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On January 2, 1671, the Scottish writer Anne Halkett made an entry in her diary in which she made a series of personal pledges out of biblical verses, such as, “I will not offend anymore.” Merriam-Webster credits that diary entry as the beginning of the New Year’s resolution. The term itself was first recorded on January 1, 1813, in an anonymous column in a Boston newspaper.
Since then, a huge industry has popped up around how to uphold resolutions—and a mini-industry has emerged on how to be snarky about them. Take this article in “The Cut” from last week by Annaliese Griffin, titled “The Death (?) of the New Year’s Resolution.”
Both sides have it wrong. The problem is not the idea of self-improvement, which instead of becoming less relevant at this moment of upside-downness, has become more relevant—just consider all the people who are quitting jobs, moving, or otherwise branching out in new directions. The problem is that a resolution is the wrong metric for growth.
So, what’s the problem?
The short answer is that resolutions are far too focused on outcomes and not enough on process. They’re tactical, not strategic.
In 2018, Dr. Bettina Höchli, at the University of Bern in Switzerland, and colleagues did a comprehensive review of what psychologists call long-term goal pursuit. “Pursuing and achieving goals is difficult,” they conclude. “This is not only documented in the academic literature, but is also evident from the large number of self-help books available.”
They found that a better approach is to understand the distinction between and among different goals. Gordon Moskovitz of Leigh University has defined a goal as a “mental representation of a desired state that a person is committed to approaching or avoiding.” Goals can be characterized by their level of abstraction. Get in good physical shape, for example, or be happier, would be considered highly abstract, while do forty pushups every Wednesday afternoon or have coffee with a friend at least once a month are more concrete.
Those more concrete goals are called subordinate in scholarly parlance. The more abstract ones, superordinate. “Superordinate goals are very similar to values,” Höchli writes, while subordinate goals “define precisely what to do and how to do it.”
On the one hand, researchers have consistently shown the value of subordinate goals such as the ones most people make as resolutions. As Edwin Locke and Gary Latham of the University of Maryland summarized after thirty-five years of research, challenging, specific, and concrete goals are powerful motivators and boost success. “For example, the specific goal of ‘lose ten pounds in two months’ should be more successfully achieved than the vague goal of ‘lose weight.’”
This conclusion would seem to support your New Year’s resolution!
But here’s the problem: Losing ten pounds in two months is an empty accomplishment. If your goal is to live healthier, be fitter, feel better, or be happier, losing ten pounds only accomplishes part of your dream. (And that doesn’t even take into consideration, as Gretchen Reynolds showed in the New York Times recently, that most people who lose weight gain it back relatively quickly.)
The better approach, Höchli points out, is to make both short-term and long-term goals. “People pursue goals in the long term better when they focus on both subordinate and superordinate goals as compared to when they focus on either subordinate or superordinate goals alone.”
So, this year, don’t make resolutions you won’t follow or resolutions that have hollow victories. Instead, set some lofty values you want to achieve—spend more time with loved ones; read more books; less screen time, more nature time—then set a couple of practical ways you can make those dreams come true. And remember: Life is nonlinear; your dreams are nonlinear, too. Hitting your subordinate benchmarks is not what matters; it’s your subordinate ones that you’re trying to fulfill.
Once that happens maybe we can all resolve to say goodby to New Year's resolutions.
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