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Water Cooler: Use goal-setting theory as a New Year’s resolution hack

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 26, 2020

The changes you seek when the new year comes don’t have to be fruitless resolutions.  (Pixabay)
The changes you seek when the new year comes don’t have to be fruitless resolutions. (Pixabay)

If you practice the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, you know how frustrating it can be when that new, shiny motivation of the fresh year wears out a few weeks in. There are tons of advice, systems and techniques out there for creating goals and habits, but goal-setting theory offers recommendations for setting goals that harness the power of our innate psychology.

American psychologist Edwin Locke is a pioneer of the commonly accepted goal-setting theory. Research conducted by him and his colleagues shows that more ambitious and specific goals often lead to more improvement in performance than easy or vague goals.

The theory recommends goals should have time constraints and that their difficulty should be set in the 90th percentile of what you think is achievable , assuming that the difficulty is rooted in motivation to attain a certain level of performance rather than inability. Their research found that as long as a person accepts and has the ability to obtain a goal and that they do not have other goals that conflict with it, there is a positive relationship between goal difficulty and performance.

The idea that sparked this theory is Aristotle’s form of final causality, which speculated that purpose can lead to action. That said, it is important to strike a balance. Choose something difficult, but make sure it is still within reach.

Goal-setting theory speculates that goals can affect your actions in four ways. First, goals can help narrow your attention and direct your efforts to activities related to achieving those goals, meaning you might spend less time and effort on things that are irrelevant to the goal. Goals can also make you put in more effort in general. They also foster more persistence. You will likely be more willing to work through obstacles and setbacks if you set goals. Lastly, they can help develop better overall cognition and awareness, allowing you to alter and direct your behavior.

To break this theory down into real-life application, start with specificity. You can do this by quantifying or enumerating a goal.

To quantify a goal, make it measurable. If you want to read more this year, decide how much more. Maybe set a specific number of books you want to read in the year or decide how much time to spend reading each week. If you want to cook more at home, decide how many of your meals have to be homemade and set a specific limit on how many times a week or month you allow yourself to eat out.

Enumerating a goal means to break it down into other tasks. For example, if you want to be more productive this year, list out defined tasks or projects that will lead to better productivity. If you want to run a marathon, break down how you will achieve that by training and other regiments.

The key to creating difficult goals is commitment. Goal-setting theory asserts that there are three moderators that can help foster commitment to a goal. First is the importance of the goal’s expected outcomes. Ask yourself how the goal you have set will change your life and how much that means to you. Second is to have self-efficacy, or the belief in your capabilities to take the action needed to obtain your goal and deal with the situations that will arise as you try to achieve it. Third is committing to others. Tell people about your goal, and better yet, promise them you will achieve it. A little bit of social pressure can significantly improve our dedication to following through with what we have set out to do.

If you have some goals in mind for this year, work a bit smarter and use goal-setting theory to hack your mind’s natural inclinations.

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