How The Research Behind Keeping New Year’s Resolutions Can Help You Set Better Goals

It’s been nearly two weeks since the first day of 2017. How have you done with your New Year’s resolutions?

It’s likely after a week you’ll still be on track – 75% of us who make resolutions are successful seven days in. But by six months, this has dropped to around 40% (Norcross, 2012). Not sticking to your goals can make you feel disappointed, ashamed and unhappy, which has an effect the next time you make – or attempt to achieve – goals.

Goal-setting and success is much more complex than it looks; much more complex even than the SMART method you might’ve been taught. But by understanding this you can set more effective goals and enjoy achieving them. In this article I’ll show you the research behind goal-setting and the ways my own experience changed how I’ve set goals for 2017.




To illustrate the complexity of goal-setting, take two pieces of research, around 15 years apart involving some of the same team. In 1981, Locke and colleagues saw better performance in 90% of their studies where participants had specific and challenging goals, compared to easy or no goals. So challenging goals can help encourage high performance.

Conversely, in 2006, a culmination of Locke and Latham’s research showed significant levels of poor performance in studies involving participants who had a challenging goal, but were intimidated by its level. So if the goal is too difficult, it can result in poor performance.

The question is: how do you know what’s a challenging goal, and what’s a too-challenging goal?

How do you know what you can achieve before you’ve achieved it?

Lots of us will feel passionately that setting goals is ‘a good thing’. I’ve always been a firm believer in goals, plans, and anything that can fill up a nice chart. And by setting goals, you can change what happens through narrowing the activities you focus on, encouraging persistence and effort, and modifying behaviour (Locke and Budworth, 2007).

Yet the success of your goal depends on a complex array of factors. For example, the commitment you make to others regarding your goal can be a deciding factor in whether it’s achieved or not (Locke and Latham, 2002). That’s why many goal-setting guides will tell you to tell other people about what you’re doing, or why ‘check in’ weight-loss groups are often effective.

Goal difficulty and goal proximity also have a strong effect on goal setting and achievement (Steel and Konig, 2006). Goal proximity could also be known as ‘the deadline effect’. Set a goal for a year in advance and you might plan carefully and stick with it – or you might lose momentum because it’s too far away to be of concern. Set a deadline of something very difficult for next week and you could be pushed into action, or overwhelmed with the challenge.


So the research shows setting goals is not a simple task, and achieving them is even harder. As an avid goal setter and achievement queen, I found this out first hand.

In the middle of last year I set myself 12 individual goals to achieve by the end of the year, ranging from specific and timely (“Throw myself into researching for the Global Fashion conference”) to general and a bit more exciting (“Book a really good holiday”). I used Lisa Jacobs’ mid-year review to help me, and for any goal-setting nerds like me it’s a refreshing way to put your goals together.

Out of my 12 goals, by the end of the year I’d been completely successful with 50% of them. Five others I did partially, and one I sacked off completely. Can the research into goal-setting help explain why some of my goals were successful, and others weren’t?

To a greater extent, yes.

The goals I achieved most successfully were specific and challenging, but most importantly they had proximity; they were events I needed to attend, or things which had a deadline. They were also the goals where I was committed to others – either explicitly, like presenting at a conference, or implicitly, like writing articles for blog readers.

The least successful goals were vague and too challenging – too much for me to achieve in the allotted time. Importantly, they were also goals where there was no feedback system in place; no-one to talk to about my progress or my “improvement in time management” or whatever goal it was.

The most radical difference between my successful and unsuccessful goals was whether or not I was learning something. Goal-setting research distinguishes between learning goals – where one is exploring and developing knowledge – and performance goals, where something definitive must be achieved.

Where I had learning goals, I succeeded to some extent – even if they were vague, like “Do more interesting research”. Where I had performance goals, I was much more likely to fail.

One of the reasons for this is clear: 

For complex tasks, goal-setting may actually impair performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997)

We’re so focused on ticking the box of a performance task that we end up doing anything we can to get there, which might bypass the learning opportunities available with complex tasks. I love learning, so I instinctively strayed from those goals where learning wasn’t a key factor.

Something to consider is our contemporary culture of setting #goals, openly or subconsciously, for every area of your life, from breakfast to relationships. And yet, I can’t think of a more “complex task” than life itself. What’s the effect of this consistent reduction of the complex task performance of life into a series of performance goals? What are we missing out on learning by prioritising tick-box achievements?

My yoga teacher often talks about ‘making the shape’ of the posture, but not really embodying the posture fully. I see the #goals culture in the same way; we are ‘making the shape’ of the achievement, helping it be visible to others, but not embodying achievement as it applies to our idiosyncratic and very complex lives.

In practice

The result from my investigations and my personal experience is to rethink what goals mean to me, and to work with the proven flows of my mind, rather than against it.

First, I’ve significantly reduced the number of goals I have for this year; in the last six months of 2016 it was 12; for 2017 I have just four. My criteria for this year is ‘experimentation’, helping me put learning at the heart of what I’m doing, and my goals are all oriented to learning, which means I much more likely to commit to and therefore achieve them.

I’ve built in clear sharing and feedback mechanisms, not only so I have committed to others but so my goals aren’t lonely. Plus, I’ve made them much more diverse; last year I focused predominantly on work, but this year they cover much broader areas of my life.


Understanding how the process of goal-setting can affect your success in achieving goals is key to making them enjoyable and meaningful, rather than binding rules or likely failures which knock your confidence.

I hope this research and my experience has helped you look with fresh eyes at your New Year’s resolutions. If you’d like some further support read Five Clear Ways to Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465045138. OCLC 36315862.

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.

Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (October 2006). “New directions in goal-setting theory” (PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15 (5): 265–268. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x.

Locke, Edwin A.; Shaw, Karyll N.; Saari, Lise M..; Latham, Gary P. (July 1981), “Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980” (PDF), Psychological Bulletin, 90 (1): 125–152, doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.1.125, retrieved 2010-06-01

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.

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