Just resolving to do something with your business doesn’t help much it can actually backfire. And, every entrepreneur knows, just making a resolution about your goal can make you less likely to take action to reach that goal and achieve success.

Business choices, career choices, healthy choices

Let me illustrate with an example from everyday life. In one experiment the marketing scientist Gavin Fitzsimmons and his colleagues gave young adults a menu of several sandwich items and asked them which item they want for lunch. Some participants view menu containing a fish sandwich, a chicken sandwich and a bacon cheeseburger on that menu the bacon cheeseburger is clearly the least helpful.

On average, participants made pretty good choices, they only chose the bacon cheeseburger about 20% of the time and the participants were resolved to control her eating had chosen much less only about 5% of the time.  That seems pretty good! People rarely chose the least helpful option and the people with clear goals made the best choices, but the researchers also gave a different menu to another group of participants.

Those parchments saw menu with a bacon cheeseburger, a chicken sandwich and a vegetarian burger. This menu, different from the first in that it replaces a somewhat neutral item with a clearly helpful item, the veggie burger and people’s choices got worse. This second group chose the bacon cheeseburger about 40% of the time, that’s twice as much as before. And, I bet you will do the same with your career.

Clear goals help your business choices, most of the time

What’s even more remarkable is that the people who reported clear goals to control their eating now chose the bacon cheeseburger the most, more than half of the time. Just seeing a veggie burger on the menu made them much much more likely to pick the least helpful option. What happened here? Well, it seems that when people with a strong goal in high self-control viewed an option consistent with a goal like the veggie burger they didn’t necessarily choose that option. That’s the archetypal entrepreneur behavior.

Instead just viewing it seem to fulfill their goals that’s what the researchers called vicarious goal fulfillment – those people then relaxed their self-control and they ignore their plans. New Year’s resolutions can have the same effect, they are not are binding. They are what economists call cheap talk and so resolving to do something can substitute for real action and for some sort of success.

We are comforted by our business plans to get in shape we become confident that a resolute future self will exercise regularly and eat well and that gives our present self permission to indulge. Resolutions aren’t completely useless, they can highlight important goals and thus provide a roadmap toward some desired outcome but they aren’t binding and that means they can backfire on us.

Pre-commitment works best when it is credible when people can’t readily change the committed article of action because of the effort required, because of financial costs or because the decision is revocable.