By now you've no doubt heard the grim statistics on New Year's resolutions -- something like 90 percent of them fail -- so is the right conclusion to simply throw up your hands and assume 2019 will be pretty much like 2018?

Actually no, according to new and surprising science out of European business school INSEAD. Sure, a sixteen-point resolution list that includes climbing Mount Kilimanjaro solo and quadrupling your businesses' revenue by March is likely bound for failure. But this series of counterintuitive studies showed that setting an easy New Year's resolution is actually easier than just aiming to maintain the status quo.

The problem isn't end-of-year goals per se, it reveals. The problem is that our ambitions are usually either too high or too low.

Trying to maintain the status quo is terrible for your psychology.

To understand this less-than-obvious conclusion, imagine that you're a sales manager pondering what goals to set for your team in the new year. And further imagine that your team is less-than-spectacular, so you can rule out reach targets. Now, what's better: asking your low-energy employees to keep doing what they did last year or asking them to bump up their performance by, say, a modest five or ten percent?

Objectively, you'd think that just keeping the status quo must be easier, but when the INSEAD team tested this out in real life in a series of experiments, they found people actually felt reaching for a modest goal was easier than just treading water. Why? If you aren't aiming for improvement, your brain start playing nasty tricks on you.

"If the incremental change is modest enough, the brain seizes on that easy-to-bridge gap and concludes that the goal is easy. However, in the absence of any gap-related cue - such as when the goal is merely to maintain the status quo - the brain turns to the next best cue: context," reports INSEAD Knowledge. Then "negativity bias sets in, the brain starts thinking of all the things that could derail the established project and prevent the same results from being replicated. The goal doesn't appear to be easy."

In short, you're more likely to get gloomy and create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure if all you do is expect the same from yourself in the coming year.

The take away here for leaders couldn't be simpler: no matter how challenging your circumstances or mediocre your team, give your people something to shoot for. In the absence of any goal at all, they're likely to backslide.

Easy resolutions can be powerful resolutions.

But the results also suggest something similar when it comes to personal year-end goals. No matter how dispirited you feel or how many times you've failed in the past, some goal is definitely better than no goal. Just make it easy and you'll find yourself surprisingly likely to beat the odds and achieve your aims.

But wait, you might argue, what good is a super modest goal? Sure I might achieve it, but that's unlikely to impact my life much, right? Actually no. Science shows that changes as simple as taking up a pleasant hobby can have significant impacts on your well-being (knitting, baking, or bowling improves mental toughness, according to psychology). Joyful resolutions are similarly easy but high impact.

So don't get so down on resolutions you don't make one at all. That's a move that's likely to be deadly for your psychology. Instead, proudly aim low! You're likely to be surprised at how positively that works out.

Published on: Dec 26, 2018