Making New Year's Resolutions that Stick

By Emese Hruska — January 8, 2021

New year is a time when we make resolutions to do better in life or to finish projects we have longed for in a while. We may all know that at the beginning, our motivation is high but it tends to decrease over time and many, if not the majority of these resolutions are ultimately abandoned. This is understandable since pursuing long-term goals is difficult and requires a lot of effort.

But have you ever been thinking about why the rate of keeping New Year’s resolutions is so low? The simple answer is that these resolutions tend to be quite vague. In other words, they usually focus on long-term goals which means that they miss out on the specifics. Setting specific goals makes you more resilient when faced with setbacks and failures. Short-term goals sustain your motivation to persevere and resist temptations or overcome compensation effects.

They are conscious or unconscious acts aiming to cover up individuals’ weaknesses, frustrations, desires, or any feelings of inadequacy or incompetence. When compensating, people seek for gratification by doing something else and avoid doing the task which would lead them to achieve their goals.

Researchers generally agree that goals are hierarchically structured with abstract long-term, superordinate goals at the top and concrete short-term, subordinate goals at the bottom. What happens is that people’s goals within this hierarchy are interconnected and, as a consequence, can activate or inhibit each other.

Superordinate or long-term goals represent what people ultimately value and aspire to, and have at least two advantages:
Since they are fundamental to people's SELF, therefore they are more important and meaningful than their short-term, subordinate goals. Ok, that’s fine but why is it helpful? Their power lies in the fact that people give a heightened importance to them which increases their goal commitment to persevere in completing their goal during longer time periods. So, just the fact that people believe in their long-term goals, gives them the necessary sense of commitment and, in turn, enables them to resist temptations, therefore they can proceed further in achieving their objective.

The downside to superordinate goals is that the majority of them are open-ended  and not concrete enough (e.g. “to live a healthy life”), so they do not have a clear end date, and they cannot be achieved in a single step.

It is true that people tend to be dissatisfied when they concentrate only on the long-term goal as they realize they are still very far away from the finish. So, they abandon to celebrate what they have already polished off. But recognizing and acknowledging initial successes are crucial as they inspire and motivate us to continue working towards the final goal.

Particularly, perfectionists are ‘good’ in being dissatisfied! Such discrepancy can cause them to feel that despite the first steps of the long-term goals have been achieved, they haven’t “done enough”. Perfectionists do even conclude too early that their talents and capabilities are inappropriate and that they are incapable of achieving their goal.

So, long-term or short-term goals are in our favor?

Swiss researchers¹ were curious whether a combination of long-term and short-term goals would be more likely to help people keep their New Year’s resolution. They asked participants to make a resolution from which they derived either (a) a superordinate/long-term goal, (b) a subordinate/short-term goal, (c) both types of goals (long-term & short term together), or (d) having no additional goal beyond the self-set New Year’s resolution.

To illustrate, a superordinate or long-term goal is, for example, to live a healthier life, and proceeding from this, a New-Year’s resolution can be wanting to play more sports. And for this, subordinate or short-term goals are, for instance, jogging twice a week, cycling to work, or using the stairs instead of the elevator.

So, what did researchers find out? It happened that three months after New Year’s Eve, participants who focused on both goal types were more successful in their goal pursuit compared to those who concentrated solely on a subordinate/short-term goal or solely on a superordinate/long-term goal.

It was noticeable that participants with setting long-term goals intended to pursue their goal for a longer time than those who had focused only on short-term goals. On the other hand, those participants who formulated a short-term (concrete) goal perceived their pursuit more successful than those who had set only a long-term (superordinate) goal.

Actually, these results make sense. But let’s think about it!

When we focus only on superordinate (long-term) goals, we may constantly feel that we have actually achieved nothing. So, there is a discrepancy between the status quo (what we know we have achieved so far when working towards something) and it feels like that the desired end state disappeared when we fulfil tasks listed on our work-plan (subordinate goals).

From coaches we know that setting specific goals such as creating to do lists are very helpful as they boost performance.

Another advantage of focusing on short-term goals is that they ‘force’ us to create concrete, precisely listed goals to track our own progress by evaluating whether the advancement we made is less or greater than expected. In this sense, you may remember the great feeling when you knew that your progress equaled or even exceeded the expected rate of the intended one! :)

But what happens when you see this the opposite way, namely that you think you haven’t achieved as much as you had wished for? Probably you feel disappointed and disheartened because you realized you could not even finish the small steps towards your dream. At least, there is one thing you can do about it: Believe in yourself, in other words, have higher levels of self-efficacy!

If people believe that they are capable of carrying out a task or performing the required steps that are essential to achieving a goal, they are also likely to perceive their results as positive and as a success.

If you find yourself unmotivated or disappointed when working on a bigger, long-term goal, it’s worth checking your short-term (subordinate) goals whether they are detailed enough or you have finished the tasks you had written down on your to-do list. In case you realize that actually you haven’t completed that many, actually it's a success since you have recognized the source of the issue, at least. In this case, all you need is to continue doing these tasks with believing in yourself (self-efficacy), and you'll see that, on the long run, these little steps will take you to the end of your project. I know that it is sometimes hard to find energy in such daunting situations, but probably you agree that PROCRASTINATION is not the best in longing for results and success, so please keep going!

So, we’ve learned that focusing solely on short-term or long-term goals are not the best idea when you would like to achieve success. Instead, it is much more beneficial to combine them.

For example, when you already know what you want to obtain on the long run (e.g. to be a better performer/musician), it is best to LIST ABOUT THREE CONCRETE STEPS and describe how you would like to pursue your long-term goal. Also, before you’d move further, assess your skill levels at that particular moment, and based on that, set your medium-term goals:

– Outcome goals: e.g. winning a competition, audition, high grade
– Performance goals: improving past performance (e.g. more accuracy, more expressive
– Process goals: emphasize particular aspects of skill execution (e.g. controlled breathing, bow movement)

Finally, choose your specific short-term goals (e.g. ‘today I’m going to memorize this phrase’ or ‘I’m going to find proper fingerings to this passage’)!. These goals always depend on what you want to achieve. However, setting and following them definitely make your daily practising more effective and bring better results on the long run.

In certain circumstances when you feel that things are not going well, or the original goals appear to be wrong or uninteresting, it is very much worth changing them! The need for change is natural since you are in a process of learning and development, and you may realize that the original goal has become inappropriate. To change your goal in the middle of the process requires courage, and musicians often seem more inclined to retain their old aims and habits rather than giving them up and finding something more suitable.

However, when you feel so, take this courage and dare to change because you need that change! Noticing that you need to do things differently is a sign that you have learned something, you are more skilled than you were at the beginning of that journey. And this also means that you have done quite a bit in working towards your long-term goal! Certainly, since if you didn’t have started, you would have missed the chance of learning from this opportunity. So, you can allow yourself to believe that any progress is a success!

¹ Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2020). Making New Year's Resolutions that Stick: Exploring how Superordinate and Subordinate Goals Motivate Goal Pursuit. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 12(1), 30-52.