Naval Research office funds investigation into best way to set New Year’s resolutions

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(The Center Square) – The best New Year’s resolutions are difficult but achievable, new research from the University of Oregon suggests.

Setting tough and specific goals can help one reduce attention lapses and perform better during tasks, researchers from the school found in a recent study published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.

Motivation and alertness impact people’s ability to pay attention, according to a release from the school. However, researchers say better understanding those attention lapses and how to prevent them can better help people achieve goals, including New Year’s resolutions.

“Making sure your goals are specific and challenging, but achievable, is an easy strategy to implement when forming a plan to meet an objective,” psychology doctoral student Deanna Strayer, who led the study, said.

“You can turn a lot of what you do into a challenge for yourself with the right goals,” she added, “and, in turn, you may find yourself more engaged in the work.”

The study looked at response times and task performance for participants who received vague goals compared to those who received more specific goals. Those who received more specific goals that became harder over time kept focus and worked faster than their counterparts.

“Typically, we see that participants begin to respond slower as the task goes on,” Strayer said. “We found evidence that setting a specific goal that becomes harder over time led to fewer attention lapses and improved response time performance.”

Specific, challenging, and achievable are three words Strayer used to describe goals people should set.

“Specificity helps you gauge your progress better than a vague end goal, and you need the goal to have some degree of difficulty,” Strayer said. “One example of a common New Year’s resolution that could be improved upon is: ‘This year I want to read more books.’ A great goal! But very unclear about the actual desired result.”

Rather, one could set a goal of reading five novels that are at least 250 pages. Or, could make a list of books they would like to finish reading.

“These simple tweaks to your goal can help you pace out your efforts and measure your progress,” Strayer said.

One must strike a balance between difficulty and feasibility, she added.

“If a goal is too easy, that can actually lead to worse performance because you’ll gravitate toward that too-easy mark instead of pushing yourself,” Strayer said. “Conversely, setting a goal that is too difficult or unattainable may cause you to abandon it entirely.”

One way people can stay engaged with a goal is to divide it into smaller targets that become increasingly difficult over time.

“For example, you might aim to read a certain number of books each month and then increase that number as the year progresses,” the school said.

Strayer wants this research to help people create strategies for reducing attention lapses, which can have minor to catastrophic impacts on people’s daily lives.

“I’m interested in finding ways to help make life easier,” Strayer said.

A grant from the Office of Naval Research funded this research.

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