By Hafsah Sabir, December 30 2021—
“New year, new me.”
We’ve all heard this, or even said this, at least once in our lives. That first week of January is like opening a new, clean and untouched notebook. The spirals are intact and you open the notebook to get a whiff of that enticing book smell. That is why people come up with new year’s resolutions because they want to start changing their lives with a fresh new start.
The first week or two of January, you work hard telling yourself you are going to put your blood sweat and tears into accomplishing those goals. You’re going to workout consistently, study for a certain amount of hours, get enough sleep while having a few hours of “me” time. While it may work for the first few weeks of the new year, does it really last? From personal experience, it never does. And, due to the pandemic, my lack of motivation has reached its peak.
But why is it always the same cycle? New Years arrives and you feel so determined to accomplish those goals, yet what happens?
There’s a theory in psychology that explains the reason for this back track, known as cognitive dissonance. This is where our behaviour does not align with our beliefs. In this case, our behaviour is not accomplishing the goals for New Years that we once set ourselves up for. Cognitive dissonance is not a good thing though — it’s comforting and is something we would want to reduce as much as possible.
Let’s say my goal for the new year was to stop eating unhealthy food. First of all, there is a major flaw in this goal, but we’ll discuss that later. Now, eating healthy falls into a belief of mine, in which I would like my actions to reflect that. Maybe I’d eat healthy for the first week of January, but the next few weeks I go back to calling every day my cheat day. In this case, I would experience cognitive dissonance.
In order to reduce this cognitive dissonance, I can either change the belief, add new beliefs or reduce the importance of the belief. I’ll go with the last one and tell myself that it’s only a one slice of chocolate cake, it can’t be too bad, now can it?
Have an approach-oriented goal:
I want you to focus on a goal that you have had — any goal. This may be going to the gym regularly, saving more money or having a 3.7 GPA. One you have that goal in your mind, we’re going to see what the orientation of that goal is.
If your goal reflects an objective you want to move towards in order to have a desired outcome, that is known as an approach-oriented goal. On the other hand, a goal in which you want to avoid having an undesired outcome is known as an avoidance-oriented goal.
Let’s go back to my example. My goal was to stop eating unhealthy food. Since I want to avoid eating unhealthy food, this would be classified as an avoidance-oriented goal. However, there is a difference between approach- and avoidance-oriented goals, and surely one must be better?
An experiment done in 2016 revealed that participants with approach-oriented goals were significantly more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals. Now, think about the goal you had in mind. If it was an avoidance oriented goal, all we’d have to do is change the goal into an approach-oriented goal. I can change the wording of my goal which was to stop eating unhealthy food to, “I will eat healthy food everyday.”
Proximal and distal goals:
My goal however, is still not where we need it to be — it still can do some work. A reason why some of your previous new year’s resolutions were left hanging in mid air is because you had a distal goal. My goal can be classified as a distal goal, or a goal that is long term. I haven’t specified smaller goals, or proximal goals, that can then lead me to achieve my ultimate, distal goal.
In order to do that, I can come up with proximal goals such as, “I will eat a smaller meal for dinner,” or, “at every meal and snack I will have vegetables and fruits.” It is very crucial for distal goals to be accompanied with proximal goals, as that is when people are more likely to achieve their distal goals. You want to always be working on your proximal goals in order to achieve the bigger goal.
For example, if I want to get an A in my biology class, in order to do that I must come to class on time, read 10 pages of the textbook after each class and get enough sleep.
I stated in the beginning about January being a fresh start, but if my resolution is something that will be achieved throughout the year, then whether it’s the middle of the year or the end of the year, you can start with your proximal goals anytime. Once you accomplish your proximal goals, you’ll only be a few steps away from your ultimate, distal goal.
Maybe you’re reading this at 6 p.m. on a Sunday — if your distal goal is to start eating healthy but you want to start on Jan. 1, then that’ll only give you an excuse to eat as much junk food as possible before that deadline. So why not grab some leafy greens from the fridge and add those into your meal for dinner this evening?