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 โ€œI will avoid eating junk foodโ€, word it as โ€œI will eat healthy meals for at least two of my meals every dayโ€ (specific and realistic). Eating healthy food is a preferred alternative to eating unhealthy food.

Instead of โ€œI will avoid doom scrolling on social mediaโ€, try โ€œI will take one minute to read a page of an ebook whenever I want to do something on my phoneโ€ (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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