Two hands lift sixty-pound black dumbbells
Features & Articles

Struggling with your New Year’s resolutions? There’s still hope, say these Pitt experts

  • Health and Wellness
  • Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

It’s that time of year again, when the adage “new year, new you” holds both promise and pressure. While some 40% of Americans make a New Year’s resolution, very few actually follow through — and most give up by February.

If you’re already feeling listless or overstretched, University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center Research Associate Omid Fotuhi says it’s common, because most people wrestle with separating their value from their goals.

“We don’t realize we’re combating that pressure,” says Fotuhi, whose research includes identifying psychological barriers that interrupt performance and achievement.        

Whether you’re having trouble hopping on the treadmill or making it through Dry January, Fotuhi and Sophia Choukas-Bradley, an assistant professor of psychology, share seven ways to relieve the pressure and rethink resolutions.

Goal setting is a marathon, not a sprint

Both Choukas-Bradley and Fotuhi note the significance of setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound (SMART) goals.

“Many people fall into the trap of setting New Year’s resolutions that are too vague to be met consistently,” says Choukas-Bradley, director of Pitt’s Teen and Young Adult Lab. “For example, you might set the goal for yourself: ‘I will check social media less often.’ A SMART goal rewrite might be: ‘In order to achieve my ultimate aim of checking social media less often, I will set a timer for 15 minutes every morning and 15 minutes every evening and I will only use social media during those times. I will remove notifications from my phone, so I'm not tempted to check. I will try this for five days and then evaluate how it's going and revise my goal if needed.’”

A calendar, she says, is a necessity. And goals can always be made SMART-er.

“Ask yourself your ‘ultimate why’: How would your life be better if you were to achieve the goal you had set?” she says. “Next, ask yourself what didn’t work: Was your goal too vague? Too ambitious? Too unappealing? Then return to the principle of setting SMART goals and ask yourself how you could tweak your original goal. Then treat tomorrow as a fresh start.” 

Fotuhi advises laying out clear milestones. “Once you recognize and identify a process goal, you can have time-delineated milestones that demonstrate whether you are progressing.

[From the archives: Choukas-Bradley’s research evaluates how adolescents feel about their online appearance.]

Goals are tools, not a measure of your value

“Goals should offer some utility,” says Fotuhi. “If they don’t, maybe you need different goals.”

If you tried the SMART goal approach and it’s not working for you, he suggests focusing on improvement areas versus outcomes like getting a particular grade on a test or landing a job.

“Goals can be growth- and progress-focused,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘I want to lose 10 pounds,’ reframe that as ‘I want to invest in my health.’ While they are similar behaviors, one is tied to failure or success based on reaching that outcome; the other is an investment in progress or process.”

Be mindful of setting too many goals

Fotuhi advises focusing on just one or two goals to avoid overwhelming yourself. “One of the maladaptive patterns we have as a society is to stack goals without taking anything away.”

Be on your timeline, not social media’s

“It’s very common for young adults — and all people — to post their New Year’s resolutions to social media,” says Choukas-Bradley, who studies adolescents, mental health and social media. “Getting validation for one’s goals can feel rewarding and posting one’s lofty goals for their ‘ideal self’ can feel good because it allows us to self-present in the ways we'd like to be seen. But the public social media audience is diffuse. Accountability groups are most effective when specific people will follow up with you and when you can support each other.”

Fotuhi says, “Content is curated to create a pristine image of what the world should look like. Comparisons through this curated lens can sap intrinsic motivation.”

[From the archive: Choukas-Bradley dives into social comparison on Instagram.]

Remember, your goals are your own

“Goals have to be intrinsically driven — not based on what you think you should want, or what society, your family or your school wants,” says Fotuhi. “When we type into our GPS, we’re clear about one of the two data points necessary to get us there: the final destination. The part we’ve lost track of is where we’re starting from. Pay attention to recognizing that values-based approach to understanding what matters and using goals to align one’s efforts towards that progressive evolution of the self.”

To move forward, let go of the past

“Divorce goals that are no longer serving you,” says Fotuhi.

Know that some of the best goals are the ones you never achieve

The important thing about goals is that they motivate you to keep moving, Fotuhi says. For a more meaningful approach to goal-setting and life, he advises, “Focus on areas you want to continue to evolve and grow that are unending.”


— Kara Henderson, photography by Terry Clark