Tomorrow is January 1, and it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the new year and new opportunities. It’s that time again, America. It’s time for New Year’s resolutions. But Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, warns your resolutions are very unlikely to come true and may do more harm than good.
In her new book, Presence, Cuddy writes, “We’re really bad at setting reasonable goals. And when we don’t meet an unreasonable goal, we fill ourselves with feelings of anxiety and lower our self-worth.” Dr. Cuddy offers four common mistakes with New Year’s resolutions.
1. They deal with absolutes.
“People are making absolute statements about what they’re going to do, and that’s setting them up for failure immediately,” Cuddy says, “because they’re not always going to go to the gym three times a week.” Circumstances beyond a person’s control will inevitably come between him and his absolute goals. But Cuddy warns to avoid the other extreme, one of setting vague and distant goals, such as “I’m going to get a job,” because that lacks specificity.
2. They are framed by negativity.
People tend to focus on things they want to change about themselves and things they don’t like about themselves. Cuddy argues, “When you do this, you’re eliciting in yourself negative emotions. Some negative emotions are motivating, but for the most part, they’re not.” It is better to attain “healthy eating,” rather than “no junk food.”
3. They are focused on the outcome and not the process.
Cuddy writes, “If you’re focused on walking 100 miles, and you’re constantly focused on that number, it’s going to be pretty demoralizing most of the way. You’re going to feel like a failure for so much of that because the comparison is between where I am now versus where I want to be.” Our best long-term outcomes are produced by lifestyle changes, not setting goals that are way out there.
4. They are reliant on outside forces.
It is unwise to set a goal to get a promotion at work. That is dependent on outside forces over which we have no control. Cuddy advocates for “self-nudging,” a process of constantly setting small goals in lieu of large ones. As a personal example, she says one of her goals last year was “to fall in love with running,” rather than something like “to go running three days each week.” As a natural byproduct of this approach, her pace began to pick up. And she didn’t even have to shame herself into getting into better shape.
Goals are a good thing. The man who aims for nothing will always hit it. Nehemiah had a goal to build a wall. Joshua had a goal to enter the promised land. Noah had a goal to build a boat. Solomon had a goal to build a temple. Jesus has a goal to build the kingdom. So go ahead – set goals. But in the process, remember that God numbers your days. It is good to think about where you want to be in one year. But it is even better to do something about it today.