Slipping on Your New Year’s Resolutions? Science Tips to Get on Track

It’s not too late to make New Year’s resolutions. That’s because January is not over yet but also because anything can be a temporal milestone if you want it to be. Some of the hype around such resolutions comes from what behavioral researchers call “the fresh start effect,” or the fact that people are more likely to change their behavior when a new time period begins. That juncture doesn’t necessarily have to be the start of a year, however.

Whether you want to set goals for a new year, month or week, there are evidence-backed ways to do so. Although research on New Year’s resolutions in particular is rather scarce, there is a branch of science that has been working to identify how to design goals that work for those who pursue them.

Starting in the 1960s psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham worked to develop a goal-setting theory based on scientific studies that were mostly performed in work settings. After looking at a bunch of papers, the pair realized that people with specific and challenging goals perform better. In 1990 Locke and Latham came up with five principles that successful goals should have: they should be clear; they should be challenging; they should not be too complex (and should be broken into smaller tasks if needed); people should be committed to them; and people should receive regular feedback on how they are being accomplished.

This research was initially done in a work setting, but these principles can be used for any type of goal, Latham says. Although it might be hard to get regular feedback on your New Year’s resolutions, you can still create a system to measure your progress or talk to a friend or family member to keep yourself accountable. You can also break big personal goals into simpler tasks, such as aiming to read one book per month instead of 12 in the whole year.

In the personal arena, committing to your goals is also important—and where the motivation comes from matters more than how motivated you are, says Ted Powers, a researcher who studies goal pursuit at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Is the motivation coming from outside? Is it coming from something that is internal and personally meaningful? That makes a difference in terms of how people proceed with their goals and how resilient they’ll be in the face of adversity,” he says. In 2021 Powers and his colleagues published a study that followed more than 1,000 college students for four years to see how many reached their academic goals. The researchers found that those who reported that their goals were important for themselves rather than for someone else were more likely to reach those objectives.

Although Latham and Locke’s principles seem pretty clear-cut, some are trickier than others.

Some research has found benefits in creating challenging goals. In 2016, for example, one study recruited around 100 people and gave them either easy or hard goals for walking. The people with the highest goals walked more, even if they didn’t achieve those targets. It wasn’t only about reaching an objective but about making more progress.

Yet overly ambitious goals can also create anxiety. In more recent years, goal-setting theory has differentiated performance and learning goals. In performance goals, the emphasis is on the desired outcome, whereas in learning goals, the focus is on the process. Beginners should choose learning goals over performance ones, Latham says. He uses himself as an example. He is age 78 and says that if he aimed to play golf more consistently, he would be setting himself up for disappointment. “It is just nonsense at my age,” Latham adds. “It’s just not going to happen, and I’m going to quickly get frustrated and move on.” If he wanted to achieve that result, he should instead aim for a learning goal, such as finding five new ways to improve his putting.

Many psychology and health professionals use “SMART goals” to put into practice some of the principles of Latham and Locke’s goal-setting theory. This approach, first developed by consultant and former corporate planning director George Doran in 1981 and modified over time, states that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. But superspecific objectives may not work for everyone. Christian Swann, a sports and exercise psychology researcher at Southern Cross University in Australia,  is very critical of SMART. Instead he has been experimenting with what he calls “open goals.”

Swann says SMART goals were designed for a work setting in which people already know how to do their job. In real life, however, people will often set goals for themselves in rather unexplored territory. “The reality is that the majority of people, for example, aren’t sufficiently active. So for the minority of people who are already active, specific goals work,” he says. “But they don’t work as well for people who are new at a task or are learning.”  

Swann thinks open-ended goals will help people understand where they are at so they can later create both more specific and challenging goals. In 2020 he and his colleagues performed a study in which they recruited very inactive people and then randomly assigned them either specific, open or  “do your best” walking goals. Not only did people in all groups walk the same distance on average, but those with vague goals reported putting more effort into the task and being more interested in completing it.

For instance, if your New Year’s resolution is to read more, under Swann’s approach, you should start just exploring and monitoring how much you read already. Once you have a sense of that baseline, you will be able to set a goal that is “optimally challenging” for you. Swann says when people don’t do that, they often end up choosing an arbitrary goal that might not actually work for them.

Whether to create a specific or not-that-specific goal for yourself depends on how far along you are. If you are just starting a new hobby or activity, you might be better off with open-ended or learning goals.

There are consequences of trying to pursue nonoptimal goals and failing, from anxiety to stress to low self-esteem. Some recent literature has found goals can be a double-edged sword, especially if you set ones that are not healthy or relevant, says Kristina Howansky, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Swann agrees. “Goals are not risk free,” he says, and “getting the challenges right is very important—not just for the outcomes at the end but for how you feel when you are pursuing the task.”

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