Secret to keeping New Year’s resolutions might be type of resolutions you make
New Year’s Day for most people means partying, eating, drinking, having a good time with friends and family – but also means setting goals and priorities for the New Year. It’s the time of the year that resolutions are made: to lose weight, to eat healthier, to exercise more often, to get a degree, to learn a foreign language, to get a promotion at work, to save money to buy a house, etc.
For sure, some people are more successful than others in achieving the goals they have set at the beginning of the year. Among other reasons, this is because some people have more of a key ingredient that has been shown to have the power to transform goals and plans into action: self-control.
Self-control refers to the capacity to resist immediate temptations and focus on long-term goals. People with higher self-control can overcome their impulses and instant urges. This way they can protect their cherished goals from temporary distractions. Therefore, having self-control helps achieve one’s goals and make one’s plans come true.
But why do people with higher self-control manage better to reach their goals? Psychologists have offered various explanations. For example, it has been found that people who have higher self-control develop stronger habits that facilitate their goals or experience fewer desires that conflict with their goals.
Now, new research published recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology reveals another explanation. Psychologists Olga Stavrova and Tila Pronk from Tilburg University (The Netherlands) and Michail Kokkoris from WU Vienna University of Economics and Business (Austria) found that the secret why people with higher self-control successfully reach their goals might additionally be that they set goals that reflect their true selves. These are goals that resonate with who they truly are rather than goals that others expect them to set or goals that are socially desirable.
In other words, besides doing things differently (having strong habits, experiencing desires less intensely), people with higher self-control also choose goals differently. They strive for goals that express who they truly are (i.e. goals that are in line with their true selves) and not for goals that express their public self (i.e. that are in line with how they look to others or what others might think about them).
The researchers came to this conclusion by using various methods. In one of their studies, they asked University students to keep a daily diary for one week. At the beginning of the week, participants had to set their goals for the coming week. Then, they rated each goal as to how well it reflected who they are deep down inside and how much each it made them feel in touch with their real selves. Their individual self-control level was also assessed with a questionnaire designed for this purpose. One week later, participants were re-contacted and asked how much progress they had made toward these goals in the meantime.
Results showed two things. First, people who scored higher on self-control were more likely to set goals that were in line with their true selves. Second, they also reported having made a bigger progress toward their goals one week later. Moreover, statistical analyses showed that choosing goals that reflect the true self explained why higher self-control contributed to bigger goal progress over time. Put differently, people with higher self-control made a bigger progress toward their goals one week later exactly because they had set goals that reflected who they truly are in the first place.
These findings show the importance of choosing goals that are in line with our true selves for successful goal attainment. People who have higher self-control do not manage to reach their goals only because they are better at suppressing their desires or resisting temptations, but also because they are better at choosing goals wisely: they set goals that are aligned with their true selves and perhaps sticking to these goals is then made easier because it feels more authentic.
Next time you set your goals, remember: The secret of people with higher self-control is that they know which goals to set in the first place. They strive for goals they personally value and find personally meaningful, and not goals that are externally imposed on them. Being true to yourself when setting goals may be the secret to reach your goals in the coming year!
Olga Stavrova, Tila Pronk & Michael Kokkoris (2019): Choosing goals that express the true self: A novel mechanism of the effect of self‐control on goal attainment, European Journal of Social Psychology. Advance online publication.