Why do so many New Year’s Resolutions fail? It is not because people enjoy making solemn vows of self-improvement just for the fun of breaking them. Rather, most people fail to put in the right framework to keep themselves motivated for the long-term.

Welcome to February, the time of the year when over 80% of our well-intended New Year’s Resolutions fade away into the silent graveyard of history. If the saying “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is true, then this is probably one of the best examples of it. It’s not just about setting good resolutions, but about putting in a good framework to keep motivating you for the rest of the year, long after you have forgotten how many resolutions you made on January 1.

Motivation, not Resolution

Specific and challenging goals with regular feedback are highly effective at motivating performance

In early pioneering research, Locke (1968) proposed that specific and difficult goals are intrinsically motivating for individuals, compared to vague or easy goals. Locke et al (1981) later reviewed over a decade of lab experiments and field studies on goal setting. They found that 90% of the time, specific and challenging goals resulted in higher performance than either easy goals, “do your best” goals, or even no goals at all.

This finding has profound implications for both our personal goal-setting and employee performance in the workplace. It’s not just about what goals you set, but how you set them. Let’s try to break this down.

Requirement 1: Specific

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure”
 – Peter Drucker

Specific goals can be measured precisely and allow you to track your own progress, which is already motivating in itself. They give a sense of clarity and purpose with a focused target of success. Let’s take the classic example of physical exercise. “Do some exercise” is vague and easily excusable. However, “Run for 5km in 30min” or “5 sets of 8 reps at 90% capacity at this gym machine” is very specific and measurable. Specific goals focus attention, mobilise effort and increase persistence.

For example, a 1974 study of a company’s truck drivers who transported timber logs found that the drivers were not loading up their trucks to full capacity, hence wasting time and fuel. When the company changed their instruction to the drivers from “do your best” to “load up your trucks to 94% capacity”, their efficiency improved drastically from 60% to 90%, which saved the company $250,000 over 9 months.

Requirement 2: Challenging

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.
But there is no cure for curiosity.”
– Dorothy Parker

Challenging goals trigger curiosity, rather than boredom. They unleash creativity, imagination and inspire the human spirit with “Moonshot” goals. During the 1960’s Space Race, President John F. Kennedy visited the NASA Headquarters for the first time. The President noticed a janitor mopping the floor and introduced himself with “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing here?

Well Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the Moon,” the janitor responded. “By ensuring everything is spotless, all of the sensitive equipment can function without fault.” The same goal can suddenly be more motivating when it is framed as part of a larger vision or purpose.

Figure 1: The psychological state of “flow” resulting from the optimal amount of challenge

When business-as-usual tasks such as updating spreadsheets may not feel challenging enough, it’s time to seek out more challenging tasks which better match your abilities and skills. Perhaps, the same goal can be achieved with more innovative techniques such as AI / machine learning models? It is important to balance between burn-out (overchallenge) and bore-out (underchallenge), but in between lies the state of “flow” for optimal productivity and satisfaction.

Requirement 3: Regular Feedback

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” – Ken Blanchard

Good feedback, like fresh morning WeetBix, provides all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients necessary for personal growth and development. The most useful feedback is framed as constructive criticism, an honest appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses in terms of goal performance. Without objective feedback, it is easy to swing between the emotional extremes of self-doubt and self-deception. Good feedback promotes self-awareness and builds self-efficacy that one can keep achieving further goals that are even more specific and challenging.

Figure 2: The spectrum of self-confidence

When I was studying for my Part III actuarial exams many years ago, I became “stuck” on a particular exam when I kept failing it several times in a row. This was definitely a very specific and challenging goal, but it was missing something else: regular feedback. I joined study groups, asked senior colleagues for help and even an exam performance interview with the Chief Examiner. Study groups were great for sharing feedback, but it was difficult to find a new group each semester when everyone else had already passed and moved on! In hindsight, the recommended 200-300 hours of lonely self-study per subject required a Draconian amount of self-discipline. Regular feedback would certainly have helped both my motivation and goal performance.

My Resolution

So what is my 2019 New Year’s Resolution? To write an Actuaries Digital article every month. Why? I want to learn to be a better writer by writing more. Does it fit my proposed criteria?

Specific: an opinion piece on a topical issue up to 1000 words
Challenging: an interesting but difficult task to articulate my thoughts into a coherent and engaging story
Regular feedback: every article gets peer reviewed by the Editorial Committee

My challenge to the reader is to actually test out this theory! Have your previous successful goals satisfied these 3 factors? Did any goals fail to motivate performance despite these 3 factors?

Good luck!


Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”
Locke, Edwin (1968), “Towards a theory of task motivation and incentives”, Organisational Behaviour and Human Performance
Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). “Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980” Psychological Bulletin
Locke, Edwin & Latham, Gary (1990), “A theory of goal setting and task performance”

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