When it comes to New Year's resolutions I am as guilty as anyone of having high aspirations and less than stellar execution. But I have a hypothesis that would explain why so many of us aim “too high” and end up burning out before we even see the results. In a world that glorifies outcomes while ignoring the hard work that makes those outcomes possible, we are making it difficult for ourselves to differentiate between success and the appearance of success.
Seeming to have goals gives us instant gratification. We can tell our friends and family our resolutions and let them be impressed by our ambition. Doing, taking consistent action towards those goals, is not only a textbook example of delayed gratification but is also just plain hard. It is hard because we are not in the habit of frequently monitoring our progress and thus we do not see if and when we are improving. This demoralizes us and is a major factor why gyms are teeming with new recruits for January and February but their attendance dwindles soon thereafter.
Psychological research has found that the most effective way to achieve goals is to be process-oriented instead of result-oriented. That means instead of “I want a six-pack in time for summer,” you need to resolve “I will count my calories every and work out three days per week.” This gives credence to the already obvious fact that doing resolutions are more effective. We all know intuitively and logically that our abs aren’t going to miraculously transform into that rippling steel washboard without a change in our current habits, but we are so focused on the shiny object of our desire that we neglect to prepare for the arduous trek to acquire it.
However, being process-oriented means you must frequently monitoring yourself to make sure that you are on the right track and following through with your action steps. Research from 2015 found that the more frequently progress towards a goal was monitored the more likely it was to be a success; but this obviously takes more work and mental energy than the alternative—trying something for a while, not seeing results, and changing your habits or routines again and again until hopelessness and failure set in.
I think that our inherent difficulty in following through with goals that require delayed gratification is a reason famous success figures and industry moguls often claim to keep detailed notes documenting “experiments” that they run in their lives. Entrepreneurs like Tai Lopez and Tim Ferris both espouse the philosophy of constant experimentation and fitness experts have for years spoken to the effectiveness of “before and after” pictures. Ferris, in particular, has referred to himself as a “human guinea pig” and in his recent tome, “Tools of Titans,” wrote:
“I am a compulsive note-taker. To wit, I have recorded nearly every workout since age 18 or so…My goal is to learn things once and use them forever. For example, let’s say I stumble upon a picture of myself from June 5, 2007, and I think, ‘I really wish I looked like that again.’ No problem. I’ll crack open a dusty volume from 2007, review the 8 weeks of training and food logs preceding June 5, repeat them and—voilà—end up looking nearly the same as my younger self (minus the hair). It’s not always that easy, but it often is.”
If we know that we should be taking action if we want to be achieving our goals, which we all know being logical human beings, and we can also assume that keeping track of our progress and monitoring our action steps helps us to make consistent progress, why is success so damn difficult? A 2013 article in the Social and Personality Psychology Compass describes what is known as now called “the Ostrich Problem,” a difficulty that may be at the root of our issue. The abstract of this article presented the following hypothesis “that there is an Ostrich Problem such that, in many instances, people have a tendency to ‘bury their head in the sand’ and intentionally avoid or reject information that would help them to monitor their goal progress.”
In other words, there is a built-in psychological roadblock that makes progress-orientation difficult for us.
One potential reason for the Ostrich Problem is our desire to avoid negative feedback. Obviously it is easy for us to disappoint ourselves when it comes to following through with our goals, especially when they are as ambitious as many of ours are. It is also likely that confirmation bias stands in our way, as we are far more likely to seek out and accept information that confirms our preconceived worldview, that we ourselves are successful and awesome, than information that may suggest we are not progressing towards milestones. Nonetheless, there are ways to get around our, seemingly inherent, results-oriented attitude towards goal achievement. (Several of these suggestions were mined from Shimi Kang’s M.D.’s article in Psychology Today and some are the result of my own research and experimentation.)
It can be helpful to reflect on progress towards goals when you are already in a good mood. This raises the likelihood that successes will motivate you and setbacks will not get you down. You may also like to use Jerry Seinfeld’s “chain method.” This is a calendar system where you make an X on each day you take action and, over time, feel compelled to not “break the chain” of X’s even when you’re feeling low or unmotivated.
In a similar vein, and especially when you are pursuing multiple goals at once, you could create a notebook of current goals and your progress toward them. Or, like I do, you could take a lot of the mental energy out of constant monitoring and set up a dozen or so daily reminders on your phone to keep you on track. I currently have reminders to make sure that I’m: staying focused on my daily to-do’s, tracking my calories, reading, writing and going to bed on time.
New Year’s resolutions often die soon after they are conceived on the first of January, but if you want to make 2017 a year of achievement instead of just aspiration, please take at least one thing to heart: don’t be an ostrich who hides its head in the sand. Be someone who takes responsibility for their actions and knows that their success or failure is in their hands.
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Jack Dolinar is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “simplifying success,” runs on alternate Fridays.