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A Harvard psychologist explains why your New Year's resolution may do more harm than good

Amy cuddyCraig Barritt/GettyHarvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy.

With January 1 approaching, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing a new year as a fresh start, and maybe you have a New Year’s resolution ready to go.

But there’s a good chance it could do more harm than good, said Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School and the author of the new book “Presence.”

“We’re really bad at setting reasonable goals,” Cuddy told Business Insider. And when we don’t meet an unreasonable goal, we fill ourselves with feelings of anxiety and lower our self-worth. In “Presence,” she explores how being authentic to our “true selves” is essential for reducing stress that holds us back from our full potential.

We spoke with Cuddy about her research on the effects of goal-setting and how to avoid a resolution that will end up being a burden.

She said there are four common mistakes with New Year’s resolutions.

They deal with absolutes.

“People are making absolute statements about what they’re going to do, and that’s setting them up for failure immediately,” Cuddy said, “because they’re not always going to go to the gym three times a week.”

For that example, you may start to religiously work out at the gym, but at some point in the year there may be a period where the flu keeps you in bed for a week or a few days when you need to set aside your plans for the sake of your job or family.

On the other hand, it’s just as unhelpful to come up with a vague and distant goal, such as “I’m going to get a job,” because there’s nothing to latch onto.

They are framed by negativity.

People “tend to focus on things they want to change about themselves and things they dislike about themselves,” Cuddy said.

When you do this, “you’re eliciting in yourself negative emotions. Some negative emotions are motivating, but for the most part, they’re not,” she explained.

If you say, “I’m going to stop eating junk food,” to use an example, you’re denigrating yourself before even getting started. You’re better off framing your goal as “eating healthier” so that you’ll remain motivated and optimistic.

They are focused on the outcome and not the process.

“If you’re focused on walking 100 miles, and you’re just constantly focused on that number 100 miles and trying to track your progress, it’s going to be pretty friggin demoralising most of the way,” Cuddy said. “You’re going to feel like a failure for so much of that because the comparison is between where I am now versus where I want to be.”

They are reliant on outside forces.

And finally, it’s a bad idea to incorporate other people and moments of luck into your goal-setting.

If you’re going for a promotion at work, you’ll be doing yourself a favour by focusing on steps along the way related to your performance. But starting off with the idea that you’re a failure if you don’t get the position disregards plenty of factors beyond your control, such as the mindset of your boss and any other role changes within the company.

In “Presence,” Cuddy advocates for “self-nudging,” a process of constantly setting small goals in lieu of large ones.

And while she is not a fan of grandiose New Year’s resolutions, she said she can still appreciate that people want to use January 1 as a symbolic day to start with a goal, as long as it’s one that allows room for self-nudges and doesn’t cause too much stress.

Cuddy said that one of her goals last year was “to fall in love with running,” avoiding any specific number of miles or pace times. She started with a simple self-nudge to reach a jogging pace where she would still be able to carry a conversation without getting winded, and started building from there.

As a natural byproduct of this approach, her pace began to pick up. And she didn’t even have to shame herself into getting into better shape.

A version of this story ran on Dec. 26 last year.

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