🧠 Brain STREAM 1️⃣2️⃣: New Years Resolutions More Successful Than You Think

I have always had low expectations for New Years Resolutions, but perhaps I am wrong!

🧠 Brain STREAM 1️⃣2️⃣: New Years Resolutions More Successful Than You Think
New Year is a surprisingly successful time to set goals

Hello and Happy New Year!

I'm going to start today's letter on a positive note because isn't that what starting a new year is about?

This week's insight: New Years Resolutions are more successful than you might think

When I start one of these newsletters, I usually start with a target message in mind. The message this week, apt for today's date, was going to be about how I feel New Years' Resolutions are generally not successful, but are instead more of a bandwagon we are expected to jump on.

Well, the thing about having an open mind in science research is that it is wonderful when you are proven wrong.

If I had to guess, prior to researching, I would have put the success rate of New Years Resolutions at about 10% still being upheld by the end of the first month. Therefore I was very surprised when one study found 19% still being upheld after 2 years (Norcross and Vangarelli, 1989)! Two studies report around a 40% success rate as survey participants reached the 6 month mark (Marlatt and Kaplan, 1972; Norcross, Ratzin and Payne, 1989) and another had a 55% success rate at 1 year (Oscarsson et al, 2020).

Bear in mind the nature of many resolutions and study method mean the results are self-reported, but researchers seem to find a surprisingly high success rate - at least to me - of resolutions set on New Years Day.

👉 Are you going to set a New Years Resolution?

However, there is a caveat and that comes with weight loss goals. These seem to be a bit less successful, especially for women (Rössner, Hansen and Rössner, 2001; Marlatt and Kaplan, 1972). If this is your goal, some training in goal setting and support in keeping going (Oscarsson et al, 2020) could be beneficial.

Example Goals and Sub Goals For a PhD Researcher
In this post, I have outlined my overall PhD goal, my sub-goals and how these might map onto a monthly task list. I hope this example will help you in designing your own series of PhD goals.

This week's action: Try combining superordinate and subordinate goals

What are superordinate goals?

Superordinate goals are those big, overarching goals, like 'I want get fitter'. Superordinate goals are designed to be inspiring, motivating and provide a higher overarching focus. These are more about the why. The problem with these is that they are often an open-ended kind of goals; how do you know when you have achieved them?

Read Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’ to Find Inspiration For Your PhD
We all reach the point in our PhDs when we struggle to keep up momentum and each day is a slog. The book ‘Start With Why’ by Simon Sinek could help you find your spark again.

And subordinate goals?

Subordinate goals are designed to be more concrete in nature, with more detail and help build the day-to-day changes you may wish to see. I guess they are more like SMART goals - e.g. I'm going to do 10,000 steps every day before midday - and they tend to constitute the how. However, it is easier to feel unsuccessful when you miss a few days here and there.

Some evidence to support setting both

Hochi, Brugger and Messner (2019) argue that a combination of these two goal types lead to the highest likelihood of success in the long run. They asked readers of a Swiss newspaper to share their New Years Resolutions. Participants were split into the 'whys' with "I want to be a person who ...", the 'hows' with an action e.g. "I want to clean the house every day", a combination of the two or they weren't asked to do anything beyond their initial resolution. They were then sent reminders of these and their resolution every two weeks.

When study participants set a combination of superordinate and subordinate New Years Resolutions, they weren't actually any more successful in achieving them, nor did they put any more effort in. However, they did:

  • Have a more positive outlook towards how long they would pursue the goal for after the study because of setting a 'why'
  • Feel they had 'done better' over the 3 month study because they had set a 'how'

Take home message: These authors found that setting the why (superordinate goals) had similar success to setting the how (subordinate), but participants were most successful long term by using both.

Interesting books, videos, apps and experiences from this week


Ali Abdaal published his first book 'Feel Good Productivity' in the last week; I have my copy! I ordered this back in August 2023. Was it worth the four month wait? Find out in the next newsletter!


If you want some light entertainment and a break from your work, I've been playing with Soundtrap. Pretend to be a DJ for an hour and make yourself some cool music to work too.

Blogs published this week

Until next time!
Happy Brain STREAMing,