Facts So Romantic

The Problem with “Smart” New Years’ Goals

Researchers found that people who set both superordinate and subordinate goals at New Year’s invested more effort into pursuing them.Photograph by marekuliasz / Shutterstock

There’s a name for the sudden spur of motivation we often feel at New Year’s—the fresh start effect. You might also feel it on your birthday, at the start of the school year, or during other new beginnings. It has the potential to bring genuine, positive change in our lives: Research by behavioral scientists Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and Jason Riis shows that people feel more committed to pursuing their goals just after these “fresh start” moments, and are even more likely to hit the gym. The researchers argue that these moments are powerful because they make us create “new mental accounting periods.” Fresh starts allow us to move our past failures to the previous week, month, or year, take a deep look at our life, and start dreaming of a better tomorrow. 

But while many of us sit down on December 31 to set good intentions for the year ahead, only a small proportion of us follow through. “There are several reasons resolutions fail,” says Bettina Höchli, a senior researcher at the University of Bern’s Department of Consumer Behavior. “One is that we have such high hopes.” You know how it goes: You haven’t entered a gym for more than a year, but, starting in January, you plan to go three times a week. “It’s a good thing to use this day to start a new goal, but it doesn’t mean that you’re a whole new person with whole new motivations and interests,” Höchli says. “It’s unrealistic to change completely from yesterday to tomorrow. If we want to change behavior over the long term, it’s better if we start with little changes.”

“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

There are hundreds of studies, blog posts, and personal development books that promise to help us achieve our goals. Many of them champion what’s known as the S.M.A.R.T. goal framework. Developed in the 1980s by consultant George Doran, it proposes that we’re most likely to succeed when we choose goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, personally relevant, and time-bound. Although this strategy can be helpful for getting you started on your goals, Höchli says it has some drawbacks when it comes to following through on New Year’s resolutions. “The problem is that S.M.A.R.T. goals are time-bound by definition, so if you have actually achieved what you were striving for, you relax,” she says. “You feel that you have done enough, that you can go do other things now.”

Höchli argues that achieving New Year’s resolutions usually involves building new habits. Rather than focusing on specific, short-term goals, she recommends bringing some bigger-picture, longer-term aspirations into the picture. “It’s not just about one single behavior over a limited time,” she says. “It’s about behavior change that should be maintained over the long term.” These superordinate goals are less focused on concrete behaviors and more on how you want to be in the world. Goals like wanting to be healthier or more generous fall into this category. They’re a lot broader than subordinate goals, like ordering a salad at dinner or giving $50 to the local food bank. 

Superordinate goals are also more flexible than subordinate ones, because they can apply to more than one situation. “Getting fitter,” for example, can encompass a range of activities—from winning an ironman to taking a stroll in the park. So if you don’t succeed on your first attempt to get active, there are still plenty of other ways you can make progress. “Going to the gym on Wednesday,” on the other hand, is a much narrower goal—and, therefore, an easier one to fail. 

Höchli may be onto something. First, superordinate goals are more closely tied to our “ideal self,” which means we find them more meaningful than subordinate goals. Psychologists have shown that the more meaningful a goal, the more motivated and committed we are to achieving it. A 2019 study by Höchli and her collaborators suggests that combining superordinate and subordinate goals can help us stay on track with our New Year’s resolutions. The researchers followed more than 250 people from January through March of 2017 and monitored their progress on their goals. They found that people who set both superordinate and subordinate goals at New Year’s invested more effort into pursuing them.

Setting the right goals is important, but so are our perceptions of ourselves. Self-efficacy—the belief that we can achieve the task at hand—is one of the most important factors influencing goal success. For example, one study found that having the “confidence to change” was one of the most powerful predictors of whether a person made progress in their New Year’s resolutions. Of the 200-plus people who participated, the most successful were not only more confident, but also more positive; they believed in their abilities and spent less time engaging in self-blame than those who failed at their resolutions. 

Höchli says that one of the best ways to stay positive is, counterintuitively, to anticipate the worst: “You should realize that you will relapse at some point. This doesn’t mean that you failed. It just means that you have to take another try.” There’s a straightforward explanation for why this is the case. Imagining the obstacles you might encounter down the road is a great way to strategize about how to overcome them—a core part of building resilience. But acknowledging the potential for disappointment at the outset also has psychological benefits; you’ll be less crushed if (or when) it occurs. 

Luckily, it turns out the disappointment of failing our resolutions may be less painful than we’d expect. “We don’t realize how good we are at coping with negative events,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “We treat our psychological immune system as if it’s incredibly ineffective or doesn’t even exist at all.”

Dunn specializes in the psychology of happiness, and has spent years researching what’s called affective forecasting—our ability to predict our future emotions. She explains that, by and large, people tend to overestimate how bad they will feel after failures or disappointments, as well as how long it will take to bounce back. They also underestimate how happy they’ll feel after other experiences, like exercising or spending money on someone else. 

In the context of goals, this inability to accurately predict our feelings can have important implications. People also tend to overestimate how happy materialistic goals, like wealth or fame, will make them, and pursue goals that will never actually fulfill their deeper psychological needs. But, Dunn says, these mispredictions aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. Consider studying for a big exam, or preparing for a major presentation, for example. Overestimating how bad you’ll feel if you mess up might be just the motivation you need to succeed. “Maybe it’s good to exaggerate the emotional impact that various outcomes are going to have for us, if that helps us take [our goal] more seriously,” Dunn says. “It’s a really tricky question.” 

Another surprising benefit of our inaccurate emotional predictions is the enjoyment we get from overestimating our future happiness. Our false expectations, research shows, can actually be quite pleasurable. “Even if you’re overestimating how much you’ll enjoy that trip to Hawaii, at least you can enjoy that anticipation,” Dunn says. “I think a lot of life is getting there.” 

Results from six studies supports this idea that focusing on the pursuit of a goal can be helpful in the long term. The researchers encouraged more than 1,600 people who had just achieved a personal goal to reflect on their recent success through the lens of either a “destination” or a “journey.” They found that those who thought about their goal as part of a journey were more likely to continue making progress towards it—even though they’d supposedly already achieved it. 

When I asked Höchli what she thinks of all this research, she reminded me of a quote by Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Achieving our goals can feel great, but it can also leave us feeling a little lost. “You’ve invested a lot of time and effort into something, and then you’re just done,” she says. “This can give you a really nice feeling or release, but it can also leave you a bit empty.”

That’s why Höchli, like Dunn, recommends making the most of the journey itself. “Have fun!” she smiled, as we said goodbye. “This is the best reward of all, I think.” 

Alice Fleerackers is a freelance writer and a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University, where she studies how controversial science is communicated in the digital sphere. Find her on Twitter @FleerackersA.

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