Despite January being a terrible month for positive vibes, weather and cash flow, many of us are still riding high on the continuing success of our New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s exercising more, going on Facebook less or simply letting things be, there’s plenty of research behind why setting goals can be effective in helping us succeed.
But there are also many studies which show goals which are too challenging or limiting can significantly impair our behaviour.
From investigating some of the theory behind goal-setting, and my own experiences from 2016, here are five tips to help you keep your New Year’s resolutions – and avoid being one of the 60% who fail after six months (Norcross, 2012).
Choose fewer, clearer goals
Last year I decided to write down 12 goals halfway through the year, which I wanted to achieve by the end of 2016. That was an overwhelming number, and my attention was spread too thinly.
One of the strongest reasons for setting goals is to help us focus our attention on what really matters (Latham and Budworth, 2007), so if you have a list of more than five goals for 2017, I suggest stopping right there. And maybe cutting it down a little.
Focus on learning rather than performance goals
My experience from last year showed I was most likely to achieve a goal where I had to learn things (like “Write more blog posts”) rather than one which was focused on performance (like “Be more disciplined about my time”). This is reflected in goal-setting literature, which suggests goal-setting for complex tasks where learning is required can have a negative impact on performance.
Try focusing on learning goals for this year, where you get to explore new topics and develop knowledge; you might find them more enjoyable, as well as giving you a greater chance of success.
Be clear on difficulty and proximity
The difficulty of your chosen goal and its proximity – the amount of time you have to achieve it – are very important, particularly if you do decide to set performance goals like “Lift the biggest weights in the gym” (Steel and Konig, 2006). A distant deadline may give you a false sense of security; regular check-ins are much more likely to keep you on track. Don’t just set a final deadline – set mini-deadlines to help you.
Difficulty is hard to measure yourself – how do you know what you can achieve before you’ve achieved it? – so take time to speak to others who have been successful in their goals, or who are experts in their field. I don’t think you should be too realistic because ambition can be encouraging, but don’t make it so difficult it becomes killer to try and achieve a single goal.
Build in feedback and sharing mechanisms
The success of your goal depends partly on the commitment you make to other people regarding the goal – either by telling them, or by including them in your goal (Locke and Latham, 2012). By sharing your goal with others, it can encourage accountability and realism. More importantly it reduces the loneliness of goal-achieving.
Feedback is also key. Another element which contributes to the success of goal-setting is self-efficacy – the belief you have that you can achieve that goal. Positive and critical feedback from others can help you develop self-efficacy and keep you on the path to success.
Make your goals diverse
The old saying of “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” applies to goals. Last year, nine of my 12 goals related to work. I did well at work, but other parts of my life suffered. This year, I have four goals spread evenly across essential areas of my life.
Take time to make your goals diverse, ensuring you are focusing attention and caring for a rich variety of things in your life. You’ll gain greater pleasure from feeling your whole life being enlivened by your goal-achieving activities, and you’ll make a more interesting dinner party guest.
Having goals is something many of us consider ‘a good thing’, so try making 2017 a year where you set – and achieve – goals you can be really proud of by following these five tips.
If you want to find out more about the science of goal-setting, and my own experience, read How the Research Behind Keeping New Year’s Resolutions Can Help You Set Better Goals.
What are your goals for this year?
Latham, Gary P.; Budworth, Marie-Hélène (2007). “The study of work motivation in the 20th century”. In Koppes, Laura L.; Thayer, Paul W.; Vinchur, Andrew J.; Salas, Eduardo. Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology. Series in applied psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 353–382 (366). ISBN 0805844406. OCLC 71725282.
Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (September 2002). “Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: a 35-year odyssey” (PDF). American Psychologist. 57 (9): 705–717. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705. PMID 12237980.
Steel, Piers; König, Cornelius J. (October 2006). “Integrating theories of motivation” (PDF). Academy of Management Review. 31 (4): 889–913. doi:10.5465/AMR.2006.22527462.