Social media is saturated with New Year’s Resolutions, many have to do with losing weight. According to Nielsen.com, the top two 2015 New Year’s Resolutions were to stay fit and healthy followed by losing weight. It is not surprising that gym memberships tend to trend upward during the first few months of the year.
How many of us announced our 2016 goal to lose weight to the world and ended up staying the same or even gaining more weight in 2017? According to a survey by the Opinion Corporation, while 45% of Americans set New Year's resolutions, only 8% are successful at achieving them. If you are not a part of this fortunate 8%, then you need to rethink how to set future resolutions.
You can think of resolutions as setting goals, or setting intentions. Being satisfied with progress towards our goal is associated with positive emotions. These positive emotions provide the motivation necessary to continue pursuing our goals.
Unfortunately, setting a goal does not always culminate in the desirable changes. Thus, a critical solution would have to address how to close the gap between intention and implementation. One demonstrable way to close this gap is to privatize our intentions. People tend to make their goals public, but research has shown that publicizing intentions might jeopardize chances to achieve our goals. This is not a new idea, Arabs for centuries have admonished against publicizing commendable goals, culminating in proverbs such as “the more you surround your candle, the more it remains lit”. Later in the West, Kurt Lewin and Wera Mahler thoroughly discussed this phenomena in 1926 and 1933, respectively.
More recently, Peter Gollwitzer published a paper titled “Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?” (1). In this paper, Golwitzer and colleagues demonstrate the deleterious effects of making intentions public, in field and lab settings. The conclusion was that when we publicize our goals, especially the ones that have to do with our identity, our goal-related performance is compromised. Ironically, this effect was only found for participants who are very committed to their goal! Lesson learned is that the more passionate you are about your goals, the more secretive you should be about them.
Why would making our goals public reduce the likelihood of achieving them?
Making goals and any progress toward implementation generate positive rewarding feelings. In order for these emotions to be motivational until our goals are realized, the reward has to be time-released. Our brain cannot afford to be a logical mathematical reality machine at all times, that would be too costly. When our brain is tricked into thinking that the goal was achieved, it stops investing energy towards further implementation actions.
When we publicize our goal intentions, and others acknowledge the awesomeness of such “potential” changes, we get our dopamine reward all at once (In a previous post, I discuss how dopamine aids the most resistant type of motivation “want”). The more others admire our goals, the more dopamine rush we get, and the less likely we are to execute the future necessary actions to implement them.
Therefore we deplete our “feel good” gas, keeping us from reaching our final destination: our goal. Furthermore, publicizing our intention to succeed gives us a “premature sense of completeness” (1). It signals the brain to move on. If the brain believes that you have reached your goal, it might inhibit the specific brain circuits related to further pursuing this goal.
This is also true if we announce our success prematurely, this stagnates further progress towards the final larger success outcomes (2). That is why many of us might fail after bragging about reaching a sub-goal such as eating a couple of healthy meals. To the brain this means “goal accomplished!”. Even though, our initial goal of losing 30 pounds requires eating 1,000 more healthy meals, working out, and viewing our favorite desserts as poisonous substances.
Secondly, we all have a basic need for competence, which is the basic desire for effectiveness, ability, or success. Much of our behavior is motivated by hope for competence and fear of incompetence (3). This need motivates us to sharpen our skills, change old habits, go to therapy or take new courses. And research shows that the more incompetent we feel, the more we desire to recite our competence goals in front of an audience. The more the audience compliments our identity goals, the less likely we actually work on our goals to become more competent. When we publicly set goals to become a more competent person in area X, our brain gets tricked into thinking that this future competent self is actually our real current self.
How do we make intentions that lead to achieving goals?
One solution that is clear from research is to make "implementation intentions" instead of "goal intentions". An implementation intention refers to an if-then plan that specifies the exact behavior the individual will perform in a particular situation (4). Implementation intentions specify exactly when, where, and how an individual will achieve a specific goal. It is crucial to link future desirable actions to specific situational cues (5). For example, “If I am held up at a meeting after work and cannot make my 6pm bootcamp class, then I will walk in my neighborhood for 3 miles”.
Here is another example from the laboratory, participants were seated in front of a computer and were asked to solve a series of complex math problems (6). As participants worked on these problems, distracting colorful video clips with exciting music played on an adjacent monitor. Before they started, one group of students formed an “implementation intention” to avoid the distracting videos (“as soon as the video clip starts, ignore it and focus attention on the math problems”) whereas others just formed a “goal intention” (“don’t get distracted”). Who completed more math problems? Those who formed the implementation intention did, whereas those who formed a goal intention were more distracted by the video clips. The goal-distracting event (video clips) was converted to service the goal of staying focused.
How to make your resolutions work this year?
- Keep your goals to yourself.
- Set implementation goals instead of general ones such as “I want to lose weight”.
- Set a monthly alarm to check on your goal progress status, this will keep the goal mindset active in the brain.
- Convert potential future goal-distracting events into cues to keep your goal active.
Wishing you a happy and blessed New Year!
(1) Gollwitzer et. al (2009). When Intentions Go Public. Psychological Science, 20(5), 612-618.
(2) Mahler, W. (1933). Ersatzhandlungen verschiedenen Realita ̈tsgrades. Psychologische Forschung, 18, 27–89.
(3) Elliot, A.J., & Dweck, C.S. (2005). Competence and motivation: Competence as the core of achievement motivation. In A.J. Elliot & C.S. Dweck (Eds), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 3-12). New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
(4) Gollwitzer, P.M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta- analysis of effects and processes. In M.P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, (Vol. 38, pp. 69-119). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
(5) Sheeran, P., Webb, T.L., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2005). The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 87-98.
(6) Gollwitzer, P.M., & Schaal, B. (1998). Metacognition in action: The importance of implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 124-136.