What We Learned from Stick to It

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At the start of 2016, thousands of people resolved to exercise more, just like they do each year.

We were among them. We knew our motivation would waver – it happens every time. But with all of the life hacking and motivational research and lifestyle tips out there, wasn’t there something we could do to make 2016 different?

We teamed up with behavioral economist Dan Ariely at Duke University who said: Sure! Let’s make an app to help people stick to their exercise goals. But let’s make it an experiment.

That meant we had to keep what we were studying and how we were studying it a secret - until now.

Dan’s Hypothesis: Could a Ritual Help You Exercise More?

Dan’s inspiration came from a study out of Harvard’s Business School by behavioral scientist Michael Norton. Norton wanted to see how he might impact healthy eating behaviors. Rituals, he knew, help people work through grief, move on after relationships, and grapple with loss. But what if ritualistic behavior could also make people feel better about everyday experiences, like eating a snack?

Norton explains his study like this: “We said, ‘Here are some carrots. You’re going to eat them, but what we want you to do in between each one is to do a little bit of a ritual. We want you to knock the table three times and snap a little bit, and then eat the carrot. And then we want you to do that again. And then eat the next carrot. And then do it again.”

The results were clear: People who engaged in rituals with carrots tended to enjoy them more than people who just grabbed the bag.

So Dan decided to come up with some rituals for exercise to find out if pairing them with an exercise routine would help people exercise more. 

What We Did

Stick to It participants were assigned to one of five groups, and four of those five were assigned a ritual.

Some found the rituals really helpful....

...and found a new approach to fitness.

Not everyone did the same ritual. We divided participants into five groups and asked them to download an app. For people using Android, that app was called Fabulous. For people using iOS, that app was called Sample Size Matters (SSM). Fabulous users were asked to check in weekly. SSM users were asked to check in daily and weekly.

The app asked users to do one of five rituals after waking up, right before and after exercising. Some were more elaborate than others:

  • Take a few sips of water,
  • Practice deep breathing (audio),
  • Take a certain number of sips of water depending on the day of the week (audio), 
  • Rub your hands together until they feel warm. Place your right hand over your heart and your left palm on your head (audio),
  • Or… nothing (we love you, control group).

We didn’t tell you what group you were in, and we didn’t tell you exactly what Dan and his team were trying to find out. You can see more details about the project design here.

What They Learned

First things first: to the question of whether rituals help you stick to an exercise plan... the results are inconclusive. That’s the beauty of running an actual open-ended experiment on a podcast: we get to try things, and not all of them work out the way we expect.

We asked Dan Ariely and his team to explain their takeaways. 

Q. What have you been able to conclude from the Stick to It data so far?

  1. Rituals may help you exercise more, but they don’t necessarily help you enjoy it more.
  2. There was no consistent evidence that one ritual worked better than another. That said, we know the two less elaborate rituals (taking a few sips of water and deep breathing) were less effective.

Here’s a visual:


Q: What differences did you notice between the ritual groups?

Most likely, different people got benefits from different types of rituals. On average, it was hard to make rituals consistently better for everyone. Our results suggest that rituals work better for some depending on religiosity and personality: rituals work better for those who are non-religious; less disciplined; or less active before joining the study (old exercise frequency <2 times/week); and it works less well for those who have no aspiration to improve (targeted frequency <= old frequency). E.g., on Fabulous, non-religious participants on average exercise 0.43 times more per week in ritual groups compared to those in the control group, whereas religious participants on average exercise 0.1 times more per week in ritual groups compared to those in the control group).

Q. What did you learn from this project that might help guide you in your next one?

We are most intrigued by how rituals work differently for different populations. For instance, you would expect [rituals] to work more for religious people because they are more familiar with the concept of doing rituals in their daily life. However, it could also work less well for them if the specific rituals designed are too “strange” or too different from what they normally expect of a ritual. I probably spent too much time in California because the rituals we created are too secular.

Q: What can participants do if they want more details or explanation about the results?

Email questions to advancedhindsight@gmail.com and use subject line "Stick to it".

Participants: As they continue digging through the data, Dan and his team would love to hear more about how the project went for you, whether or not you stuck to it through the end. Take their follow up survey here.