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Did you know, 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail within the first month? This is usually due to the resolution being focused on a far-reaching end goal rather than the journey we have to take to get there. We often focus on changing or stopping something rather than the more achievable goal of starting a positive new habit.
We asked neuroscientist, Dr. James Graham how to plan and make goals to help start you off on the path to success.
Well, the New Year is a temporal milestone that forces people to contemplate making a fresh start [Dai et al 2014]. Furthermore, the week between Christmas and Hogmanay is a period of reduced work for many, where our good intentions and desires are speculated upon by a bored and introspective mind.
Our experiences tell us that our intentions can predict behavior, but when the gap between an intention and action is too great, then unfortunately inaction is the most likely outcome. For instance, the simple intention to cook dinner tonight can probably be relied upon to be predictive, but for those that make resolutions such as to stop smoking, drink less, or exercise more, then self-deception and procrastination are sadly a more likely outcome [Sheeran 2002].
People differ in their human capacity to enact change — when setting goals, it can be easy to get distracted or even become weighed down by trying to anticipate the perceived cost, benefits, and consequences of our intended resolutions.
For me, I am normally a highly motivated individual but, like many of us, I am prone to procrastination. As such, I compensate for this by formulating even more intentions: I do this early on, I do it regularly throughout the year, I seek support from those around me, and I also set myself reasonable time windows.
Goal-setting theory highlights that the setting of smaller and specific goals (known as subordinate goals) can improve a journey’s success [Lock & Latham 2002]. So, when making a resolution, I set a series of short-term actionable goals rather than a single abstract resolution. Once that first goal-congruent action has been initiated, I will then progress to those secondary additional goals to sustain my motivation.
It can be helpful to draw a ‘Goal Tree’, which lays out the hierarchy of your goals. There should be an over-arching superordinate goal at the top — after all, this goal is likely to be intrinsically more important to our sense of self — which is then supported by smaller or subordinate goals underneath [Höchli et al 2018].
When drawing a Goal Tree, I try to encapsulate my ideal self at the top, then stemming from that goal I have intermediate goals as well as smaller and more specific subordinate goals.
The main goal could simply, ‘be healthy’, or it could be ‘run a marathon’. Meanwhile the intermediate goals are important contributors that will help the transition from those smaller short-term goals.
The short-term goals are specific and have clear timeframes and therefore should be easy to achieve. Therefore, these goals should come with regular feedback, which will in turn facilitate our understanding of goal setting and task performance. With this constant feedback, we will not only learn from our successes, but also from our failures.
Overall, to understand what is achievable requires us to formulate an intention as well as keep a broader perspective on how our goals are inter-connected. However, we do need to be prepared that not everything will work out as planned. Fortunately, it is these failures that will allow us to learn as it gives us the perfect opportunity to change tack on how we pursue our goals.
For instance, in the above diagram, perhaps push-ups and gym classes on a Monday are not readily achievable. Instead, a much more achievable strategy may be hockey on a Thursday and cycling to and from work every day.
James Graham, PhD
James is a neuroscientist and healthy ageing specialist with a Ph.D. from the University of Warwick, where he studied the biochemistry of age-related neurodegeneration. He has worked in the UK, Germany, and Australia and has more recently consulted on the development of original research manuscripts and commercial reports for several pharmaceutical companies in the Asia Pacific region. James’ true passion however lies in our understanding of age-related diseases and how we can promote longevity and healthy ageing.