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A Better Resolution: How to Help Teens Sustain Their Goals Beyond January

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Is There a Secret to Creating Achievable Resolutions?

Every year there’s that weird week.

The one between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Teenagers are out of school, savoring the last days of vacation. Some adults have to go to work – depending on what days of the week Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on – while others are in the same boat as their kids. They spend the week enjoying those last few days before New Year’s Eve, and the inevitable return to the long grind between the winter holidays and Spring Break.

During this week, millions of people in the U.S. engage in the annual tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions (NYRs). In fact, statistics show that on an average year, about 130 million people in the U.S. make NYRs – and we write an annual article about them.

Please read our previous articles on making NYRs. They’ll help set the stage for this one:

Are New Year’s Resolutions Even Worth Making?

New Year’s Resolutions 2020: A New Approach

Making New Year’s Resolutions for 2021

We didn’t publish and article on making resolutions this year, because we went on Christmas break before YouGov.com, our source for these statistics, published their polls. We’ll make up for it in this article, however, by discussing a peer-reviewed journal article about two character traits that experts believe lead to adherence to – a.k.a. sticking with – the resolutions people make every year: goal flexibility and goal tenacity.

We’ll get to that study in a moment. Now, let’s look that figure we cited above. An article from the Washington Post published in 2018 indicated that each year, about 130 million people in the U.S. make NYRs. That’s about 40% of the adult population. This year, however, that number has dropped by about half.

We’ll look at the statistics for this year, then get to that study we mentioned: that’s when we’ll find out whether the character traits researchers call goal flexibility and goal tenacity help people keep the resolutions they make every year.

Resolutions for the New Year: What Did People Want to Change in 2022?

As we mention above, YouGov.com conducts surveys every year on what types of resolutions people in the U.S. make. We’ll now give you a brief overview of the information they collected in their NYR polls this year.

Here’s how people answered their first question:

“Do you plan to make any New Year’s resolutions for 2022?”
  • 23% of adults over 18 said yes (59 million).
  • 40% of adults 19-29 said yes (16 million).
  • 25% of adults 30-44 said yes (18 million).
  • 18% of adults 45-64 said yes (14 million).
  • 14% of adults over 65 said yes (7 million).

Of the 59 million adults who answered the survey, here’s how they answered the next question:

“What kind of resolution did you make this year?”
  • 23% (13 million) made goals related to living healthier, such as working out more, getting outside more often, eating a healthier diet, or getting better sleep.
  • 21% (12.3 million) made goals related to self-improvement and personal happiness, such as starting a new hobby, engaging in more self-care, or spending more time with loved ones.
  • 20% (11.8 million) said their NYR was to lose weight.
  • 16% (9.4 million) made goals related to their career or job, such as switching jobs, working more or working less, and/or finding a career that matched their values/is more fulfilling
  • 13% (7.7 million) made goals related to money, such as getting out of debt, saving more money, or making more money.

On February 2nd 2022, the YouGov.com pollsters reached out to everyone who answered the initial survey and asked:

“Have you kept your resolution?”

Here’s how they answered:

  • 22% (13 million) said yes.
  • 11% (6.5 million) said no.
  • 63% (163 million) said they never made a resolution to keep.
  • 5% (13 million) were not sure. We’re not sure what that means – but there it is.

Based on this information, we can see the following:

  1. The top three NYRs had to do with health, self-improvement, and happiness.
  2. Job and money matters rounded out the top 5 NYRs.
  3. As of February 2nd, twice as many people had kept, rather than abandoned, their NYRs.

That’s all for the statistics. It’s time to move on to the research we discuss above: we think it may give us clues as to why some people keep their NYRs and some people abandon their NYRs – and maybe we’ll learn something we didn’t anticipate.

Flexibility, Tenacity, or Both: What Does it Take?

At the end of 2020, researchers based in the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia conducted an online longitudinal study on NYRs. The researchers theorized that two personality traits – goal flexibility and goal tenacity – would predict whether an individual kept or abandoned their NYR. To gather data, researchers recruited 182 participants and administered online surveys at four points in time.

  • First Time Point:
    • To establish a baseline, participants listed their resolutions and completed three questionnaires – one measured tenacious goal pursuit, one measured flexible goal attainment, and the third measured overall wellbeing vis a vis their NYRs.
  • Second, Third, and Fourth Time Points:
    • To determine the relationship between goal-pursuit characteristics, wellbeing, and adherence to NYRs, researchers repeated the process and administered the three initial questionnaires at all three follow-up time points.

Here’s how the researchers defined the key terms in the study:

Personal Goals

These are “cognitive representations of desired future outcomes that involve striving toward the positive outcome.” Experts on goals setting propose that setting personal goals “promotes positive adaptations in life and psychological wellbeing, even when goal pursuit is not successful.”

