How goal-setting research can keep your resolutions on track

If you want to make New Year’s resolutions you’ll actually keep this year, choose a goal that’s specific and difficult, but achievable, new research from the University of Oregon suggests.

Setting specific and challenging goals can help reduce attention lapses and improve performance during a task, researchers found in a recent study, published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.

People’s ability to pay attention fluctuates over time, influenced by factors such as motivation and alertness, experts say. Everyone experiences lapses in attention, whether at work, at school or while driving.

Researchers say that understanding what causes those lapses — and how to prevent them — can help people develop strategies for improving productivity and achieving ongoing goals, such as New Year’s resolutions.

“Making sure your goals are specific and challenging, but achievable, is an easy strategy to implement when forming a plan to meet an objective,” said psychology doctoral student Deanna Strayer, who led the study with contributions from Nash Unsworth, a psychologist in the UO’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Matthew K. Robison from the University of Texas at Arlington. 

“You can turn a lot of what you do into a challenge for yourself with the right goals,” she said, “and in turn you may find yourself more engaged in the work.”

The study compared response times and task performance in participants who were given a vague goal versus those who were given a more specific goal for completing a task. The results showed that participants pursuing a specific goal that grew harder over time not only maintained their focus but also worked faster and were able to sustain their speed throughout the task.

"Typically, we see that participants begin to respond slower as the task goes on,” Strayer said. "We found evidence that setting a specific goal that becomes harder over time led to fewer attention lapses and improved response time performance.”

The research points to a simple goal-setting strategy anyone can implement when formulating New Year’s resolutions: make your objective specific, challenging and achievable.

“Specificity helps you gauge your progress better than a vague end-goal, and you need the goal to have some degree of difficulty,” Strayer said. “One example of a common New Year’s resolution that could be improved upon is: ‘This year I want to read more books.’ A great goal! But very unclear about the actual desired result.”

Instead, you could aim to read five novels with at least 250 pages. Or you could create a list of books you would like to finish, she said.

"These simple tweaks to your goal can help you pace out your efforts and measure your progress,” Strayer said.

Finding your sweet spot in terms of difficulty is also a key to sustaining your resolutions over the coming months, she said.

“If a goal is too easy, that can actually lead to worse performance because you’ll gravitate toward that too-easy mark instead of pushing yourself,” Strayer said. “Conversely, setting a goal that is too difficult or unattainable may cause you to abandon it entirely.”

She said one way to stay engaged with a goal is to break it into smaller targets that grow increasingly difficult over time. For example, you might aim to read a certain number of books each month and then increase that number as the year progresses.

Strayer hopes her research will help people develop strategies for reducing the occurrence of attention lapses, which can affect people’s daily lives in ways that can range from minor to catastrophic.

“I’m interested in finding ways to help make life easier,” Strayer said.

This research was supported with a grant from the Office of Naval Research.

—By Nicole Krueger, College of Arts and Sciences