If you haven’t broken your New Year’s Resolutions yet, chances are you will soon.
But why do we fail to reach the goals we set for ourselves? Gary Latham, Professor of Organizational Effectiveness at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has studied the psychology of goal setting and says there are several reasons for our failure to follow through with our resolutions.
Setting goals to lose weight, to be more productive or to spend more time with family are simply too general and provide too much wiggle room to allow us to escape our commitment. Effective goals, Latham says, are specific (How much weight do you want to lose? How much time will you spend with family each week? What tasks do you want to be more productive on?), measurable and with set time parameters. “The key to effective goal setting is specificity because the specificity gives you focus,” says Latham.
While it’s great to always have something you’re working towards, filling your notebook with a lengthy list of resolutions is a poor way to start off the New Year. Latham recommends narrowing down the number of goals at any one time to a manageable number–he recommends between three and seven.
“The whole value of goal setting is focus,” he says. Writing down 37 goals, for example, will not only cause you to lose focus, but allows you to procrastinate and cherry pick the goals you like instead of the critical few that you really need to focus on. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of goals to a manageable number, prioritize them based on their importance in your life, rather than what will be easiest to cross off.
Latham recommends discussing goals with friends, family or colleagues; individuals who can identify the barriers that may stand in the way of your success. Consider whether you have the ability to achieve your goal or whether you need to enhance your skills in a certain area in order to make the goal more realistic.
Are there situational constraints that may stand in the way of you achieving your goal? If your goal is to eat a well-balanced diet but your kitchen is stocked with tempting snacks, it’s going to take a lot of willpower to succeed. Removing the situational barriers that will make achieving your goal more challenging will heighten your chance of success.
The greater your confidence, or self-efficacy, the greater your chance of success in achieving your goals. “People with low self-efficacy look for reasons to quit,” says Latham. Perfectionists are particularly prone to failure when it comes to achieving goals. “They set excessively high goals and then they make their self-worth contingent upon attaining the impossible,” says Latham.
At the first sign of failure, their low self-confidence causes them to throw in the towel. To overcome the negative impact of low-self efficacy, Latham recommends well-intentioned resolutioners find a support system that will keep them motivated and provide a much-needed confidence boost when things look bleak.