3 Goal Setting Theories to Stick Your 2021 New Year's Resolutions

Setting your New Year's resolutions? “New year, new me” is a common expression we often hear while making New Year's resolutions. We set ambitious goals and wait in anticipation for the clock to strike 12 on January 1st. Yet, despite our motivation and excitement for change, we often find it difficult to reach our goals. Thankfully, here at LIFE Intelligence, we are obsessed with the science behind productivity, self-control, and stress relief. Here are some goal setting theories to help you achieve your new year resolutions.

New Year's resolutions rarely stick

New Year’s offers us a clean slate, however, a recent study shows us that the fresh start effect seems to dissipate quickly. After one week, 77% of people had maintained their goals. A month into the new year, the number dropped to 55%, before eventually falling to only 40% at the six-month mark. (Oscarsson et al., 2020)


When we think of goal-setting and achieving one’s goals, most of us think motivation is the primary factor needed for goal achievement. Motivation has long been studied and written about, formulating many theories and ideas of how to stay motivated. However, motivation is only one ingredient for the recipe for goal achievement. Here are 3 key theories for goal achievement.

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1. Mental Contrasting Model: Assess both Hopes and Hurdles

Goals need to be ambitious and one should be zealous when pursuing their goals. However, ambition does not solely facilitate goal-directed behavior and action. Goals require tactics and planning, much like how football players and coaches will go over strategies before the game. This is not to say ambition and drive is not important, merely they are a part of the equation for goal achievement.


One way to create a successful game plan is mental contrasting with implementation intention (MCII). This concept is derived from a model conceptualized by Gabriele Oettingen called the fantasy realization theory. The theory categorizes our self-regulatory thoughts into three groups: indulging, dwelling, and mental contrasting.

1. Indulging thoughts are thoughts, experiences, and feelings we desire (e.g. receiving a compliment, doing well on an exam, getting a promotion). Indulging thoughts are set in the future and are made up of positive mental imagery.

2. Conversely, dwelling thoughts are based in the present and consist of obstacles that would get in the way of us achieving our desired end-state (e.g. exam material is extremely difficult, a bad professor).

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Mental contrasting is an amalgam of indulging and dwelling. A desired state/goal is envisioned and present obstacles are identified. For example, I want to get an A on an exam (indulging), but the exam material is quite difficult and I know I will have to spend many hours studying (dwelling). This allows me to recognize what obstacles I need to overcome in order to achieve my desired future.


Mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) is essentially the applied version of mental contrasting. As the name might imply, implementation intentions are the actions one takes to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of their desired future. Continuing with the example of me getting an A on an exam, I know the material is quite difficult. So first, I plan out what I will do in order to better understand the material such as going to office hours after class, forming a study group, seeing a tutor for the class, etc. Goals that are conceptualized with the MCII model promote goal-directed behaviors and increase goal achievement (Duckworth et al., 2013; Oettingen 2000).

2. The WOOP strategy: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan

This strategy was also formulated by Gabriele Oettingen. It stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. The process can be broken down into different sections.

1. Determine what type of wish (goal) you want to fulfill (professional, health or interpersonal) and the timeframe, if any, you wish to complete it by. Choose a wish that is challenging, yet feasible.

2. Imagine the best possible outcome and how achieving that wish would make you feel.

3. Determine any external (e.g. having no access to a gym) and internal (e.g. lack of motivation) obstacles.

4. Create “if-then” plans. Choose an action or thought to perform when you encounter obstacles.

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An experiment studying the physical activity goals of women using the WOOP method found that the women had significantly increased their physical activity. The women were randomly assigned to two groups: an information and self-regulation group and an information only group. Both groups were given an information packet regarding physical activity,  were asked to fill out a healthy lifestyle questionnaire and a discussion portion. 

Those in the self-regulation group were given a diary and asked:

1. Write down your most important wish in relation to physical activity

2. Write down the most optimal outcome(s) of fulfilling your wish

3. Write down one major obstacle you will face

4. Write down three implementation intentions

After they had completed the implementation intentions, the women were asked to answer the following questions:

“When and where does the obstacle occur, and what can I do to overcome or circumvent the obstacle?"

"When and where is an opportunity to prevent the obstacle from occurring, and what can I do to prevent it from occurring?"

"When and where is a good opportunity for me to act on my wish, and what would this action be?”

The results were quite significant, women in the information and self-regulation group were twice as active as the women in the information-only group (Stadler et al., 2009). Needless to say, self-regulation is an important factor in goal achievement.

