January 1st is a popular time of year to make resolutions. The U.S. government even tracks the most popular resolutions, which include drinking less alcohol, eating healthy foods, getting fit and getting a better job.
However, research shows that these types of resolutions are prone to failure. Perhaps the biggest reason is that they aren’t actual goals, but rather lifestyle changes. To increase your likelihood of following through on a resolution, you need to develop a plan in addition to the ultimate goal.
If your goal is to get fit, you might decide to work out more. Anyone who has visited their gym in the last month probably noticed it was a lot more crowded than usual. Maybe you also know that it won’t be quite so crowded in a few weeks. Why is this? Eventually, people get busy and other priorities emerge that conflict with the goal of going to the gym. Not having a plan that accounts for those conflicts – like going to the gym in the morning on days when you can’t go at night – can doom the larger goal to failure.
Another important part of keeping resolutions relates to self-control. Self-control involves prioritizing longer-term goals over shorter-term temptations or obstacles. People fail at self-control when, instead of maintaining a gym schedule, they meet up with friends, focus on insignificant work matters, or just give in to laziness.
Yet self-control can be strongly enhanced by following a couple of steps: First, change your environment. If you are giving up smoking, stop hanging out with smokers in order to remove the temptations or impediments to your goal. If you’re trying to get a better job, then set aside space (by going to the library after work instead of home to the TV) as well as time.
Second, make yourself accountable to others for meeting your goal. Social sharing of goals has been shown to improve success rates, so post your resolutions on Facebook or another site designed to track and share your progress. Even simply telling your friends what you’re doing can be motivating.
Be careful when setting New Year’s resolutions. While following the societal norm about making goals in January can be beneficial for many people, it also can set unrealistically high expectations.
A good example is Valentine’s Day. Research has shown this holiday can be terrible for relationships. Expectations are set so high for this day that people can never hope to exceed them. Whether you go out for dinner or give gifts, the best you can reasonably do is break even, and many people fail even at that. There is actually a spike in relationship breakups around Feb. 14, partially as a result of these high expectations.
Similarly, we have unrealistically high expectations about our New Year’s resolutions. If we don’t shed those 20 pounds by the end of January, we often give up and quit the goal.
Perhaps instead of focusing on New Year’s resolutions, it would be better (and easier) to set smaller goals through the year with specific plans to offset challenges, environmental changes to remove temptations, and strategies for social accountability. Whichever path you choose, good luck!
Joshua Ackerman is a marketing professor at MIT Sloan.