There are a few cardinal rules when it comes to goal-setting, and you've probably heard them all before. Goals will be successful if they are specific- I will visit five states that I have not been to this year. They also have to be measurable, achievable, reasonable (
I will rescue all of the dogs in the local shelter) and timely. This is called the goal-setting theory, and it packages nicely in the acronym SMART.
And yet, New Year's resolutions seem to be a class of their own, completely immune from the normal goal-setting to achievement pipeline. Goals set in any other context certainly do not suffer the 80% failure rate the resolutions do. So what's the difference?
The framing of the challenge is different- a resolution is an uphill climb, a 180-degree life change, whereas a goal is a realistic change that will be made in the foreseeable future. A goal is a more familiar challenge that can be met each and every day, with room for error, whereas a resolution is do or die.
Psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford University studies how a person's mindset at the start of tackling a problem will influence their motivation to address the challenge. Dweck has found that when a challenge is framed as 'Do or Die' failure rate increases. Meaning, the stakes of succeeding or failing at the challenge are so polarized that it discourages continued effort after one failed attempt.
In her 2014 TEDTalk, Dweck talks about a school in Chicago that gives "Not Yet" grades instead of failing grades, which effectively encourages kids to continue trying to succeed in the subject. After receiving a failing grade, students are far more likely to cheat or never return to the subject, but "Not Yet" recognizes that tackling the learning curve can take longer than the school year.
The unconditional nature of their title sets New Year's Resolutions up to fail. Now is that infamous time of the year, the last week in January to the first week in February when most resolutions loose traction, fitness resolutions most prolifically. But what if the mindset was not ultimate success vs. ultimate failure?
Changing the way we focus a New Year's Resolution or goal at the outset is the key to sustaining progress. Shifting the focus from the finish line to the continued effort of the pursuit is sure to be more successful in the longterm. Imagine catching up about a project at work- the first order of business is, are you still working on this?, not a polarized measure of success.
As we close the first month of 2020, ask yourself if you are still working on your goal. If working on it has tapered off, start there instead of closing up shop. A continued effort will not guarantee a perfect success story, but it can ensure sustainability, and with sustained effort, change is inevitable.
Psychology cannot help achieve New Year's goals, but understanding the mind's strengths and how to work with them will.