New Year’s Resolutions and the Psychology of Goal Setting

It happens every year. After the holiday eating and spending spree, we make promises for the New Year. You’re going to lose weight, stop being late, quit smoking, get that degree and get out of debt — right? Where did this custom come from? How common is it to make New Year’s resolutions? How often do they succeed?

Party favors including top hat that says Happy New Year and horn isolated against white background

Promises are easy to make, but hard to keep. How can you improve your chances of sticking to your goals? Let’s look at this topic up close and learn about proven methods that help you keep your New Year’s resolutions.

Promises Made Thousands of Years Ago

Even the ancient Babylonians made oaths to their gods during special times of the year. What did they promise? The most common resolution was to return borrowed objects and pay off debts. In the Middle Ages, knights reconfirmed their vows to stick by a code of chivalry. In modern times, many religions have holidays or seasons when people reflect upon their lives and how to make them better.

By the end of the Great Depression, about 25 percent of the adults in the United States made New Year’s resolutions. By the 21st century, that number climbed to 40 percent.

What Are the Chances of Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions?

Sadly, the odds of keeping your promises throughout the year are pretty low. In fact, around 80 percent of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions by the second week of February. Despite this dismal success rate, resolutions tend to help people succeed compared to if they make no promises at all. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, nearly 90 percent off all New Year’s resolutions end up unfulfilled.

Why Such a High Failure Rate?

Even though people may have good intentions, why is it so hard to stay on track? One main factor is the motive behind making resolutions in the first place. Think about it. The holidays are over, and you’ve probably indulged in too much food and/or drink. There’s a good chance you ended up overspending as well. So, what’s the knee-jerk reaction? Guilt.

While guilt may make you aware of your wandering ways, it’s not that great of a motivator long term. The reason is that guilt stresses the negative aspect of the situation. Instead of thinking about rewards, you focus on avoiding something bad. Plus, unless the consequences are staring us right in the face, we tend to forget about negative results.

When Setting Goals Can Be Bad

If you set yourself up to fail, this can transform into something even worse than the original problem. Weight loss and smoking cessation are typical examples. For example, stopping cold turkey or going on a crash diet shocks your system, and it’s hard to maintain this state. Many times when you fall away from the discipline, things end up even worse. You end up gaining even more weight or smoking like a chimney. This may lead to an apathetic attitude, and you stop trying altogether.

While stopping cold might work for some, most people have a greater chance of success with other strategies.

Biting Off More than You Can Chew

Another big reason people fail at keeping their promises for the New Year is that they set up too many goals or goals that are too ambitious. For example, compare the goal to lose 20 pounds vs. getting out walking for 15 minutes tomorrow. Which one are you more likely to complete? Also, if you try to optimize every area of your life at once, you won’t sustain the effort for very long.

Even though the New Year’s resolution success rate is low, there are proven psychological methods that can improve your chances. Let’s look at them.

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Set Small Goals

We already mentioned this with the example above regarding weight loss and exercise. When you break down your goals into smaller objectives, it makes things much easier. Small goals set you up for a string of easy victories. For example, how much effort does it take for you to take a 15-minute walk three times a week? Or, how about a new workout routine? This is a small goal, and when you complete it, you feel satisfied.

Every single achievement should be built upon to establish momentum. You could even put a big calendar on your wall and begin accumulating check marks for each day you exercise. When you begin to see lots of red checks, you’re motivated to maintain your winning streak. You’re more likely to stay faithful to the effort in a positive way.

Pay for It

Now, while you might think you can do it on your own, your chances may be higher if you plunk down some cash. For instance, if you hire a personal trainer, you not only have an expert giving you advice, but the trainer also motivates you. Having a commitment with another person makes it less likely that you’ll skip workouts. There is a wide range of programs out there for weight loss, getting in shape, and even getting your finances in order.

Team Up with a Buddy

Now, if you don’t have the extra cash, you might want to try to find a training or dieting buddy. When you know someone is waiting for you at the gym or the trail head, it’s much harder to skip your workout. You might even be able to find a local community group suited perfectly to the goals you hope to reach during the year.

Set Up a Signal

Humans are animals of habit. If you set up a cue or signal, then you are more likely to react. Remember the school bell? When it went off, you instantly reacted to move toward your classroom. You can set up similar alarms on your cellphone to push you into action to exercise.

Online Apps

Even though smartphones might not be the healthiest indulgence, there are ways to leverage them into a tool for well-being. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of health-based apps out there for free. This builds on the signal strategy we mentioned. With your device, things become much more personalized to fit specific needs. Search the app store for the kind of help you need, and you’re bound to find one that fits your goals. Another great aspect of these apps is that they capitalize on breaking bigger goals down into smaller everyday achievements.

Develop Self-control

Let’s face it, no matter how many tricks, tools and strategies you try, at some point you have to make choices. It can be very difficult to keep going and very easy to fall back into bad habits. It helps to understand that your self-control is a limited resource. Plus, self-control depends a lot on things like how much rest you get and the other stress factors in your life.

Some tools that help renovate your self-control are things like humor and exposure to nature. Developing your spiritual life has also been shown to help people have better self-control.

Some people get self-control mixed up with willpower, but there’s a difference. If you avoid going to the store to buy cigarettes, that’s self-control. If you have a pack of smokes on your table and try to resist smoking, that’s using willpower. Modification of your behavior can be a big help here. This allows you to make self-control decisions instead of relying on willpower alone. If you don’t buy a box of donuts at the supermarket, you won’t have to resist the temptation to eat half a dozen at 3 a.m.

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Find Your Mission

In many cases, your life might be disordered since you don’t have a central mission that gives extra meaning to your life. Without a mission, falling into bad habits doesn’t seem to matter as much. Make a conscious effort to identify a core mission or a passion. It might even be a hobby that adds a special joy to your day. When you discover a mission, you learn to develop focus. You learn to order priorities and make sacrifices to be able to enjoy your passion.

Happy New Year

After this New Year’s celebration, don’t rush out impulsively with big resolutions that are bound to fail. Instead, take your time to think about it and prioritize your goals. Pick one, maybe two big goals at most, and then break them down into smaller objectives. Make these smaller steps relatively easy to complete. Before you know it, you’ll be celebrating big victories built upon a series of more manageable steps, and next year will be even better.

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