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Dec. 14, 2016

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The beginning of a new year marks a symbolic turning point for many – it is a time to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

Laurier Psychology Professor Anne Wilson, an expert on goal pursuit, change and self-identity, studies how using landmarks, like New Year’s Day, can act as a motivating transition point to make change.

“Transition points act as a break in identity,” said Wilson. “People feel that past failures no longer hold them back and that a new year marks a clean slate – it can be very psychologically freeing.”

But setting goals, especially New Year’s resolutions, are notoriously difficult to maintain and achieve.

Wilson says that when people think about their future self, they conceive of a future self that is better than they are now.

“Studies have shown that generally people’s expectations for the future are good, even if they haven’t taken any steps to create that future.”

Though people have positive feelings about the future, the challenge to realizing any goal is the approach to the process.

“Often long-term goals are derailed by short-term concerns,” said Wilson. “People often think about their future self as a stranger and are less likely to incur immediate ‘costs’ to themselves for the benefit of a stranger.”

Wilson pointed to several techniques to connect with the “future self.”

Strategies such as virtual aging programs facilitate interaction between a person and an aged version of themself – they can literally meet their future self. Wilson also suggests practicing visualizations of the “future self” or writing a letter to the “future self” to help mitigate any hesitation to sacrifice now for the future.

“The key is to make the future seem close at hand. Our perception of time can be very elastic, so we can use that to our advantage when goal setting to ‘trick’ ourselves to be more committed to our goals,” said Wilson.

Resolutions tend to be focused on sweeping self-improvements such as losing weight, enjoying life and saving more money – lofty goals even for the most disciplined of achievers.

Wilson recommends making very specific goals with immediate steps that can be taken to achieve the longer-term goal. It can also be useful to focus on the short-term positive experiences of fulfilling a long-term goal.

“When we look at health, for example, people who look at eating healthy as something that makes them feel good on a daily basis are more likely to stay committed to a long-term goal of improving their health than those who focus solely how the goal will make them healthier in the future,” said Wilson. “It’s often a mind-set switch – that fulfilling a long-term goal can be enjoyable now.”

Wilson says a common pitfall of New Year’s resolutions is the long lead-up time that tends to derail a goal before it has even begun.

“People frequently use a resolution as an excuse to stock up on indulgence before the new year,” said Wilson. “When you decide too far in advance what your resolution will be, you might actually increase the behaviour in anticipation of giving it up. The problem is, once you scale back on the indulgence, you may think you’re behaving better in the new year, but really you’re just back at the base-line.”

Having goals that are externally driven is another common mistake people tend to make.

“It’s important that your goals are truly important to you and not goals that exist out of external pressure because you think others expect them,” said Wilson. “Thinking through the reasons why you want to achieve the goal can clarify the steps to being successful.”

One of the most important things to remember with goal setting, though, is self-compassion.

“Often failure is met with guilt, shame and blame, which aren’t very helpful in persevering when ultimately any long-term goal will meet obstacles,” said Wilson.

Practicing self-compassion encourages people to treat and speak to themselves like they would a friend who is experiencing a setback.

“The more we fail, the closer we are to experiencing success,” said Wilson. “Self-compassion helps us understand that setbacks are simply obstacles to overcome and not a reflection of our worthiness of achieving our goal.”

Wilson is a Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology, a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Successful Societies program, and a member of the College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists at the Royal Society of Canada. 


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