How to frame avoidance goals for success

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When setting goals and resolutions, sometimes we want to decrease or avoid certain actions. These include unhealthy or unproductive habits.

To raise our success in such "avoidance-oriented" goals, word them in the form of committing to a preferred alternative, i.e. an "approach-oriented" goal.

For example, instead of “I will avoid eating junk food”, word it as “I will eat healthy meals for at least two of my meals every day” (specific and realistic). Eating healthy food is a preferred alternative to eating unhealthy food.

Instead of “I will avoid doom scrolling on social media”, try “I will take one minute to read a page of an ebook whenever I want to do something on my phone” (or whatever the preferred alternative is).

Simply framing a goal or resolution in that manner raises the likelihood we consider ourselves successful with the commitment* later down the line.

Details of the study, if interested

*The specific number cited in the study is 58.9% success rate for New Year's resolutions that are approach-oriented, versus 47.1% with avoidance-oriented goals, based on self-reports of 1066 (minus 4 excluded due to incomplete resolutions) participants.

Other interesting things:

The participants were split into three groups:

  1. Group 1 - No support (considered themselves the least successful)
  2. Group 2 - Some support (considered themselves the most successful, significantly)
  3. Group 3 - Extended support (considered themselves just slightly more successful than group 1)

Group 3 were taught how to produce specific and time-framed goals, whereas group 2 was not.

Group 2 considered themselves 6.4% more successful than group 3 (significant but small).

The authors suggested one explanation for this to be that specific and time-framed goals (group 3) are harder to specifically meet versus a vague goal (group 2), where just any movement in the general direction would be considered successful.

Group 2 here might be more akin to the "Theme" system versus hard resolutions, where a major advantage of the theme system is that directional changes (e.g. less of a negative) are already considered successful, whereas a specific and time-framed goal is failed unless you meet your set requirements (e.g. having to move from negative behaviour to a specific positive behaviour).

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