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Another year, another New Year Resolution list 


By Tamara Garcia del Toro, Data Scientist

I can’t believe we’re midway through January already. 2022 has been and gone, how the time flies!

I’ve been organised and jotted down all the new year resolutions that will make 2023 the year of all years. But I thought this year, what with having a data science role and all, I would be smart about my resolutions, and I would turn to research!

Personally, I didn’t make that long of a list. I figured, after seeing my record of achieving my new year's resolutions (pretty much nil...) I should try to keep it short and doable:

  • Read more books
  • Eat healthier
  • Exercise more
  • Spend more time looking after my garden and less time buying things for my garden

It doesn’t sound so hard, does it? Well, a couple of them have been in that list since the list started (yes, I am looking at you, healthy lifestyle habits).

Is Success even an option!?

So, can we guarantee success? How many people manage to complete their new year resolutions? And where are all these magical perfect people?

As it turns out, the magic isn’t in the list, but the people that write it. Who would have guessed!

In 2020, Oscarsson et al looked at what made a successful new year’s resolution. Apparently, having a New Year’s Resolution list in itself doesn’t make you better at achieving your goals (I kind of thought it worked like gym memberships, where you get fitter just by paying for it), but there is something that does.

Oscarsson put a 1066 people sample into three groups and gave one of those groups no guidance or support on goal setting, another had some support, and the last group received full support through their goal setting and achievement period. Those who were supported in their goal setting were able to maintain their resolutions for longer: some support did the trick, full support not so much. Approach oriented goals were seen to do better than avoidance-oriented goals. Helping people set their goals and then let them do the worked seemed to work best.

Figure 1: A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals.

Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A. A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One. 2020 Dec 9;15(12):e0234097. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234097. PMID: 33296385; PMCID: PMC7725288

Success in keeping up with goals over time was as you might expect, people seemed to do very well in the first weeks, then a little worse in the second month and downwards from there.

But what made successful people successful? Are they different from us? Do they have the care-past-January gene? The magic goal setting formula wasn’t so complicated: approach oriented, SMART goal setting techniques and a pinch of spice and you get some lovely higher rate of success.

But we don’t want to be successful until February. I want to make until June at least! There is a lot of other factors that affect how well we will do with our resolutions such as readiness to perform the tasks and motivation.

However, we might have a bit of a conundrum here: are people that are more motivated, better at setting goals? Or is it the goal setting technique that made the difference and maintained the motivation?

How do you set goals, and what the heck is motivation?

While pondering on this question I stumbled upon the goal setting theory. And you might be thinking “there cannot be a theory for that!”.  What can I say, we are scientists, we love a theory. Whether it be the technique or the motivation, my goals haven’t been so successful up until now so surely a change in technique is in order?

Goal setting theory was first formulated by Locke & Latham in 1968. Over a span of 25 years (I guess they really wanted to achieve their New Year's Resolutions!), Locke & Lantham showed that goals formulated with a high level of specificity are more likely to be fulfilled, rather than goals which are vague, and motivation and feedback play key roles in goal success.

According to Locke & Latham, task performance is a function of motivation and ability. So, you might be very motivated to become an award-winning bread maker next year, but do you know how to make bread? When you are writing your New Year's resolution, make sure you are thinking to yourselves: do I have the skills and the knowledge I require to make this change? Do I need to change my resolution from doing to learning?

Furthermore, they showed that people worked better with harder goals as it helped maintain their motivation.  This is likely because when we set a goal, we are trying to change something we don’t like, something we think is important to our feeling fulfilled. If your goal was to “do better”, you might end the day feeling lukewarm- it is also hard to tell if you in fact did do better. But if your goal was to run 5 miles that week you are going to be feeling pretty good about yourself when you achieve it! You did it and you deserve doughnut.

In 2003 Lee, Sheldon and Turban addressed the elephant in the room: how motivated you are to achieve your goal matters a lot. And we all suspected it, but perhaps motivation does deserve a research paper of its own! Goals set with motivation that stemmed from the individual, rather than being imposed, showed high levels of performance, as well as improving mental focus. This might sound obvious, but think about it: why are you setting these goals? Do this matter to you? Where does your motivation come from? Did you decide to start cycling this year because you care about cycling or did you get guilt-tripped by your increasing carbon footprint? How about skating to work instead, since you always wanted to look like the cool kids? If you like it, and are motivated to do it, you’ll have a head-start.

A whole year, though...

I think after all this very useful information, we do have one more issue to address: a whole year is such a loooooong time!

It is difficult to stay motivated for an entire year. Different priorities might appear and then before we know it, it’s December and we don’t feel like we accomplished anything at all. Wolley and Fishback looked at just this in 2016, and they saw that, although people seem to want to pursue long term goals, having immediate rewards associated with those goals led to participants actually sticking to their objectives.

The thing is, goal setting is, and kind of has to be, motivated by long term rewards: being fitter, doing better at work, mastering a new skill. But the key to sticking with it seems to lie in making sure there are also short-term rewards associated with the task: they work as feedback that reassures us that we are progressing as well as getting our brains to become addicted to the dopamine release the reward offers. Going to the gym today because I might be fitter in December doesn’t seem so appealing: so then how about going to the gym today and rewarding myself with an episode of Friends tonight?

Let’s take stock of all this, shall we? It seems like there is a lot to unpack here: New Year’s resolutions should be specific and approach-led rather than avoidance oriented, there needs to be a clear, relatable reason why they make it to your list, we also must have the skills and knowledge required to accomplish the goal and build in a system of short-term reward and feedback to keep you engaged throughout the whole year.

The final list!

I think we need to rewrite the list now. According to research, these vague goals aren’t going to make it past day one (they kind of already haven’t made it past day one).

  • Instead of simply reading more books, I think I will pick ten books that are gathering dust in my bookcase and read those. The short-term reward is pretty clear: that new book smell and a cup of warm tea! I almost want to stop writing and go do that now!
  • Learn new healthy recipes and cook at least two new recipes a week. Eating healthy can feel like a chore, but if I draw on my love for cooking and give myself an excuse to cook some exotic meals, we can turn it into a fun endeavour!
  • Join a sports club and go once a week. Just focusing on exercising more is too vague, and the short-term rewards might not be clear. But if you can turn it into an opportunity to make friends and socialise it might start to look a lot more do-able!
  • Since I am only a beginner gardener, my best gardening skills is shopping. So, we can turn this one into finding a gardening planner or course and learn more about gardening and stuff to do around the gardening every month.

Wish me luck everyone! And good luck to you too with your new resolutions this year!


Tamara is a Data Scientist on the LIDA Data Scientist Development Programme