Setting Purposeful Resolutions

By Paul Yung

Happy New Year!

2021 promises to be an interesting year, a promised land filled with vaccines, the pandemic pummeling and a semi-return to normalcy.

Every January, I take time to set resolutions and frankly, I missed most of them.

This year I decided to look at the science of resolutions to give us the best chance of success.

A recent survey found that (only) 84% of Malaysians have set a resolution for 2021, popularly revolving around health, self-improvement, money and family.

Unfortunately, most resolutions don’t stick. A study by the University of Scranton showed that a quarter of us quit within the first week and only 9% of us followed through with our resolutions for the year, consistent with relapse rates for addictions.

Recent behavioral research has found that the three most effective mechanisms are setting purposeful resolutions, having social support and reevaluating the environment. I will focus on the first mechanism here, as this was the primary determinant for success.

Purposeful resolutions are resolutions that have meaning, a reason for doing. More than 50% of the unsuccessful group gave up, citing lack of willpower or seriousness about their resolutions. These resolutions didn’t mean anything or enough to those who set them.

There are 3 steps to setting purposeful resolutions, namely, goal orientation, habit forming and transcendent motivation.

The first step, goal orientation begins with us projecting our dream lives. Project 10 years into the future, to New Year’s Day, 2030. Where are you? How does your life look like?

How is your career, family, marriage, money, physical and mental well-being doing?

What house you’re staying in? What car are you driving?

Be as detailed as possible right down to the colors, the smells, the emotions.

I hope you projected something wildly positive, if not, go back and dream big.

This is your dream life after all.

Now look back to your resolution for 2021 and see how the goals and resolutions you’re setting right now connect to your dream life in 2030.

If your dream life is compelling enough, it becomes a purposeful goal. You will become intrinsically motivated to change and grow, and reframe challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. You will understand that what you’re setting out to do has meaning and is a part of your bigger picture.

After conducting more than 200 sessions of leadership trainings, I discovered that most people don’t even know what their life looks like in a year let alone 10. Taking this first step sets you ahead of most.

The second step is habit forming. Break down your big annual goals to smaller monthly goals and then to tiny, daily goals. Accomplishing your daily goals, form habits and habits determine your destiny. Find a mentor, a course or someone who has been successful in that subject matter and model what their habits are. In NLP, this is called modelling excellence.

The final step is to recognize who, beyond yourself would be positively affected by your resolution, this is known as transcendent or prosocial motivation. Research shows that by recognizing that our goals are bigger than ourselves, we improve self-regulation and strengthen character virtues like patience.

We do this by reframing our goals. For example, your goal could be “I want to exercise more to lose weight”. Reframe this to “I commit to working out two times per week so I can be more present and energized with my children, so they feel more loved and inspired by me and I will feel more confident at work and everyone would experience a more positive version of me”.

Whatever we want to achieve requires repetition and having to overcome setbacks.

There will be times when we slip up, and that’s fine. The Scranton study found that successful “resoluters” experienced an average of 7 annual slip ups. Of those who slipped up, 71% agreed that the slip up strengthened their resolve to sustain change.

Having transcendent resolutions help us to bounce back faster and stronger.

Setting resolutions require us to break out of our comfort zone. 2021 would require us to grow, adapt and learn to survive and thrive. Every one of us has the potential to achieve more than what we have now, and the potential ripple effect that would have on our family and society is far reaching and important. I wish you all a Happy New Year filled with joy, growth and success and may all your resolutions be purposeful.