By Thomas Roulet
As the end of the year approaches, you will see popping up on your feeds hundreds of advice on how to best approach and design your New Year Resolutions.
Research on New Year Resolution and their effect is not new and some of the most influential papers on this phenomenon go back to the 70s and 80s. Most of the research at the time was on weight loss, smoking or other substance abuse, suggesting a focus on changing habits. Similarly, many might create new habits around ecological consumption and eating. For those sorts of resolutions, the research found that less than half of the people had given up after only three months… But New Year Resolutions might also be about reaching milestones such as professional achievements or learning a new language. And those might slip out of our minds even faster if we don’t plan how to achieve them.
Why New Year Resolutions Don’t Work
In most cases, people tend to give up on their New Year resolutions only a few weeks after formulating them. Such failure is primarily due to struggles to plan the different steps towards achieving this goal (which is crucial to maintain stamina and motivation, especially if your objective is quite distant). But we also experience a set of competing priorities that prevent us from investing the right amount of effort and energy into delivering on our resolutions.
Research also shows that persistence and drive to continue pursuing the same goal did not help people stick to their New Year Resolution. Flexibility with regards to those goals did improve well-being: in short, people who could revise their plans as a function of setbacks and change in their environment and context were better able to exploit those resolutions.
How to Prioritize and Plan Instead
The first thing to address is competing priorities. We must start by recognizing we only have limited time, resources… and willpower. Setting up priorities for the year ahead is a valuable way to compare and evaluate the different pressures we experience and think about interdependencies: will investing in priority X take me away from priority Y? Why does priority X matter to me more, and what direct and indirect benefits can be expected pursuing this?
Planning, on the other hand, is about incremental objectives. Not all goals are quantifiable, but if they are, that will definitely help with setting up stepping stones, while also accepting that progress can be non-linear (i.e. if you plan to get your black belt in Karate or get bilingual in a new language by the end of the year, you might only experience progress in bursts rather than progressively). This form of planning requires efforts to monitor yourself and take stock: but research shows that such an approach needs to be more about feedback than control.
An approach that relies on goal flexibility (i.e. revising objectives), reassessing priorities regularly, and taking stock of what has been done might not only help us make the best of our year ahead but also make us less miserable!
Thomas Roulet is a social scientist, management scholar and a Professor at the University of Cambridge.
This articles first appeared on the Forbes website.