Less Focused Goals Help Keep New Year’s Resolutions

Tired of giving up on your New Year’s Resolutions before January have even ended? Maybe your best bet is setting less rigid goals for yourself.

New research suggests that less focused goals help people keep their well-intentioned vows. When it comes to achieving goals, “fuzzy boundaries” often boost performance better than rigidly defined objectives, the researchers said.

“It has long been the presumption, that people make the best decisions when they have the most accurate and precise information [about what determines success]. Actually, when it comes down to behavior, people do well when they have the ability to distort that information,” said Arul Mishra, an assistant professor at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, who conducted the research with her husband, Himanshu, who is also a professor.

This approach to setting goals can help people trying to lose weight, give up bad habits or exercise more.

For example, Americans spend some $70 billion on weight-loss products and programs every year, determined to lose a specified amount of weight. Others join health and exercise clubs, setting precise goals for strength measured by weights lifted or distances run over set times. When those firm goals are not completely reached, consumers brand themselves as failures and desperately move on to another product or program, or just give up entirely.

In addition to observing how exact versus “fuzzy” motivational data affect ultimate success in weight loss and physical fitness, researchers also studied implications of having precise versus more flexible standards for gauging mental acuity. In all three cases, the researchers found improved performance when motivational information was vaguer than precise, allowing participants to perceive their progress in a more positive manner.

“Not knowing exactly how one is progressing lets people generate positive expectancies which allow them to perform better, the researchers said.

In other words, the ‘fuzzy’ boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to [interpret] vague information in a desired manner,” the researchers said. “This latitude positively influences behavior by affecting outcome expectancies.

Conversely, precise information by its very nature prevents people from distorting information and forces them to be objective about their expectancies.”

The paper is expected to be published in upcoming edition of the journal Psychological Science.