A research study has examined New Years’ Resolutions, and what helps people achieve them (Oscarsson et al., 2020).
The most popular resolutions were about health, followed by weight loss, and eating habits. 1066 participants were followed up over the year that they had made their resolutions- and over half of them (55%) achieving their goals. Three things were identified as helping people achieve their resolutions: having approach-oriented goals; using SMART goal setting; and having support to achieve goals.
An approach-oriented goal is a positive goal focused on what you will do. For example, ‘I will talk to my mother each week’. This is different to an avoidance-oriented goal, which focuses on what you won’t do. The difference can look like this:
|‘I will stop eating so much takeaway’||vs.||‘I will eat more nutritious, home-cooked meals’|
|‘I will reduce my screen time’||vs.||‘I will spend more time with my family’|
|‘I won’t binge-watch so many shows’||vs.||‘I will read more books’|
One key finding from Oscarsson et al.’s (2020) study was that approach-oriented goals were significantly more successful than avoidance-oriented goals (58.9% achieved vs. 47.1% achieved). So if you want to achieve a goal, think about what you will do, rather than what you won’t do.
SMART goal setting
Using approach-oriented goals was not the only factor in people achieving their goals, however. One group in Oscarsson et al.’s (2020) received help to set SMART goals, which is an acronym for the following:
If you have a personal approach-oriented goal such as ‘I want to get fit’- how would you know when you achieve this?
What is your definition of being fit?
What are you willing to do to get fit?
Is this possible or realistic for you in your current circumstances?
SMART goal setting can help clarify goals into clear steps, so that you can confidently say whether you have achieved your goal or not. As a goal, ‘I want to get fit’ is vague and unclear.
If we apply SMART goal-setting to this resolution, it looks something like this:
- Specific: I will exercise three times per week for 40 minutes after work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
- Measurable: You could measure goal achievement by the number of weeks you exercise three times a week, for example, aiming to do it for at least 75% of the year (and recording this). Alternatively, you may prefer to measure getting fit in terms of an outcome, for example, completing a 5km fun run within the year.
- Achievable: Setting a goal to exercise 3x a week for most weeks is likely achievable (whereas aiming to exercise 7 days a week would not be attainable for most people). Aiming to complete a 5km fun run within a year of commencing exercise should be an achievable outcome.
- Realistic: This goal is likely to be realistic for someone who has had limited physical activity in recent times (whereas aiming to complete an Ironman triathlon as a measure of fitness is not a realistic goal for someone with limited activity in recent times!). Likewise, if your life circumstances are very hectic, you might aim to what you can realistically achieve.
- Timely: Yes- this goal should be attainable within a year, which makes it timely.
Support to achieve resolutions
Finally, the researchers also examined whether receiving support to achieve goals made a difference for participants: it did. Participants were divided into three groups: those without support; those with ‘Some Support’; and those with ‘Extended Support’. People in both support groups were followed up monthly by the researchers, given information about overcoming hurdles to their goals, and asked to recruit support from within their social circle. Additionally, the ‘Extended Support’ group was trained in SMART goal setting, and received additional helpful emails from the research team as the year progressed. Participants in the supported groups were more likely to attain their goals. If you were going to learn from Oscarsson et al.’s (2020) methodology, you’d undertake some of the following steps:
- Recruit a support person(s) from within your social circle and tell them about your New Year’s Resolution.
- Regularly update your support person about your progress towards your goals, ideally on a monthly basis.
- Put a reminder on your calendar to undertake a monthly reflection on your progress, and make time for this. Consider your progress and the barriers that get in your way. For any barriers, brainstorm how you can overcome these- this includes for the unhelpful thoughts that can stop you from getting started. Discuss the barriers with your support person in case they have additional suggestions to help you overcome these. Reflect on what motivates or inspires you to take action, and use this.
If you’re setting a New Year’s resolution, focus on what you will do rather than what you won’t do.
Get specific about your goal, how you can make it work in your life, and how you’ll know when you’ve achieved your resolution (i.e., use the SMART formula). Discuss your plans with the people in your life, and recruit support to help you achieve this goal and hold you accountable for it.
Set a monthly reminder to reflect on your progress, and update the people in your life about this progress.
Consider the barriers interfering with your goal and brainstorm how to overcome these- or discuss with your support people.
Actively seek motivation and inspiration for the changes you want to make.
Employing these strategies will help you make the most of your New Year’s Resolutions.
Happy goal setting and Happy New Year!
Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One, 15(12). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097