Why You Should Keep Your New Year’s Resolution a Secret

Jillian Knox Finley

Without a doubt, we are living in the age of the share. But before you go about Snapping your unfettered allegiance to that new yoga routine, science has something to say on the value of keeping resolutions off the public radar. Is there a significant benefit to keeping goals a secret? Keep scrolling to hear why playing your cards close to your chest could be the secret to a winning hand.

NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer researched at length how goals and plans affect cognition, motivation, and effort for his book, The Psychology of Action, conducting new research in 2009. In his research, four tests of 163 people found that individuals who kept their intentions private were more likely to achieve goals; meanwhile, individuals who announced their plans to the public both worked less and produced fewer results, begging the question: Can social identity can compromise performance?

Gollwitzer’s study focuses specifically on “high order goals,” or goals in which the measurable objective contains some aspect of social identity or status (an example might be someone who wants to lose weight for the sake of a healthier lifestyle, not to fit into a smaller size). Gollwitzer credits the diminishing results of social sharers with a “premature sense of completeness” derived from achieving the primary result: social identity. Once the individuals made their intentions known, they received the adulation associated with completing the goal, before delivering a tangible result.

Essentially, a person’s social identity naturally shifts to align with that of someone who’s already achieved a goal. Research suggests that merely declaring you are going to do X results in a public perception that you are the “type of person who does X.” Goal sharing creates a social reality, but this public acknowledgement can provide sufficient reward for some and, in turn, quell actual follow-through. You get the carrot without the work.

What’s more, in Gollwitzer’s study, individuals who did not announce their goals reportedly worked longer and harder than those who made their aims public. Psychology tests by Wera Mahler in 1933 found similar results, confirming that occurrences, real or imaginary, feel real in the mind when they are acknowledged by others. Social acknowledgement provides instant gratification.

Conventional wisdom says sharing our goals leads to increased accountability and support; community can be a powerful motivator. So how do we bypass the basic psychology of feeling fulfilled by the mere idea of conquering a goal? We say be strategic about your sharing. Instead of announcing your latest resolution with Facebook at large, keep things to yourself or a select few. Have a conversation with a select group of peers committed to holding you accountable. Then ask yourself if the payoff itself is ego-driven; if yes, reformulate your approach to align with a result that instead benefits your higher self. If you’re focused on looking good or being right, public opinion may sway your progress—science says so. Goals centered on a higher purpose, one of self-growth and devotion, play to the beat of a different drum.

In the words of Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher Sun Tzu, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” Sun Tzu was a man of deliberate words. Choose your inner circle carefully.

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Explore: secret, goal, careers, New Year

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