You might already be aware that about 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions end in failure. Maybe you’ve taken steps to avoid that fate, like finding an accountability buddy, penciling your goal into your schedule, or downloading a habit-tracking app.
But there’s another pitfall to watch out for: success. What if you attain your goal—learn the language, lose the weight, go to bed earlier—and then, in the excitement of checking it off, fail to maintain it?
A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a way to keep people engaged in their goals even after the pride of triumph has worn off. It’s a common piece of advice that you’ve probably heard—and perhaps ignored: seeing your goals as a journey, not a destination.
Across six different experiments, Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker from the Stanford Graduate School of Business studied over 1,600 people with a variety of aspirations. Some had fitness targets, like eating a maximum number of calories or walking a minimum number of steps; others had academic and learning objectives, like graduating from an executive education program. Many of the participants were U.S. college students and staff; others were businesspeople in Ghana.
After everyone completed their goals, the researchers divided them into two or three groups.
One group was asked to reflect on their experience as a journey. They were told, “Please take a moment to think about this goal you just successfully attained. Please think about how this experience of attaining this goal is like completing a journey.” Sometimes, researchers supplemented this prompt with a picture of a path and the word “journey” beside it; other times, they were also told that “a journey is completed, because of the steps you took along this path.”
A second group received similar prompts, except they thought about their goal as reaching a destination, and saw the same picture with the word “destination” on it. There was a third—the control group—who didn’t hear these metaphors at all.
All the participants then journaled about their goal or (in the case of the businesspeople) talked about it with an interviewer.
Ultimately, the researchers found that thinking about goals as a journey can help us maintain good habits even after we’ve reached our target. The journey groups were more likely to take immediate actions to stay on track, like signing up for an exercise program or doing reading that would further their education. When the researchers checked in with them days or months later, they had stuck with their habits better than the other two groups.
“Shifting people’s focus to the journey aspect of this path could help to induce thoughts about where one started, what one went through, and what one has now achieved,” write Huang and Aaker.
Why is the journey metaphor so powerful?
The researchers suspect that our default is to see goals as a destination—an ending point. After all, if our aim is to land a job or buy a new house, it makes sense for our brains to disengage from that goal once we achieve it, so we can move on to other things.
But for goals that are more like lifelong habits, we need a different mindset. In two of the experiments, the researchers found that the journey metaphor gave people a greater sense of personal growth, a feeling of changing and learning over the course of the experience. It was that feeling, in turn, that explained why they stuck to their new habits.
In one experiment, it also proved helpful for people to reflect on their goals-as-journey before their self-improvement project had begun. So, you don’t need to wait until you’ve achieved your New Year’s resolution to implement this mental trick. Just imagine heading down a path, one step at a time—and try to enjoy the adventure.