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3. Motivation & Skill Model: Understand Goal Why and How

Goals are comprised of high-order goals and low-order goals. Think of high-order goals as the “why” and low-order are the “how.” For example, if an individual sets their goal as exercising a few times a week, high-order goals ask, “why do I want to exercise a few times a week?” Low-order goals ask, “how am I going to workout a few times a week?”

Goal-striving is all about changing or adding behaviors that align with your goal. If your high-order goal is to be healthier, your goal striving may look like using a standing desk, going for walks after dinner, adding more vegetables to your plate, etc. Setting goals is like choosing a vacation spot, striving for goals is the process of buying a plane ticket, packing, and leaving for the airport. 


The “how” and the “why” of goal striving can be broken down a bit further. The “why” is associated with motivation while the “how” is related to the skill level required for the goal. Behavior can be separated into four categories, as shown by this graph created by Elliot T. Berkman.



Let's break down this graph.

1. Complex but routine tasks are high skill tasks that we do so often that we can sometimes go on “autopilot mode.” These are things that are second nature to us, such as riding a bike. 

2. Simple and routine are tasks that require virtually no skill and are quite easy. Eating and drinking fall under these tasks, however, we often do not view them as tasks or goals.

3. Complex and novel tasks require a higher level of skill and feel harder, thus needing more motivation. A large number of goals will fall under this category.

4. Simple but novel tasks do not need much skill, however, they do require a lot of motivation. Cleaning is a great example since it does not need a lot of skill to do, but it typically needs a lot of motivation.

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As mentioned above, goals tend to lie in the complex and novel category, meaning they require a great amount of skill, knowledge, and motivation. Based on the graph, Berkman formulated questions to help with behavior change. In line with the study, ask yourself the following:

1. “Do I already have the skills required for the new task, or do I need to go acquire them?"

2. "Is the barrier to change a lack of a way or a lack of a will? Am I trying to move up, to the right, or both on the axes of the graph?"

3. "If I lack motivation, Am I lacking motivation to approach a desirable outcome or to avoid an undesirable one?"

4. "If I lack the skills, is it possible that I already possess the skills but am stuck in a closed mindset and overly focused on one aspect of behavior?”

While the graph may be more of a visual aid, the questions that follow it are useful in identifying the skills and level of motivation needed for a specific goal.(Berkman, 2018)

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Goal setting apps like LIFE Intelligence can help


This New Year’s will look different than in previous years. In addition to managing COVID-19 mental health challenges, we’re also struggling with staying motivated and focused while working from home. This additional stress may make it more difficult to set goals and stick with them.

If you’re interested in a digital way to keep track of your “why,” “how,” dreams and goals, LIFE Intelligence is a new type of productivity app that provides complete self, career, and relationship problem-solving skills.

The app is a 9-Mission (module) science-backed program that comprehensively guides you through managing stress and anxiety, improving work productivity, and building lasting relationships. Mission 3 of 9 breaks down the science behind goals and helps you set and manage them with agile development principles and psychological theories. A pocket-sized coach and goal tracking app in one, use LIFE to set, measure, and meet your New Year’s resolutions.

Mason Low
December 31, 2020

References

Berkman, E. T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 28–44. https://doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000094

Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T., Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2013). From Fantasy to Action: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) Improves Academic Performance in Children. Social psychological and personality science, 4(6), 745–753. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550613476307

Kreibich, A., Hennecke, M., & Brandstätter, V. (2020). The Effect of Self–Awareness on the Identification of Goal–Related Obstacles. European Journal of Personality, 34(2), 215–233. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2234

Legrand, E., Bieleke, M., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Mignon, A. (2017). Nothing will stop me? Flexibly tenacious goal striving with implementation intentions. Motivation Science, 3(2), 101–118. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000050

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2019). The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science, 5(2), 93–105. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000127

Ntoumanis, N., & Sedikides, C. (2018). Holding on to the Goal or Letting It Go and Moving On? A Tripartite Model of Goal Striving. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 363–368. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418770455

Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020) A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS ONE, 15(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097

Stadler, Gertraud, Oettingen, Gabriele, & Gollwitzer, Peter M. (2009). Physical activity in women: effects of a self-regulation intervention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36(1), 29–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2008.09.021

Tamir, M., Vishkin, A., & Gutentag, T. (2020). Emotion regulation is motivated. Emotion, 20(1), 115–119. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000635 

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