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Benjamin Houltberg, Research Director, Performance Science Institute, University of Southern California and Arianna Uhalde, Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing, University of Southern California
Published: 02 January 2020

People worldwide make New Year’s resolutions every year in an attempt to improve their lives. Common resolutions are to exercise more, eat healthier, save money, lose weight and reduce stress.

Yet, 80% of people agree that most people won’t stick to their resolutions. This pessimism is somewhat justified. Only 4% of people report following through on all of the resolutions they personally set.

We have spent years studying motivation, emotion regulation and behavior in family relationships, athletic performance and health information processing in the marketplace. Now at USC’s Performance Science Institute, we help people attain and sustain high performance in all aspects of their lives.

Based on our research, we propose a potential solution to the problem of New Year’s resolutions that people can’t keep: encouraging people to reframe their resolutions to emphasize purpose-based performance.

Why the failures?

What leads to so many abandoned New Year’s resolutions?

A large body of research on goal-setting and habits provides insight into the various reasons for failed resolutions.

Many people are not framing their resolutions in ways that will motivate them over time. For example, “exercise more” is a fairly clear directive, but it lacks depth and personal meaning that could help promote follow through. Overly simplified resolutions, such as “exercise more” and “eat healthier” contribute to the ongoing problem that emerges as early as mid-January each year: unintentional neglect of important self-improvement goals.

Make it purposeful

Purpose has been defined simply as someone’s reason for doing something. However, scientists have recently developed a more comprehensive framework for purpose.

Purpose is associated with positive outcomes for people of all ages. People with a sense of purpose make more money, cope with life hardships more effectively and are healthier across the lifespan.

Organizations that foster or reinforce employees’ sense of purpose are now referred to as “high performance workplaces”.

In the context of goal-setting for the new year, the concept of purpose-based performance becomes especially relevant. In our research, we have found that purpose-based performance is much healthier and more sustainable than outcome-driven performance.

Purpose-based performance has three critical, interrelated components: goal orientation, personal meaning and focus on something or someone beyond the self. We provide three questions that you can ask yourself when developing New Year’s resolutions to inspire purpose-based performance.

What are my longer-term goals?

The first thing to consider is your long-term goals, and how each resolution fits with those goals. Purpose-based performance includes goal orientation, or an internal compass that directs people toward some long-term aim. This orientation helps people organize and prioritize more immediate actions to make progress toward that aim. People who are goal-oriented and remind themselves of their “end game” live consistently with their beliefs and values and perform better on the immediate goals they set.

When setting New Year’s resolutions, many people end up with a long list of simple resolutions without thinking deeply about their rationale for each resolution, or where each resolution will take them. Linking an immediate goal with a longer-term aim can sustain progress. Thinking about who you want to become can help you decide which resolution(s) to take on.

Why is this personally important?

The next step to consider is why each resolution is personally meaningful for you. When people pursue personally meaningful goals, they are not only more intrinsically motivated but also find more joy in the process of goal pursuit. They are able to reframe challenges as opportunities for personal growth. In one study with elite athletes, we found that personal meaning helped them regulate their emotions when things didn’t go their way and display more patience as they pursued their goals.

Someone who pursues a goal for external rewards that are contingent on a particular end result – for example, validation that comes from winning – is likely to experience shame when they fall short of their goal. Even when they win, they may feel disappointed because the end result does not bring meaning to their life. This is exemplified by the “post-Olympic blues,” when Olympians experience depression after such a significant accomplishment.

Spend time thinking about your motivation for each resolution. Ask yourself, are you focused on a particular outcome because it will give you self-esteem, status or something else? It can be helpful to think about the potential meaning found in the process of pursuing a goal, regardless of whether you attain the desired outcome.

Who will be positively affected by this?

The final step is to consider who or what, beyond yourself, will be positively affected by your resolution(s). Desire to be a part of something greater than the self, or transcendent motivation, is beneficial for performance for several reasons.

Linking a resolution to transcendent motivation can be a powerful source of inspiration. Someone may link exercise goals to a charitable cause they care about, or they may think about how improving their health will make them a better partner, friend or parent. Research shows transcendent motivation improves self-regulation when things get dull or repetitive during goal pursuit, and it strengthens character virtues like patience and generosity. When someone’s transcendent motivation is prosocial in nature, they are willing to accept feedback about performance and receive increased social support in the workplace.

Think about the bigger picture. Consider whom you are helping with each goal.

Potential impact beyond yourself is added fuel for your goal pursuit.

Reframing your resolutions

What might New Year’s resolutions that incorporate purpose-based performance look like? Using the three questions above, we have reworked three common resolutions to reflect purpose-based performance:

“Exercise more” becomes “I commit to working out two times per week so I can be more present and energized with my children, so they feel more loved and inspired by me.”

“Save money” becomes “I commit to saving US$100 per paycheck so I feel more secure in my role as a husband and father, which will ultimately benefit my family.”

“Lose weight” becomes “I commit to losing ten pounds so I feel more confident at work, and my coworkers will experience a more positive version of me.”

Cheers to a new, purpose-filled year!

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