You make (and maybe break) them every year. New year's resolutions. What are the keys to being successful as 2015 approaches? Brain power, hard work and strategy. That's the word from Georgia Tech's School of Psychology. Professor Ruth Kanfer says many studies show that people who set realistic and challenging goals are more likely to reach their desired outcome than people who don't set clear goals.
New year's resolutions are typically outcome goals -- that is, end states (e.g., losing 20 lbs or mastering a new language) that are highly desirable. Envisioning such outcome-focused or distant goals is often initially motivating, but such goals alone are often insufficient for sustaining motivation and daily behavior change over time and in the face of setbacks. Our findings and those of others in the field indicate that motivation for accomplishing difficult goals or changing well-ingrained behavioral habits also requires setting short-term, learning-focused goals. Such goals provide support for accomplishing the outcome goal by allowing people to learn what aspects of their behavior and environment contribute to goal progress. Breaking up a large outcome goal into smaller segments also helps to motivate continued effort in at least two ways. First, setting and accomplishing subgoals provides a mechanism for boosting confidence and self-efficacy. Second, subgoals allow people to better monitor their progress and to adjust their strategies when encountering obstacles.
This is critical for staying the course, and the lack of learning-based process goals has probably derailed many New Year's resolutions.
Associate Professor Eric Schumacher says there little things you can do to help your brain, and yourself, to stay on task.
When we set a goal, we activate and organize a set of memory representations related to the goal. This task set guides processing and behavior to achieve the goal. For example, if we set a goal to lose weight in the new year, then we're likely to attend to stimuli related to that goal - like running shoes in the closet or weights under the bed - differently than if we didn't set the goal. That is, seeing the running shoes may activate other associated memories, processes, and behaviors that will lead to achieving the goal (i.e., exercising). However, we often have many concurrent goals, and New Year's resolutions may compete with stronger goals that offer more immediate rewards. So the immediate goal of eating another piece of chocolate cake may activate goal-related behaviors that compete with and overcome one's New Year's resolution to lose weight.
Originally posted in December 2012
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