New psychology research identifies exactly where most people fail when setting big personal goals

The ultimate new cycle.
The ultimate new cycle.
Image: Unsplash/Brigitte Tohm
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

We all got the memo about how to create effective goals. Keep it real, the productivity experts tell us. Our objectives should be specific, measurable, and attainable.

When we make resolutions before a new year, most people abide by these rules of thumb. Unfortunately, our minds also exploit a loophole in their ability to imagine the future: People are terrible at recognizing that the constraints that exist today are the same constraints that will exist tomorrow, next week and beyond. In the future, you’ll face the same deadlines at work that interfere with yoga or CrossFit. Your friends will still insist that you socialize over drinks, not cold-pressed juice. And you’ll have the same personality.

Making matters worse, psychological research has found that our blindness to the annoying realities of today increases in relation to how distant a future goal is. That means that the further into the future the date we’ve vowed to stop eating desserts, the more confident we are that we’ll be ready to cut out sweets when the big day comes.

Now, a new study looking into this form of magical thinking provides even more insight into how the mind tricks itself into believing in its own best intentions. As it turns out, by focusing on a new calendar-defined cycle, like the beginning of a new week, month, or year, we can make any date feel more distant than it really is, thus allowing ourselves to become overly optimistic and less focused on future obstacles.

Writing for Scientific American recently, the two authors of the study, Marie Hennecke, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Zurich, and Benjamin Converse, a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, outline their latest research, which will soon be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The pair conducted a series of studies that manipulated calendars to test different responses, they explain. The first study was held on July 31, when the psychologists asked a group of 110 adults, aged 18-67, who were planning to start a diet, to complete surveys related to their goal and write down whatever came to mind as they contemplated eating differently. The scientists later coded their written responses, looking for ideas that expressed either outcomes (for example, “I’ll have more energy”), or possible obstacles (“I hate washing the blender.”)

Fifty percent of the group was given a survey that referred to the future as days of the week and made “tomorrow” part of this week. Among these responses, as predicted, life’s complications remained in the foreground of their imagination; they listed three constraints for every two rosy outcomes.

The survey given to the other half of the participants placed “tomorrow,” August 1st, in the context of next month. This time the ratio of constraints to positive outcomes was 1.2 to two.

“It was as if, by seeing the next day as part of a separate period, the dieters’ concerns disappeared,” the study authors write. “They weren’t denying the concerns. The concerns just weren’t coming to mind in the first place.”

In two other experiments, the researchers also found that would be dieters were less mindful of what could sabotage their plans if a new diet was set to launch on a Monday instead of a Thursday, and on March 1st versus February 27th. Their findings jibe with what’s been reported about spikes in Google searches for health or exercise-related topics on Monday and New Year’s Day, they point out.

It seems our almost childlike faith in fresh beginnings on significant calendar days is robust, which is pretty endearing and certainly has its upside: Life might be bleak if we couldn’t be optimistic about a landmark date in the future. When it comes to setting intentions about health-altering habits, however, allowing our minds to be seduced by the power of new cycles misleads us and may cause more harm than good. Converse and Hennecke hope their research will encourage researchers to find ways of exploiting this quirk of human behavior to our benefit instead.