It’s that time of year again. Personal goals that have been neglected or forgotten resurface with the beginning of a new year. Hope springs eternal. Our current research reveals some interesting things about these resolutions.
One of my thesis students, Eun Kim, is in her last day of data collection. She has been out on the streets requesting brief interviews with people. Her questions revolve around new year’s resolutions. Do you make them? If so, what are they this year? How successful were you last year? Do you have a plan along with a goal?
Given how popular new year’s resolutions are (one study cited by Eun Kim indicates that 41% of people make a resolution for the new year), it’s surprising how little research there is specific to these annual goals. I was under the impression we didn’t know much about these intentions for change.
However, when Eun Kim showed me a list of the kind of things people were telling her in the survey, I realized we’ve been studying these goals for nearly 4 decades. Pioneering researchers like Brian Little (brianrlittle.com), Nancy Cantor and Robert Emmons have studied our goals as personal action constructs known as: personal projects, life tasks and personal strivings, respectively. The thing is, I, like many people, assumed the stereotypes about new year’s resolutions were true, that they were all about losing weight, exercising more and quitting some habit like smoking.
Of course, these are common new year’s resolutions, but they are far from a complete list. We can see amazing diversity in a partial list of what Eun Kim’s survey revealed earlier this month.
I had an epiphany of sorts as I read this list. These were the same lists that I had read over and over when I was doing research on personal projects with Dr. Little. There was nothing new here. There was everything we typically see in research such as health-body projects, work-related projects, inter-personal as well as intra-personal projects, even financial/administrative projects. In sum, new year’s resolutions are just one of the many ongoing concerns and activities of our lives. There isn’t necessarily anything inherently unique about these resolutions despite the caricature of them in the popular media.
I do think that the goals that become our new year’s resolutions have something in common, however. They have not gone very well so far this year, or perhaps in years past. We’re dusting these projects or goals off as the new year approaches with the hope that we can resurrect them for 2014. Perhaps we can, but we’ll need a few strategies in addition to a renewed commitment not to revisit them again in 2015. In fact, previous research has revealed that two years later less than 15% of people who made a resolution made the progress that they had hoped for when the new year began. Below are some suggestions for making a more successful attempt at these projects.
Strategies for Success
One of the strangest things about intentions for the new year is that they are often made during the holidays; a time when our schedules change, and we may even feel a little less rushed with the day-to-day tasks that typically occupy us. So, when we think ahead to adding a new project to our commitments or, more likely, bringing renewed attention to a neglected project, we optimistically believe that there will actually be more time in the new year as well. Why?
Research shows that we are biased in our predictions of the future by our present circumstances. This “presentism” leads us to believe we’ll feel less stressed in January just as we do now during the holidays.
In addition, there’s nothing like a good intention for later to make us feel good now. We have made an important, perhaps even noble, intention for change, but we don’t have to do anything until later. We feel great, and with the presentism bias, we also predict that we’ll feel like engaging in that task in the future too.
We need to address this overly optimistic bias with a little reality contact. Perhaps the best way to do this is to move from the broad goal intentions, examples of which were listed above, to more specific plans for action. When and where will you do what? Even the example above with the resolution “be a kind person” which included a more fine-tuned perspective of “donate more” lacks any specificity as to whom the donations will be made or from what budget this new expense would come.
Let’s take the classic example of the new years’ resolution of “get more exercise.” If more exercise is your new year’s resolution, it’s time to get specific. When, exactly, are you going to do this exercise, and what, exactly, will you do? As you think forward to the future, this mental time travel will help build some reality into the plan. You’ll need to schedule when you’re actually going to do that exercise (remembering how busy every day really seems to be), and you’ll need to set realistic goals as well (perhaps running 10K daily isn’t a realistic start).
In terms of the research to which I alluded to earlier, what we’re seeking to do is to make our projects more manageable. When we have a meaningful project (which new year’s resolutions typically are) and we make it manageable, we’re well on the way to success.
As I look ahead to January and February 2014, I would also add one more word of advice that comes from our research. Expect to “fall off the wagon” for whatever intention you have. Expecting that you will fail at times, you can now make one more important pre-decision. This time, the pre-decision is to be ready to forgive yourself when you falter and to try again. Just make sure that trying again is not something you put off until your next year’s resolution. Procrastination on these goals is one of the main reasons that we ring in the new year with our old projects.
Happy New Year! Wishing all of the Psychology Today readers the very best for 2014.
John, C. N., Marci, S. M., & Matthew, D. B. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors,change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405.
Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D.J. (1989). The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127-134.