New Year’s Resolutions Revisited: How Are Goals Set and Maintained?

Graphic: Amy Jungmin Kim

It is now April; a third of the year has flown by since toasts were made to a new beginning and vows were made to better selves. The New Year brings great hope brought on by grandiose celebrations that convince people of a change in landscape, that things will change–but they often, sadly, never do. The tradition of creating New Year’s Resolutions has become a repeated habit of bursts of motivation, fits of action and gradual withdrawal back to familiarity. Why does this cycle of inconsistency occur? How can it be broken?

Living in an exponentially growing consumer society forces people into a cycle of wanting more, and it is this fundamental greed that compels humans to improve their quality of life. Everyone wants to be more, give more, have more, but the difference between those who achieve and those who do not is the advance from vision and motivation into consistent and useful action. Long-term vision is necessary in order to be driven with purpose, but some goals can seem too far-fetched in order to measure progress. Working towards a goal is only rewarding when actions pay off; often times, people feel as though their humble efforts seem fruitless and their dreams appear unattainable, which could lead to them losing sight of their long-term goals. Not only can many long-term goals seem daunting, there is also often a lack of persistence in the route of action. Consistency and perseverance are essential to progressing towards a long-term goal, especially the typical life-changing improvements proposed in the New Year. However, many people fall into routine traps whilst trying to stick to their visions, and recognizing them is the first step in breaking the pattern of losing motivation.

There are many universal tips for how to stick to goals. These tips sound helpful, but as statistics and the overweight uncle show, many of them are like empty vases; they look attractive but help no one. Here’s a few of them:

1. visualization.

“Fake it until you make it.” A common error made by many is over-visualizing their dreams when accomplished. By imagining their lives with the goal achieved, they believe that they are motivating themselves to work for the consequent craving and desire they feel. Although tempting, this method is counter-productive. By imagining what they have not achieved, people believe that they are motivating themselves, but only further divide the gap between what they have and do not have. In the end, a daydream is but a dream. As much happiness as that dream could induce, it is obviously not reality. Over-visualization can lead to a fixed mindset of an over-glamorized vision, making the mind susceptible to the biggest crashes, failures, setbacks, or plateaus.

2. abusing cheat days.

Cheat days are golden examples of things that sound too good to be true. Take a bodybuilder. The diet of a bodybuilder does not contain high-calorie junk food, but now it is a fitness trend to take 10,000 calorie cheat days where even strict dieters can indulge without suffering consequences. In fact, arguments are made that cheat days are beneficial for the metabolism and can actually help those who are losing weight. Rest is necessary to achieve a long-term goal, as it can help give the body and the mind a break and prevent excessive stress and burning out. However, the abuse of cheat days as an excuse for failing to stick to goals is the major setback that limits people from accomplishment. The overuse of cheat days has become counterproductive and ultimately harmful towards reaching long-term goals.

3. the success bias.

Known also as the survivorship bias, the success bias is a logical error of fixating on people or examples that have overcome obstacles and achieved goals whilst overlooking those who did not. The world does not hear about the one million artists that never get their big break. Many only look at a handful of overnight celebrities and assume that they too, can be just like them. The success bias is dangerous because it can lead to an overly optimistic way of thinking, especially when setting goals. By looking at incredible success stories, it becomes easy to forget about the many different cases of failure that balance the odds. The media is filled by a monopoly of extremes: only the best make their names heard, which is why everyone strives to overachieve and overcompensate. This skyrocketing standard of success explains the dramatic New Year’s Resolutions that make people feel incompetent when they fail to become a reality.

By recognising these common misconceptions, organizing and developing new goals becomes easier. The SMART criteria is a helpful mnemonic to remember when devising new goals. Clear, attainable goals are:

Specific (simple, sensible, significant)

Measurable (meaningful, motivating)


Relevant (reasonable, realistic)

Time-bound (time-limited)

Each category is relevant because any achievable goal has many specific terms. Goals all start off with visions, which are the sources of motivation that inspire change. Breaking down the vision into smaller actions that can be integrated into daily lives is the next key step into turning the vision into reality. Research shows that it takes 21 days of a consistent activity to form into habit, which is not that long or arduous if that small action is meaningful and motivating. Measurable progress is also significant, as it is the key push behind accomplishing goals. Without visible progress, it is easy to lose motivation and the long-term goal may disappear out of sight. This is the main reason behind the time specific factor of SMART goals, as it sets deadlines and ensures progress.

New Year’s Resolutions can be far-fetched or set in accordance to vague or overarching fantasies. In order to achieve long-term goals, smaller daily habits must be established to improve perseverance. Goals can be set anytime, as improvement can be made in any aspect of life. This is where setting SMART goals could be helpful, as SMART goals are attainable, set in line with core values, and have short-term satisfaction as well as long-term benefits.

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