The thinking woman’s guide to resolutions

I am delighted to welcome a guest blogger, Katy Kennedy. Katy is a PhD student, mum to two, and a lover of running. This blog first appeared in a condensed version on running community 

Ok, a quick trawl through some of the latest psychology research on self-regulation to help us all set our goals. There have been plenty of not-very-successful theories on behaviour change, but many of these don’t describe actual behaviour very well. People are complicated, they often don’t mean what they say, they are driven by both conscious and nonconscious motivations, they have to juggle lots of different priorities and they can be lazy and forgetful. I can identify with all of those.

Self-regulation consists of the processes by which people pursue goals and attain them. It’s common to divide this into goal setting (selecting suitable goals with appropriate success criteria) and goal striving (the strategies and behaviours required to achieve the goals). An intention is not the same as a goal: just wanting to be 10 kilos lighter or to run 6 days a week is not the same as having that as your goal: you have to be committed to that goal. So don’t bother setting a resolution without giving it any further thought, that’s just an intention rather than a goal, you need to be emotionally invested in your goal. It’s much better to have a well-thought-out goal than the usual random selection of New Year’s resolution junk.  This blog looks at goals in the context of health (a very common type of resolution), however you might want to think of other contexts in which to apply this thinking.

Since there’s a lot of stuff to cover, this blog is only going to look at goal setting, I’ll do a separate one on goal striving. They are obviously pretty closely linked, though, and goal setting may need to be revisited if the goal striving isn’t going well, or maybe even if you’ve overshot your goal and need a new goal.

Goal setting can be complicated by feeling overwhelmed by too much or conflicting information on your goal, which can cause defensiveness about acknowledging the risks of your own behaviour and preventing the adoption of a goal. Some research shows that you can decrease this defensiveness by focussing on positive emotion (eg I’m going to feel so good at the end of this run), affirming self-worth (I think we should call this the L’Oreal effect, have you noticed how adverts for chocolate and similar unhealthy products present these as a ‘naughty treat’ that you’re somehow deserving of?) or affirming connections with others (so text your exercise buddy and set up that next outing).

Another aspect of goal adoption is self-image and social identity. If you don’t see exercise as an important part of your identity then you aren’t as likely to adopt an exercise goal. Similarly, by joining a local running group or an online exercise community like means that you identify with a group who are more committed to health goals than the general population.  There are all sorts of identities you can adopt, from ‘I am a healthy eater’ to ‘ I am a runner/cyclist/swimmer’ and sometimes feeling part of a tribe can be important: maybe this is part of the appeal of races?

Of course, goals are not set in isolation, and goals can compete with each other (eg I want to be seen as dedicated to my job but going to club night means leaving early) or incompatible goals (for example a goal of restricting calories may be incompatible with a goal of being polite to someone who is offering you a slice of cake). However, adopting a health goal can be easier if it is aligned with goals in other areas, so you can achieve several ends with no extra effort. An example could be cycling to work, which could combine a goal of not being held up in traffic or delayed by trains with an exercise outcome. I seem to often run to the bank or to the shops: I get my errands done and it actually takes the same time as driving and parking, but also gets some miles logged. I really enjoy running with friends: I get to catch up on gossip and feeling connected with people but with the added benefit of exercise rather than sitting on a sofa having a chat.

And finally, an important aspect of goal adoption is intrinsic motivation, so doing something that you enjoy is more likely to be successful than doing something you feel you ‘ought’ to do. I know, this stuff is rocket science, isn’t it? But if you can increase the amount of enjoyment in an experience then it’s easier to do. If you don’t like swimming, either don’t bother or do something to improve how you feel about it (go with a friend or take lessons or something?)

Next up is goal characteristics, which can be divided into a number of different areas which have different effects on successful goal setting. Approach goals (with a defined ending and success criterion, eg run 700 miles a year) are more likely to be effective than avoidance goals (give up booze, quit smoking). Success criterion are much less obvious for avoidance goals, so it may be better to reframe your avoidance goal as an approach goal (walk 2 miles a day instead of avoid sitting on the sofa). Or you could use a substitution goal (eat fruit instead of crisps) or reformulate your goal via an outcome of your avoidance goal (be able to fit into that size 12 dress instead of lose weight).

Goal difficulty is another important characteristic. The whole SMART ethos is that feasible goals shouldn’t be too large. However, there is also evidence to show that unrealistic goals can inspire as well as inhibit goal pursuit. I’m thinking a good example is someone without a huge amount of running experience entering a marathon. It probably doesn’t seem particularly SMART at the time, but if you want that goal enough then you will work hard achieve that goal rather than deciding the goal isn’t what you want. Weighing up both desirability and feasibility can be more important than just looking at feasibility alone. Sometimes it pays to think big as long as you’re not going too crazy.

A final characteristic of goals is performance (specific target, such as lose 10 kilos) versus mastery (learn to eat balanced meals) goals. A performance goal is based on an outcome, so short-term setbacks give you information that you’re not up to scratch, whereas a mastery goal is about improving a skill so setbacks give you information on how to improve.  A mastery goal can, of course use performance sub-goals (e.g. my mastery goal this year is to be a faster runner, which I am hoping to achieve by targeting 10km and half marathon personal bests).  However, only looking at these performance goals can result in an all-or-nothing mindset which can focus too much on a specific outcome and can be discouraging. A focus on slow improvement, for example building up your running base by adding miles each week may be more successful in the longer term.

Goal abandonment is the final thing covered here. Chucking in your resolutions by the middle of January is all too common (have you done that yet?), and may be attributable to poor goal setting, adopting goals for the wrong reasons or due to conflict with other goals. It can also be a result of poor goal striving skills (covered next). When you come across a difficult patch in pursuing your goals, you can either chuck it all in, or you can stay committed to the goal and increase your efforts. Sticking with your goal isn’t always the most sensible thing to do: you might have chosen a goal which is simply beyond your abilities, or you may be ill or injured. This seems an obvious case where adjusting your goals is advisable. It’s a delicate balancing act, but then so is much of our behaviour.

What goals are you going to chase in 2014 and how will you secure them? 

Next up: the thinking woman’s guide to goal striving. 

One thought on “The thinking woman’s guide to resolutions

  1. Pingback: A thinking woman’s guide to resolutions – goal striving | Girls Night In

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