Goals, Attributions, and New Year’s Resolutions

Although the start of a new year is an arbitrary dividing mark, it provides a good opportunity for all of us to examine what we have done the past 365 days and make plans, as desired, for adjustments. 

We’re all notorious about making resolutions–be they for a new year or otherwise. When people set goals that are unrealistic or impersonal, they don’t achieve said goals. What follows are a few simple guidelines for achieving any goal. These are from various lessons I have taught in student success courses, so these have proven success. (See this article too for more of my tips for students, Live these 15 tips (and less than 300 words) and I Guarantee Your Success in College).

Any given goal must be considered from a few different perspectives:

  • goals  
  • attributions
  • recognition of obstacles 
  • rewards 


There are two types of goals that must be considered: 1) long-term goals and 2) short-term goals. We’re all always making goals and behaving, whether we realize it or not, accordingly.

Long-term goals should be realistic and very general.

Short-term goals should be realistic, specific, measurable, and overt.

Long-term goals give us a look at the big picture that is months or years away. Short-term goals guide our behavior for a few weeks. 

For example, let’s say your goal is to loose 15 pounds in 2014. You need a plan. This plan should include diet and exercise. Let’s start with the realistic. 15 pounds in a year–check. What about diet? If you are accustomed to eating pizza and burgers everyday making a 180 switch overnight to grilled chicken and salads is not realistic (and probably not “healthy” in its own way–your body needs time to adjust). Make a calendar of gradually reforming your eating habits (there’s no such thing as a diet!) over two or three months. A good plan that meets the requirements above would be for the next seven days to eat two meals that consist of a salad or grilled chicken. This is specific, overt, and measurable–you’ll know exactly whether or not you met the goal–and it is realistic, for a start

What about exercise? Don’t forget the rules of “specific, overt, and measurable” for short term goals. This will help ensure you stay on top of your plan. For example, my goal has been to walk at least one mile at least five or six days a week. 

The link between goals and behaviors cannot be understated. An example I use with students goes: If your goal is to make an “A” in my class, what are your behaviors going to be?….Okay. If your goal is to have lots of new friends and an active night life, what are your behaviors going to be?

Along with a discussion of goals, a discussion of attributions is important. Attributions allow us to analyze four dimensions of our behavior: 1) internal vs. external, 2) controllable vs. uncontrollable, 3) stable vs. unstable, and 4) effort vs. ability

Let’s go back to the diet and exercise example. Pretend it is March: To what do you contribute your success or failure to, thus far?

In a scenario let’s say the diet is going well. You contribute your success to hard work and sticking to your new behaviors. These are all internal (hard work, exercise, diet-things you controlled), controllable (the behavior was changed and changed by you), unstable (again the behavior was changed), and effort (goals were met). These would all be effective and positive attributions. Take the same scenario, but say instead of contributing your success to hard work, you contribute it to luck. This would make the attribution uncontrollable and external and thus less effective for your overall plan because you’re no longer in control of what happens. 

In order to reach success and enjoy the rewards of your success, attributions should always be internal, you control them and they involve things inside of you; controllable by you, not someone else; unstable and always developing and changing as needed; and involve effort, not ability-because virtually any skill can be acquired with hard work.    

Additionally, an effective goal also includes a recognition of realistic obstacles. Procrastination is a frequent one. Fear of failure, “being too busy,” “forgetting,” past bad experiences, among many other very real feelings and experiences can get in the way. There is one big one that almost always gets left out–FEAR OF SUCCESS. 

Finally, a good reward system is essential for effective goals. Just because you are on a diet, sticking with the example from above, doesn’t mean you can never have a piece of cake again. Or, you might want to reward yourself with that new CD, computer, or whatever once you have reached a predetermined short-term goal.


So, what are your New Year’s Resolutions?