I get asked all the time if New Year’s Resolutions actually work. This week, I will give you some quick and dirty tips to help you maximize your goal-setting.
There isn’t a ton of research on New Year’s Resolutions specifically and the studies that do exist leave room for interpretation. So, do we know what percentage of New Year’s resolutions fail? One longitudinal study on New Year’s resolutions found that 77% of people were able to maintain their resolutions for one week, but only 19% were able to keep them up for two years. Of those that were successful, the mean number of slips was 14. I think that’s particularly important to keep in mind, as it shows that success isn’t an all-or-none condition. For instance, if you set a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, you can expect that you will run into some roadblocks along the way even if you’re ultimately successful. But many of us choose to be harsh with ourselves when we experience a slip instead of seeing it as a part of the process.
There is also some research on a phenomenon dubbed the “fresh start effect.” Most of us are motivated by temporal landmarks like the start of a new year, the start of a new week or month, or the start of a new job. As such, we may be temporarily more motivated to engage in desired behaviors around this time. But one has to question how helpful this is for long-term goals. For instance, a person may start a weight-loss goal at the New Year and have a slip after a few weeks on a Tuesday. Instead of chalking it up to a slip and getting back to their program on Wednesday, they might capitulate to a certain degree. They might say, “Oh, well, I’ll wait until Monday to start eating healthy and exercising again.” How many of us have hit the holiday season and said, “The rest of the year is a wash and I’ll pick it up again in the New Year?” In my own pursuit of accomplishing goals, I have run into this problem.
You may be wondering how we increase our chances of success. One way may be how you think about the goal itself. There is research to suggest that approach-oriented goal setting has significantly higher rates of success than avoidance-oriented goal setting. Approach-oriented motivation relates to moving toward a desirable result like adopting a new habit. For instance, getting good grades, reading a novel every month, or cooking more at home. Whereas avoidance-oriented motivation or goals are about avoiding an undesirable outcome or quitting something. There is research on this topic to suggest that having more avoidance-oriented goals may lead to less satisfaction with progress and lower self-esteem. I would venture to say that this isn’t the outcome you desire when you’re trying to accomplish goals.
In line with this, I really have my patients think about their values and why they are truly choosing a goal. How can they align their energies toward what they want to acquire in life versus what they want to run away from in life? A common idea that I relate to folks is that hating yourself or your life is not a prerequisite for change. So, for instance, you can decide to go to the gym more often because you’d like to run a 5k this year or you could go to the gym more to avoid gaining more weight. The former may lead to a higher chance of success and you’ll feel better about yourself in the process.
You may also find that subordinate goals can help you achieve your overall outcome. For instance, I have a rower at home. One of my goals is to do 20 minutes per day on most days. I define most days as four or more days in the week. However, let’s say I’m currently doing zero days and zero minutes. Well, 20 minutes at least four days per week is an incredible jump. When you are setting goals, you want them to be challenging and reasonable for you to accomplish. A subordinate goal may be to start with doing two minutes on most days to start, then perhaps increase to five minutes, and so on.
Now, you may be eye-rolling over this, but if the ultimate goal is to have this habit stay with me in the long term, a more gradual build-up may lead to a greater chance of success. For instance, if I’d never baked before, I likely wouldn’t start with a soufflé or a crème brule. I might be starting with Betty Crocker and going from there. This also allows us to experience incremental progress and success, which can be motivating.
If you want more information on how to achieve goals, I strongly recommend listening or re-listening to my episode on SMART goals, using this player:
Whether you choose to partake in New Year’s Resolutions or not, most of us have goals we’d like to accomplish at various points throughout the year and sometimes success is influenced by how you start the race.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.