Make Smarter Resolutions

Nidhi Agrawal offers a few simple, proven tips for setting—and achieving—your goals in 2023

Happy new year’s… resolutions!

Struggling through a grinding pandemic has left many of us hoping the flip of another calendar can be the occasion for a genuine restart—to set personal goals and make positive changes in the coming year. Get fit. Read more. Procrastinate less. Earn a promotion. Be more mindful. Do more good in the community.

But achieving a better you, as most can attest, is no simple task.

Nidhi Agrawal

According to Nidhi Agrawal, the Michael G. Foster Endowed Professor of Marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, the key to resolution keeping might just be in resolution making.

“We’ve learned that it is important to distinguish the why and the how of your resolutions,” says Agrawal, whose research in consumer behavior has frequently explored the mechanics of willpower, or why we behave in/against our own best interests. “It’s important to have a clear, big-picture reason for the goals that you set. And the more concrete, specific, routinized you make them, the more success you will have.”

So, as you embark on another year of goal-setting, here are a few tips from Agrawal’s research:

1. Find meaning

Rather than simply establish a general goal of becoming healthier, for instance, spend some time reflecting on why you want to be healthier. What’s your motivation? Maybe there’s a beach wedding coming up in summer. Or you want to fit in your favorite old pair of jeans. Or you want to be able to hike to a favorite mountain top or run your first 10k. Or you just want to be around longer for your kids.

“You won’t have the motivation to achieve these difficult goals unless they are linked to something that is deeply important to you,” Agrawal says. “Because, when you are having trouble sticking to your rules, you’re going to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And if that answer is not compelling, then you’re likely going to falter.”

2. Get specific

Setting specific rules can help. Instead of making an undefined pledge to “get fit,” enact some concrete guidelines to help you do it. Exercise five days a week. Or get even more precise. Two days of spin class, one of yoga and two of strength training weekly, and a hike every other week.

And track track your behavior.

“When you establish specific rules, you know whether you are executing on the goal,” Agrawal continues. “And once those rules become routine, decisions become more automatic and temptation becomes easier to resist. So, every time you face a decision—like considering a restaurant menu—you won’t start evoking all sorts of tradeoffs. What fits my rules? You want to be able to execute almost robotically.”

3. Balance the why and how

Agrawal emphasizes that both the why and the how of resolutions are equally important, but often conflated, at their own peril.

“We make a resolution like ‘I want to live more healthy’—my why—‘so I will eat healthy’—my how. Now what we have is a compromise and a weak proposition (I mean, everyone wants to be healthier). A vague path to an ambiguous objective.

“Instead, establish what it is that you are looking to achieve with your resolution. Find a little more thoughtful why and a much more specific, concrete, routinized how.”

4. Give yourself a break

Finally, Agrawal emphasizes that you need to be more forgiving of yourself if—and when—you falter. Because the path to self-improvement never runs straight forward.

“Faltering doesn’t mean you are a failure,” she says. “That view of failure leads to shame and disempowerment. It makes you see yourself in a negative light.”

It’s far more productive to view failure as attributed to a particular action or time. A moment of weakness. One bad day. “When we know that actions can be changed,” she adds, “it’s empowering.”

And tomorrow is always an opportunity to get back on track.

Nidhi Agrawal’s research explores emotions and goals in consumer information processing and, recently, has recently expanded to self-regulation and goals in health communications. She has received the Early Career Award from the Association for Consumer Research (2014) and the Erin Anderson Award from the American Marketing Association (2017), and is a Marketing Science Institute Scholar (2020).

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.