How to Make Long-Lasting Life Changes
Make a New Year’s Resolution That Lasts
Each year, many people make New Year’s resolutions for change, and each year, most of those resolutions go unresolved. While you may feel inspired to pursue a fresh, new goal on New Year’s Day, that resolution may lose its luster over the subsequent months. Most New Year’s resolutions are discarded and forgotten by spring. So why are long-lasting goals so hard to maintain? Even behavior change experts acknowledge that pursuing and achieving goals is very difficult.1
There is, however, some emerging evidence about different types of goals and the way that these types of goals interact that may help you find success. Understanding the science behind these goal-setting techniques may help you to turn your New Year’s resolution into a long-lasting lifestyle change.
Different Types of Goals
While most people make a “resolution” on New Year’s Day, it may be more productive to set a goal. A goal and a resolution are slightly different. A traditional resolution is more like a pact—an ironclad promise to flawlessly carry out a new habit or to never again participate in an old one. The problem with this type of resolution is that after one or two slip-ups, people may experience feelings of failure and as a result, tend to drop the whole effort, falling easily back into familiar patterns.
A goal, on the other hand, is a commitment to work towards an endpoint that is desirable and can be based (to some extent) on your values or belief system. It can also allow for greater flexibility and adjustment. By setting goals, you instead aim to work toward a desired behavior. A key difference between goal-setting and resolution-making is that people working toward goals expect that they won’t be perfect at first, and are generally pleased with any progress they make.
According to researchers, a goal is a “mental representation of a desired end state that a person is committed to approaching or avoiding.”1
Researchers have identified two types of goals: subordinate goals and superordinate goals. They theorize that by setting both types of goals, you have a better chance of making successful short-term changes that turn into long-lasting lifestyle habits that are in line with your values and your view of your ideal self.
A superordinate goal is a broad-based goal that prioritizes your high-level values and is based on the person that you desire to be. These goals tend to be more abstract and do not have a specific endpoint. For example, “I want to be a fit, athletic person” is a superordinate goal. “I want to reach and maintain a healthy weight” is a superordinate goal.
Note that superordinate goals are not specific about what actions need to be taken to reach the desired effect. These are also not short-term commitments, but rather longer-term ongoing efforts that don’t necessarily get fulfilled at a specific point in time. For example, you might reach a healthy weight on a specific date, but maintaining that weight is an ongoing commitment.
While superordinate goals don’t provide any guidance about how to create change, they benefit the behavior change process by providing a consistent guiding theme. These overarching goals allow you to be flexible in deciding how to get where you want to be, so that when challenges arise, you can change your game plan without feeling like you are completely giving up your goal.
Subordinate goals are shorter-term, specific, action-based goals. They provide detail about what you will do and when you will do it. If superordinate goals provide a “why” for the habit change experience, then subordinate goals provide the “how.”2
Subordinate goals are less flexible than superordinate goals because of their specificity, but they provide other benefits. First, because they are short-term, you get regular, clear feedback which can help you to stay engaged. In addition, researchers have also found subordinate goals help you to stay motivated because the end-point is in the foreseeable future.1
A Goal-Setting Strategy for Lasting Change
Researchers who study subordinate and superordinate goal setting have theorized that the best way to achieve longer-lasting success is to combine both goal types.2 Superordinate goals provide a general sense of direction and help you to sort through priorities when different goals or tasks compete for your attention. But subordinate goals provide stepping stones—specific measurable actions—that keep you engaged and motivated.
Research has shown that people pursue goals more consistently, with greater motivation, and for a longer period of time when they focus on both subordinate and superordinate goals than when they focus on either a subordinate or a superordinate goal alone.1
So how do you put your own lifestyle change plan into place? First, you’ll need to define your goals. Then you’ll want to refine your goals. Finally, you’ll want to adjust your goals.
To define your goals, a 2020 research project can provide a starting point for your process. A study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well Being examined different New Year’s resolution strategies, including one that involved both superordinate and subordinate goals. Each study participant came into the project with a general idea of a resolution that they wanted to pursue.2
To define a superordinate goal, they were asked to list three reasons why they wanted to pursue their New Year’s resolution.
