, a semi-control group, and a simple control group.

Those assigned to the copy-paste prompt group were given the following instructions: “In this study, we want to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that someone you know uses as motivation to exercise. Over the next two days, we’d like you to pay attention to how people you know get themselves to work out. If you want, you can ask them directly for their motivational tips and strategies.”

Meanwhile, participants assigned to the semi-control group were told the following: “In this study, we’re hoping to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that motivates people to exercise. Over the next two days, we’d like you to get ready to learn a new strategy to motivate you to exercise.”

Ultimately, subjects assigned to the copy-paste prompt group ended up working out much more often than people in either of the other two conditions. 

“The benefits of copy-paste prompts are mediated by the usefulness of the adopted exercise strategy, commitment to using it, the effort put into finding it, and the frequency of social interaction with people who exercise regularly,” the authors conclude. “It may be that once a consumer learns to copy-paste in one domain (e.g., exercise), she will be able to apply this technique in a way that improves many other outcomes (e.g., retirement savings).”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.