Goal Flexibility

This refers to “the ability to view setbacks with equanimity and adjust goal pursuit as required.” The study authors propose that “flexible goal adjustment is integral to maintaining a sense of well-being.” The researchers identify the following advantages of goal flexibility:

  • They allow a person to change to an alternative means to pursuing the same goal
  • They allow a person to change to a different goal that serves the same overall purpose as the original goal

Goal Tenacity

This refers to “the quality of persistence in striving to reach a desired goal outcome under difficult conditions.” The researchers identify the following advantages of goal tenacity:

  • Persistence may provide the drive required to sustain NYRs under typical circumstances
  • Persistence may provide the extra drive necessary to pursue goals despite significant obstacles or difficulty

The researchers theorized the following:

  1. High scores on goal flexibility would predict adherence to NYRs and high scores on wellbeing scales.
  2. High scores on goal tenacity would predict adherence to NYRs high scores on wellbeing scales.

Before we share the results, take a moment and think about their hypothesis. It makes sense to us: does it make sense to you?

Let’s find out if the researchers were right about flexibility, tenacity, NYRs, and wellbeing.

The Results: A Big Nope – But an Important Observation

The heading gives it away:

Neither goal tenacity nor goal flexibility predicted adherence to New Year’s Resolutions.

We’re sure the researchers were as surprised as we were, because the experimental design and the hypothesis seemed like as close to a slam-dunk as a research hypothesis can get. However, that’s what science is all about: formulating an idea (hypothesis), designing a way to test it (the experiment, materials, and methods), collecting the data (the results), then analyzing that data and confirming or refuting the initial hypothesis (conclusions).

However, they did find something interesting: both goal tenacity and goal flexibility predicted greater overall wellbeing. That means the participants who scored higher on the initial tenacity and flexibility assessments also scored higher on all subsequent wellbeing assessments. In addition, when compared to participants who returned low scores on the initial tenacity and flexibility assessments, participants who returned high scores on the initial tenacity and flexibility assessments showed:

  • Decreased symptoms of depression
  • Reduced feelings of anger/hostility
  • Fewer symptoms of poor health

We didn’t see those results coming – but in retrospect, we could have predicted them. It’s entirely logical that tenacity and flexibility are associate with positive wellbeing. What that means to us is that people who make goals and pursue them diligently – while remaining flexible in pursuit of those goals – are more likely to report a positive state of overall wellbeing, as compared to people who make goals and pursue them in an inflexible, rigid manner.

To put that in a purely qualitative way, people who pursue goals with a sense of openness and willingness to change are more likely to be happy than people who pursue goals with a fixed set of unalterable preconceptions that they hold on to with white knuckles.

How to Make Resolutions That Stick

The study doesn’t come out and tell us how to do that – but we can apply one of our favorite phrases to help you and your teen. We can extrapolate from given data and help your teen set goals that are both achievable and increase their overall wellbeing.

Keep Your Resolutions – And Stay Happy

1. Be Adaptable

This is about you. When you set a goal, make sure you understand that where you end up might not be where you predicted. For instance, if you set a goal related to fitness, like running a 5k race (3.1 miles) in under 25 minutes, which you might need to change that goal based on what you learn about yourself. You might find that there’s no way you’re every going to run that fast, but instead learn that you can crank out nine-minute miles (a full minute slower than the pace required to run a 5k in 25 minutes) for an hour with no problem. Therefore, being flexible in this case would mean you change your goal from running a 5k in 25 minutes to running a 10k in an hour. Totally different goal, same general idea, achieved by being both flexible and self-aware. Make sense?

2. Be Diligent

That sentence means the same thing as be tenacious. If we continue the example above, about running, what we mean is that there will still be days when the last thing you want to do is lace up the running shoes and hit the road. However, if you do it anyway – meaning go for a run when it’s the last thing you want to do – you’ll most likely feel much better about yourself when you’re done. That works on at least three levels, in this example: you’ll feel better physically, because you exercised, you’ll feel better psychologically, because you kept a promise to yourself, and you’ll feel better emotionally, big picture, because you worked to pursue your goal in the face of adversity. We can confirm from experience that all three of those things feel great and are worth the effort.

3. Be Aware

By aware, we mean of the big picture. Think about what the process of goal setting: you imagine an outcome and take concrete steps to make it a reality. Sometimes it happens in a linear manner and the message is clear. For instance, your goal is to save enough money to buy a nice pair of headphones. You do chores, make the money, and buy the headphones. That’s a simple but powerful goalsetting lesson. Also consider the lessons that aren’t as clearcut, like the running example above, where you learn the right mix of flexibility and tenacity can take you farther – literally – than you imagined when you set your first goal.

We recommend parents reading this article to share these lessons with their teens, or better yet, get them to read this article themselves. If that’s not possible, the real takeaway lesson here is that goalsetting, in a teenager’s life, can serve a dual purpose. It almost always operates on two levels. One level is the goal: get in shape, learn to play piano, make new friends. Another level is the process of goalsetting, wherein a teen learns traits like diligence/persistence and flexibility/adaptability can lead them places and teach them things about themselves that may be more valuable than the destination or goal they initially set out to achieve.

The goal is important, yes. Setting and achieving a goal is a solid lesson for a teen.

The process, however, means more than that. We want our teens to understand that the life lessons they learn along the way – whether they achieve their goals or change them mid-year – may be more important than achieving the goals themselves.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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