It is nearly the new year and like every new year, resolutions are what we do at the start of the year in what seems like a jump start at improvement for the year. Nautilus’ Alice Fleerackers has a fantastic article about the idea of setting the right kind of goals (i.e. achievable goals) and anticipate that you’ll fail at some point, because as humans, we’re simply not perfect, but that there will be a day that you simply cannot go to the gym on Wednesday when you had set your goal at the beginning of the year to go to the gym every Monday-Wednesday-Friday.
First off it’s the idea that there are two different types of goals, one is big picture and the second is more micro:
Höchli argues that achieving New Year’s resolutions usually involves building new habits. Rather than focusing on specific, short-term goals, she recommends bringing some bigger-picture, longer-term aspirations into the picture. “It’s not just about one single behavior over a limited time,” she says. “It’s about behavior change that should be maintained over the long term.” These superordinate goals are less focused on concrete behaviors and more on how you want to be in the world. Goals like wanting to be healthier or more generous fall into this category. They’re a lot broader than subordinate goals, like ordering a salad at dinner or giving $50 to the local food bank.
Superordinate goals are also more flexible than subordinate ones, because they can apply to more than one situation. “Getting fitter,” for example, can encompass a range of activities—from winning an ironman to taking a stroll in the park. So if you don’t succeed on your first attempt to get active, there are still plenty of other ways you can make progress. “Going to the gym on Wednesday,” on the other hand, is a much narrower goal—and, therefore, an easier one to fail.
Goal-setting isn’t about choosing one type over th other, the article continues to state that people who, “set both superordinate and subordinate goals at New Year’s invested more effort into pursuing them.”
The other factor is that fear of failure is much worse than failing and getting back on that horse. Generally speaking, we, as humans, are terrible at predicting future emotions and predicting how we’ll feel if we don’t get to the gym on that Wednesday, just as materialistic goals like wealth or fame simply don’t necessarily bring a person happiness:
Dunn specializes in the psychology of happiness, and has spent years researching what’s called affective forecasting—our ability to predict our future emotions. She explains that, by and large, people tend to overestimate how bad they will feel after failures or disappointments, as well as how long it will take to bounce back. They also underestimate how happy they’ll feel after other experiences, like exercising or spending money on someone else.
In the context of goals, this inability to accurately predict our feelings can have important implications. People also tend to overestimate how happy materialistic goals, like wealth or fame, will make them, and pursue goals that will never actually fulfill their deeper psychological needs. But, Dunn says, these mispredictions aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. Consider studying for a big exam, or preparing for a major presentation, for example. Overestimating how bad you’ll feel if you mess up might be just the motivation you need to succeed. “Maybe it’s good to exaggerate the emotional impact that various outcomes are going to have for us, if that helps us take [our goal] more seriously,” Dunn says. “It’s a really tricky question.”
The takeaway? It’s good to set a goal, like deciding to run an ultramarathon, but it’s also good to set parameters about how often you’ll run during a week, perhaps 3 days a week. Rather than specify those days, make it specific enough that it is achievable, yet broad enough to fit it within your schedule. And failure to achieve that goal in a given week isn’t the end of the world, the next week is an opportunity to get back on track. Life is going to get in the way sometimes.