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Setting a New Years Resolution

A new year is around the corner, and it’s common to see the new year as a new chance to start fresh, new year – new me! It’s also common for us to set goals that we simply won’t meet, New Year’s resolutions themselves hardly change “when comparing past resolutions for 2018 and 2019, for example, it’s obvious that people still just want to be healthy and happy, maybe broaden their horizons and save up – in general, be a sensible, content adult” (Statista Research Department, 2021).

In a survey completed by they asked American’s what their 2021 resolutions were, and the results are consistent with previous years, 50% wanted to do more exercise and improve fitness, 48% wanted to lose weight, 44% wanted to save money, 39% wanted to improve their diet, 21% wanted to pursue career ambitions, and 18% wanted to spend more time with family. Why do we seem to have the same goals over and over each new year? Likely it’s because we’re not overly successful in our pursuit of these resolutions. I asked my Instagram followers (@stacie_dertinger_bcba) if they were successful in achieving the resolutions they set for 2021 and 86% of respondents said “no”. It’s not for lack of motivation, or desire to change, but more likely it’s a result of stating resolutions in terms of a “dream” more than a “goal”.

This is where your friendly neighbourhood Behaviour Analyst can come in handy. In Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) we focus on observable, applied changes to our socially significant behaviors. Goal setting and goal achievement are kind of what we do! We work with our clients to create specific and clearly defined observable and achievable goals.

Creating and setting a goal is a bit like working through a funnel. You want to start with big ideas and broad concepts and then gradually work that down into a very specific behavioural objective that you’ll have as your official goal or New Year’s Resolution! Let’s start with the simple stuff – what do you want to work on?

Before you even select a goal you should ask yourself two questions (1) who is this goal for, and (2) is it constructionist or reductionist?

When selecting a New Year’s resolution or setting any goal really, you want to make sure that the behaviours being targeted for change are relevant to you, the benefits when you successfully achieve your goal will benefit you. It’s easy to think about how we’d like to change for other people, I’m sure my mom would love me to set a goal to call her daily, but if that isn’t something that is important to me (sorry mom, I still love you), then I’m not likely to be interested in working on it over the next year, it will quickly be re-prioritized. Board Certified Behaviour Analysts are ethically obligated to ensure that when we work with clients on their goals they are meaningful and appropriate to THEM, not just those around them (Behaviour Analyst Certification Board, 2020). Our Ethical Compliance Code outlines in section 3.01 Responsibility to Clients and section 2.14 Selecting, Designing and Implementing Behaviour Change Interventions that we are required to ensure our client’s goals are relevant to them, and have social significance for their lives and futures, and the same would apply to choosing your New Year’s resolution. If you don’t see the long-term and short-term benefits to working on this goal for yourself, you’re not going to be happy with the goal, you’re not likely going to be successful, and you’ll probably quit working on this gaol within a few weeks. So be sure when you’re selecting something to work on you first start by assessing if it’s important to YOU!

The second question you want to ask yourself is this: is my goal constructional or reductionist? These terms might seem confusing but you’re basically asking yourself am I building and creating something new, or am I getting rid of something? A constructional approach to goal setting “teaches or builds rather than reduces or eliminates a behaviour” (Mayer et al., 2012, p.61). You want your goals to be constructional, speaking to what you WILL do rather than what you will not do. Rather than a goal to “not be late”, focus on a goal “to be on time”, rather than a goal to “not be so anxious”, focus on a goal “to engage in meditation daily”. By focusing on what you should do, you create a constructional goal that focuses on adding good behaviours to your life, rather than putting the focus on the absence of a behaviour. By focusing on what you can do, you’ll be able to generate ideas of actions you can take daily to achieve that goal.

Once you have your goal identified, the next thing to do is to get specific about what exactly you want to achieve!

Up next: Setting specific and operationally defined behavioural goals


Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2020). Ethics code for behavior analysts. Littleton, CO: Author.

Mayer, G. R., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Wallace, M. (2012). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Sloan Publishing.

Statista Research Department. (2021, May 5). New Year’s Resolutions of Americans for 2021. Statista.

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