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New Year’s Resolutions & The Science of Giving Up

At the beginning of this year, you might have been one of millions of people around the world who created a set of New Year’s resolutions that you were determined to stick to. You might be doing great at sticking to them or … you might not.  


There’s no shame in it! A lot of people struggle to keep working towards New Year’s resolutions and long-term goals in general but why do so many people give up? In this post, we explore some of the science behind long-term goal setting and attainment. 

 

The Science of Giving Up 

Long-term goals require consistent commitment and effort to achieve them ​(1)​. Initially, when people set these goals, they are highly motivated to see them through. However, as time goes on, motivation dwindles, and many people find it hard to carry on working towards the goals they were once so determined to achieve. Researchers studying why we give up on our goals (which is called goal disengagement) have identified a few contributing factors.


Our well-being can affect how likely we are to achieve our long-term goals. Studies suggest that reaching a smaller, simpler goal can positively impact your well-being and help keep you motivated to achieve your bigger, more complex long-term goals. Conversely, experiencing setbacks and not making progress towards your goal can negatively impact your well-being and increase the likelihood of you giving up on your goals ​(2,3)​. A Lack of goal-related progress has been linked to higher rates of perceived stress and negative thoughts about the self ​(4)​. Similarly, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, which are associated with negative perceptions of the self, can also increase your likelihood of giving up on your long-term goals ​(5)​. 


Studies also suggest that the difficulty of a goal contributes to how likely people are to abandon their goals. Long-term goals are often considered harder to achieve due to the consistent effort they require and believing that a long-term goal is unattainable or too difficult to achieve can increase the likelihood of you giving up on your goal ​(1,4)​. Goals that are thought to be out of reach have been linked to decreased motivation and self-efficacy, your belief in your ability to complete tasks successfully ​(6,7)​.


How do we keep going? 

Staying on target for long-term goals can be difficult but, sometimes it is worth sticking it out. Some long-term goals like exercising more can be good for us.  Luckily there has been some helpful research in the area of goal persistence. SMART goal setting, sharing and recording your progress, and immediate rewards are all methods that you can use to help yourself keep working towards harder, long-term goals.


SMART Goal Setting 

When choosing which goals you want to pursue, it can be helpful to use a framework like SMART targets. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound ​(8)​. SMART targets can help make it easier to track your progress toward a goal by breaking down a larger goal into smaller, more manageable chunks ​(9)​.  You can read more about setting SMART targets in one of our previous blog posts, here


Sharing Your Goals & Progress 

Monitoring your progress and being able to see how far you have come can help you stay motivated to achieve your goals ​(10)​. A meta-analysis by Harkin and his colleagues reported that people were more likely to achieve their goals if they documented their progress publicly or shared their progress with someone else rather than keeping it private. Documenting your progress may lead to you putting more effort into achieving your goals due to indirect pressure from other people being able to see how well you are doing ​(10)​. Results from Harkin et al’s meta-analysis also suggest that physically recording your progress increases the likelihood of you achieving your goals. Leaving a record ensures that you are less likely to ignore or reject your goals.


The Power of Immediate Rewards 

A study by Woolley and Fishbach suggested that regularly setting up immediate rewards for yourself could help you stay on track for longer-term goals ​(11)​. For example, if you want to start regularly going for long-distance runs to improve your cardiovascular health, rewarding yourself with a snack or meal that you love after every run can help you keep going back out there.  


Should we always keep going? 

It is also important to recognise when a goal is no longer achievable, desirable, or worth achieving. Giving up on a long-term goal is not always a bad thing. Research suggests that identifying and giving up on impossible or futile goals can help to protect your mental well-being, physical health, and sense of control ​(3)​. Making progress toward long-term goals positively impacts our well-being and as previously mentioned, lack of progress or experiencing continuous setbacks in the pursuit of your goals can negatively affect well-being ​(2,3)​. Unfortunately, there’s no real way of knowing if a goal is ‘impossible’ until you start working towards achieving it. Using the SMART framework to help you track your progress can make it a little bit easier to identify an ‘impossible’ goal. Letting go of goals that no longer benefit you can be better for you in the long run and help to improve your life satisfaction ​(5)​.


In conclusion, achieving your long-term goals does not always have to be a huge struggle. Using some of the techniques described above to help keep yourself on track and knowing when it’s time to give up on chasing a goal can help you meet your goals more often.


By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer


References 

​​1. Milyavskaya M, Werner KM. Goal Pursuit: Current state of affairs and directions for future research. Canadian Psychology. 2018 May 1; 59(2):163–75.  

​2. Klug HJP, Maier GW. Linking Goal Progress and Subjective Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. J Happiness Stud. 2015 Feb 1; 16(1):37–65.  

​3. Brandstätter V;, Bernecker K, Brandstätter V. Persistence and Disengagement in Personal Goal Pursuit. Annu Rev Psychol. 2022; 73(1):271–99.  

​4. Boudrenghien G, Frenay M, Bourgeois É. Unattainable educational goals: Disengagement, re-engagement with alternative goals, and consequences for subjective well-being. European Review of Applied Psychology. 2012 Jul 1; 62(3):147–59.  

​5. Verschuren A, Douilliez C. Goal Disengagement and Goal Reengagement: Associations With Depression, Anxiety, and Satisfaction With Life. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. 2022. 

​6. Stamatogiannakis A, Chattopadhyay A, Chakravarti D. Attainment versus maintenance goals: Perceived difficulty and impact on goal choice. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process. 2018 Nov 1; 149:17–34.  

​7. Vancouver JB, More KM, Yoder RJ. Self-Efficacy and Resource Allocation: Support for a Nonmonotonic, Discontinuous Model. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2008 Jan; 93(1):35–47.  

​8. Bovend’Eerdt TJH, Botell RE, Wade DT. Writing SMART rehabilitation goals and achieving goal attainment scaling: a practical guide. Clin Rehabil. 2009 Feb 23; 23(4):352–61.  

​9. Ogbeiwi O. Why written objectives need to be really SMART. British Journal of Healthcare Management. 2017 Jul 12; 23(7):324–36.  

​10. Harkin B, Webb TL, Chang BPI, Prestwich A, Conner M, Kellar I, et al. Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychol Bull. 2016 Feb 1; 142(2):198–229. 

​11. Woolley K, Fishbach A. For the fun of it: Harnessing immediate rewards to increase persistence in long-term goals. Journal of Consumer Research. 2016 Apr 19;42(6):952–66.  

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