To define a subordinate goal, they were asked to list three concrete actions or steps describing how they would pursue their New Year’s resolution.
Once you have an idea of the lifestyle change you want to address in the new year (or any time of year, for that matter), you can use these two sets of instructions to direct your thought process. It may help to put your goals in writing in a place such as a journal where you can also track your progress, take notes, and make adjustments.
Once you have your first draft of your superordinate and subordinate goals written out, you can refine them to make them more effective. Start by addressing the superordinate goals. Remember that superordinate goals reflect your intrinsic values. They are connected to your identity and reflect the person that you would like to become but they should still be realistic.
For example, if you love music but you’ve never played an instrument before, it is probably not realistic to set a goal to become a concert pianist. But you could set a goal to learn to play the piano, which would help support values related to creativity, the arts, and music.
Next, refine your subordinate goals. To do so, it may be helpful to use the SMART goal approach. SMART goals are:
For example, if you have chosen to learn to play the piano, one subordinate goal might be to research at least three schools or teachers, decide on one, and sign up for classes by the end of the month. Your next subordinate goal might be to take one class per week for two months. Another subordinate goal might be to practice piano at home two times per week for three months.
As you put your resolution plan into motion, you might find that you need to make adjustments. Subordinate goals provide relatively quick feedback. You can use this feedback to continue on your designated path or to find a new way to reach your superordinate goal.
For example, if you’ve started your plan to learn to play piano, you may have found an instructor and enrolled in classes. But your attendance has dwindled and you find that you have no desire to practice at home. You may want to come up with a new strategy to learn piano. Perhaps home lessons work better than classroom instruction. Or maybe you can revisit your overarching goal to learn to play music and choose a different instrument.
Remember, by changing the game plan (the subordinate goals), you are not giving up on your main (superordinate) goal—you are simply approaching it from a new angle. This should be seen as an indicator of persistence and success, not as a sign of failure or giving up.
If your plan is humming along smoothly, then continue to set new subordinate goals as you reach established endpoints. Another benefit of this type of goal is that as you complete them successfully, it enhances self-efficacy—the confidence you have in your ability to carry out tasks. Give yourself credit, reward yourself, and use that confidence to continue the forward momentum.
Tips for Success
Remember that setting and reaching goals is an ongoing process that is never a straight line to success. Expect to encounter challenges along the way. Experts provide other tips for keeping your New Year’s resolution for long-term habit change.3
One Change at a Time
There will be many different ways to reach a superordinate goal. Focus on just one small habit change at a time until you get better at the process. Once you become more confident in your ability to set and reach smaller (subordinate) goals, try to keep your focus limited.
Challenge Yourself in Small Doses
Researchers have found that challenging goals tend to be more engaging and motivating than “easy” goals,1 but when you’re first starting out, administer challenge in smaller doses. You can do so by setting shorter time-frames, or by setting goals that you know you can achieve. As your confidence grows and success rate increases, so should the degree of difficulty.
Become a Do-er
Studies suggest that approach-based goals (where you make a commitment to do something) are more effective than avoidance goals (where you make a commitment to avoid doing something). Try to set a goal for an action that you want to take rather than one you want to avoid. If you are trying to quit a habit, consider building a goal around a replacement activity.4
For example, if your goal is to become a more physically active person, you might want to make a resolution to stop watching television at night after dinner. Instead of setting a goal to “not watch TV at night during the week,” try setting a goal to walk for 30 minutes after dinner at least 4 days per week for three weeks.
It’s not likely that you will be the only one in your family or social circle who will be making a resolution in January. Find someone who has a goal similar to yours and make a commitment to connect regularly and provide each other support. Even if your friend or partner’s resolution is different from yours, you can still support each other and talk about the process, challenges, and successes.
Plan rewards for yourself at regular intervals along the way. Rewards may help you to stay on track and maintain motivation.5 Try to find rewards that are in line with your achievements and that help you to maintain interest when challenges arise.