Mariana Plata

The Gen Y Psy


The Mental Strategy to Help You Keep Your 2018 Goals

One week of 2018 is long gone. How are your resolutions holding up?

Posted Jan 08, 2018

Cathryn Lavery / Unsplash
Source: Cathryn Lavery / Unsplash

I came across an Instagram post the other day that read: "maturity is when you realize that a new year won't change your life." At first, I beat myself up, thinking, "well, I guess there goes my maturity." Mainly, because the promise of a new year (especially after the emotional rollercoaster that was 2017), is always some to look forward to. But, then, I started wondering about New Year's resolutions. What makes them so popular? Why are people so obsessed with goal-setting at the end of the year? And why do people have a love and hate relationship with them? 

It might be that "fresh start" feel that a year gives you (double points this year because we started the year on a Monday in 2018), but there's also something about tradition. People can set goals year-round, why choose New Years? More importantly, why is it so difficult to achieve them? My guess relies on two important things: people don't set achievable goals and they don't ask themselves why they want that in the first place. 

Mental Contrasting, a term coined by motivational psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen, refers to challenging the traditional ways of positive thinking. Rather than just fixing your thoughts on your goals, Oettingen suggests contrasting this with the possible obstacles that might affect reaching said goal. Sounds simple, right? In theory, it is. However, an important aspect for this to work is the disposition for success and self-confidence. So much so that studies have actually shown how that "those who had low expectations of success did three times as worse as those in the control condition". But, what exactly does this strategy entail? 

The Premise 

"When people use mental contrasting, they first name an important personal wish from a specific domain ("getting a raise"). They then identify and imagine the best outcome associated with having realized their wish ("feeling more appreciated"). Following these two steps, they identify and imagine the crucial inner obstacle in their present reality standing in the way of realizing their wish ("fear of being rejected").", Oettingen mentions in a recent study published in the Journal of Social Psychology. 

When people refer to resolutions, they usually just talk about their wishes. "I want to lose weight", "I want to get a raise", "I want to eat more healthy" - but all of these statements have two problems: they're vague and are not being contrasted by the outcome nor the obstacle. When we don't ask ourselves "why do I want this", we are setting ourselves up for failure. There's a big difference between doing it for yourself than doing it because of societal pressure, and in the big picture - which do you think will have a better long-term effect? 

Oettingen continues to explain "...imagining only the desired future (indulging), only the present reality (dwelling), or imagining the reality before the future (reverse contrasting), do not modulate respective mental associations." In simpler terms, for goal-setting to truly work, one must be able to not only envision our desired goal but also keep it realistic. We must ask ourselves these questions: Why do I want this? What are the foreseeable obstacles that might prevent me from reaching my goal? What can I do to minimize these obstacles? 

Why It Works 

A recent study published in the November 2017 issue of the Journal of Social Psychology has found that people who were well self-regulated (meaning that they control themselves to overcome immediate impulses and act in their long-term best interests) used more mental contrasting strategies. In addition to this, Oettingen and her team explain that "these effects occur when people have high expectations of realizing the future. If they have low expectations, mental contrasting weakens future-reality associations and reality-means associations." 

This strategy has proven successful in different settings, including with children, teens and health-related goals, among others. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has shown that using mental contrasting with a high expectation of success creates a neuronal connection between future outcome and possible obstacle - which extends the benefits of this strategy to brain connections. 

What To Do 

Ok, so now that we've covered the theory and studies backing up this strategy - what exactly is the step-by-step guide to making this happen? First off, as mentioned earlier, you might want to steer clear if you tend to have pessimistic views of the future, for research keeps pointing that this works when associated with high expectations of success. 

  1. Write down your wish for a specific domain. I like to use an adapted version of the wheel of life to narrow down those domains, which typically include: Career, Finance, Personal Growth, Physical Health, Emotional Health, Family, Relationships, Social Life. Choose one domain to start with - the one you think needs the most work.
  2. Write down the best outcome associated with fulfilling your wish. What is it that you hope to achieve? To feel better about yourself? Lower your cholesterol levels? Understand your emotions better? To earn a promotion by the end of the year? To earn a bonus by the end of the year? Choose the best outcome, and try to be as clear and explicit as possible. 
  3. Write down the most critical obstacle that keeps you from fulfilling your wish. This one is tricky - is it time? Money? Children? Partner? Career? What's the one thing you can change under your control?

Goal-setting might happen organically for some people, and others might need the extra push. This strategy is a great way to start this new year with a new perspective and a new strategy to finally achieving your goals. Let me know in the comments down below if you've tried this strategy and if it has worked for you. 


Sevincer, A. T., Mehl, P. J., & Oettingen, G. (2017, 11). Well Self-Regulated People Use Mental Contrasting. Social Psychology,48(6), 348-364. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000322