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Alternative New Year’s Resolution: Focus on three key strivings instead of setting big goals

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Is anyone even making new year’s resolutions anymore? It feels like it’s resolve enough just to carry on from day to day. And while this is a moment, if ever there was one, to give yourself a pass on a full-scale, full new year resolution, you can still have meaningful goals that can help you this year, says Trevor A. Foulk (Ph.D. ’17) an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

In research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Foulk found that thinking differently about your goals can be an effective way to help yourself each work day, without setting big, major goals. The trick is to focus on three key “strivings,” he says.

Klodiana Lanaj and Trevor Foulk

Martin L. Schaffel Professor Klodiana Lanaj and Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business Trevor Foulk (Ph.D. ’17).

Foulk and two co-authors, Martin L. Schaffel Professor Klodiana Lanaj of the Warrington College of Business at University of Florida and Satish Krishnan of the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode, studied three motivational strivings, which are more abstract than traditional goals. These strivings are accomplishment striving (the drive to get things done), status striving (the drive to be seen as important) and communion striving (the drive to have good relationships with others).

It’s a different way of thinking about the notion of goals and motivation. A lot of career advice centers on setting SMART goals – ones that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. It encourages people to accomplish one goal, and then move on to the next one.

Foulk contrasts that with the more abstract nature of strivings. “That abstractness,” he says, “means that, unlike traditional goals, they can never be fully finished.” That’s the beauty of strivings. They can themselves become motivating over time, because of their non-completable nature.

Foulk’s research involved a longitudinal study, involving 93 employees in various jobs and at various organizations. At regular intervals throughout each day for two weeks, he and his co-authors asked employees to complete surveys, assessing their strivings, their progress and their satisfaction levels throughout the work day.

In the morning, each participant completed a survey that measured the strength of each striving that morning. They predicted that when participants wake up feeling a strong sense of communion striving, one thing they might do to satisfy that striving is to help others. Likewise, participants who wake up with a strong sense of accomplishment striving might set off to perform a series of tasks, getting things done. And participants who wake up with a strong sense of status striving might satisfy that striving by exerting authority over others.

In the afternoon, each participant would complete another survey measuring the behaviors associated with each striving, and in the evening participants would complete an end-of-day survey that measured their psychological need satisfaction. The next day, the cycle would kick off again.

“What we found was a self-reinforcing effect,” says Foulk. “People who woke with a strong sense of communion striving, and who were able to fulfill that striving in the day by engaging in helping behaviors, went to bed satisfied that they had met that need and would wake up the next morning with a strong sense of communion striving, essentially wanting to do it all again. The same was true for accomplishment striving and status striving – when people felt those strivings, and were able to engage in behaviors that satisfied them, they felt satisfied and woke up the next day feeling a strong sense of that striving again.”

The research demonstrates that our sense of satisfaction actually serves as feedback related to our sense of strivings. “It’s basically telling you that that’s a good striving for you to have in your work environment,” Foulk says.

The research also showed that an employee’s sense of striving and satisfaction is a sort of dynamic construct that sort of feeds on itself. One day’s satisfaction can enhance next-morning strivings, generating a virtuous motivational cycle.

This story was originally published by the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.