Breaking your New Year’s resolutions is almost as much a tradition as making them. It’s like dessert after vegetables.
But for those who actually intend to follow through on their January promises, research offers some help. Psychologists in the field of management and decision-making have been studying how businesses and individuals set and carry out goals for decades now. And it turns out that the language you use to express your intention can make a significant difference—both for better and for worse.
For years, the big names in goal-setting were Locke and Latham: Edwin Locke, formerly of the University of Maryland, and Gary Latham, of the University of Toronto. Their 1990 book, “A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance,” set the standard for corporations and individuals trying to accomplish grand tasks. Locke and Latham argued that goals should be specific and challenging. Instead of stating your New Year’s resolution as “I am going to lose weight,” which is so vague as to be daunting, you say, “I want to go to the gym twice a week and eat a salad for lunch every day”—a more concrete goal, yet one that sets the bar high.
More recently, psychologists have begun to question the specificity of the Locke and Latham-type goal: If you set your goal as “salad at lunch,” you might allow yourself to gorge on french fries at dinner, canceling out the gains. Others have suggested their theory gives too much credit to the conscious will, instead of addressing the daily, unconscious way that habits are formed.
Here, language can be helpful. Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University, has been running experiments for years showing the positive effects of what he calls “implementation intentions”: a goal that’s specific in terms of planning, not just outcome, and that’s formulated as an “if-then” phrase. So instead of saying, “I want to lose weight,” or even, “I will eat a salad for lunch every day,” you state your goal as: “When I get to the cafeteria, I will go directly to the salad bar.” With an implementation intention, you make the decision at your point of highest clarity, not at the moment when you’re starving after the gym and all your friends have piled their trays high. Putting it into words—although Gollwitzer said that the intention could also be thought or visualized—allows you to make the right choice automatically, without too much thinking or need to exercise willpower.
However, the powerful priming effect of language can also undo a goal, if you’re not careful. Say your great weakness is for chocolate, and your New Year’s resolution is “I’d like to eat less chocolate,” or perhaps the implementation intention, “When I am offered chocolate, I will say, ‘Not today.’” (According to Gollwitzer, “Not today” is a particularly useful refusal because it requires less explanation—and leaves some wiggle room about tomorrow’s chocolate.) Even just saying the word “chocolate,” though, forces you to imagine the thing you’re trying to deny yourself. “In Germany, and I’m from Germany, sausages are awfully good, so if I go to a restaurant and the waiter asks me what I want to have, I’ll say, ‘No sausage,’” said Gollwitzer. “But there is a negation with the ‘no sausage’ because you activate the sausage—you hear ‘sausage’ and you feel the sausage in your mouth.”
Instead, it’s best to substitute a safer, perhaps vaguer word: “When I’m offered something tempting, I’ll say ‘Not today.’” If your goal is to avoid something distasteful, on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense to state it as part of your goal, since the word itself will prime you to stay away: “If I see that co-worker I always clash with, I will just ignore her.”
The way you describe your goals can also make a difference. Psychologists at Stanford and UC-Davis have shown that people are more likely to vote when asked “to be voters” as opposed to “vote” and less likely to cheat when told not “to be cheaters” versus not “to cheat.” For identity labels with strong moral or emotional associations, positioning yourself as a type of actor instead of just saying you’ll do something seems to provide more motivation. So if healthy eating is important to you, try saying, “I will be a healthy eater” rather than “I’m going to eat healthily”—and it may help keep you away from chocolate and bratwurst.
No matter what your resolutions are, we hope you’ll be a resolver with the know-how to decline vague temptations—today, anyway—and to make your specific, ambitious dreams a reality. Because what more could we ask of 2013’s linguistic gleanings than to help make us better people in the year to come?Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.