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Hack your way to better new year’s resolutions with a little psychology

Research suggests goal setting increases performance — if done well
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If you’re tired of failing your new year’s resolutions, science may have an answer. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
If you’re tired of failing your new year’s resolutions, science may have an answer. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

It’s 2021: a new year, and, hopefully, a new chapter. Although gyms and trendy hotspots remain closed, you can still fulfill your new year’s resolutions at home. 

For many of us, new year’s resolutions either stick or don’t, with little in-between. But with a few evidence-based tips, you can increase your likelihood of success.

Balance specificity with flexibility

According to a 2006 article co-authored by Rotman School of Management Professor Gary Latham, setting specific and difficult goals is more effective than setting vague goals, such as to “do one’s best.” 

Latham and his colleague, University of Maryland professor Edwin Locke, have advanced the literature on goal setting theory over a number of years with the objective of analyzing the advantages of goal setting and the types of behaviours that help make it more effective.

Latham’s article further explains that difficult goals result in greater effort and perseverance compared to easier goals. If a person is “committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals.” Goal difficulty and task performance go hand in hand.

This linear relationship exists because setting goals motivates people to use their abilities, bring their abilities into their awareness, or attain new information. Moreover, “performance is a function of both ability and motivation,” and as such, complex tasks may motivate people to use their abilities to a greater degree.

However, the plan developed to attain these goals should not be too specific. For example, instead of saying “I’d like to limit screen time to four hours a day by February,” one can say “I’d like to reduce screen time to between four and six hours a day this year.” 

Stanford Professor Baba Shiv argues that using numerical ranges, rather than a single number target or qualitative descriptions can encourage individuals and help them stay on track. These goals remain specific because they propose actual numbers and they are less likely to discourage individuals because they are not framed in an all-or-nothing manner.

Break goals into smaller subgoals and prioritize them

Focusing on subgoals tends to increase the amount of effort invested in the pursuit of a goal, according to a study from the International Association of Applied Psychology. This process also requires individuals to rank their goals. Combining subgoals with superordinate goals — goals that require two or more social groups to cooperatively achieve — may increase the effectiveness of goal setting.

Further, it helps to develop the skills required to reach your goal. Instead of focusing on the specific outcome, think about the skills required to reach that outcome. If you’re hoping to improve your GPA, for example, focus on learning how to write more persuasively or learning how to memorize details more effectively.

Develop a passion and confidence

When you develop a passion for your goal, you derive pleasure from taking steps to further it and treat your pursuit less like a chore. Studies show that passion not only brings a sense of momentum and purpose but also emotional fulfillment. 

If you have multiple new year’s resolutions, finding one that makes you happy can make it easier to fulfill your other resolutions.

Shiv also noted that “for one to be successful, one needs to be motivated.” Self-confidence or task-specific confidence can enhance other variables that make it easier to achieve goals, such as personality traits, feedback, and autonomy. To increase one’s confidence in a task, it may be helpful to describe the tasks using metaphors like “completing a journey.” Framing goals as a challenge rather than a threat can make goal setting more effective.

However, while self-confidence in task performance is good, confidence in one’s self-control can be detrimental to goal success. A study from Psychological Science shows that when individuals are satiated, they overestimate their ability to resist temptation during times of discomfort. 

Indeed, an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology affirms this point. While individuals may set goals, they need to persevere to achieve them. The difference between goal commitment and goal setting largely comes down to personality traits and self-esteem. 

Find an ‘accountabilibuddy,’ accept relapses

According to a 2017 study, having peers who go to the gym promotes more frequent gym use. Group goal setting tends to be effective, but only when the group’s goals are compatible with an individual’s goals. So make sure your ‘accountabilibuddy’ has similar goals to you. 

An all-or-nothing approach tends to not be very effective. However, realizing that lapses are normal and planning for them can make your goal setting more sustainable.