The New Year’s Resolution Solution: Making Goals Last (Any Time of Year)
By Brooke Schwartz, LMSW
As January blends into February, you may feel farther and farther away from the motivation that led you to set your New Year’s Resolution. This happens to the best of us — we consider the new year the perfect opportunity to work toward a goal in the hopes that our lives will improve in some way, only to eventually abandon (or forget about) it.
Achieving goals is tricky for several reasons, one being that developing a habit — arguably the goal of working toward a goal — has been found to take some time. This suggests that the start-and-stop nature of New Year’s Resolutions isn’t doing us any favors in the long-run.
So what’s the secret to achieving your goals (regardless of the time of year)? Many know already that goals are supposed to be “SMART” — that is, they should be:
Specific (rather than vague)
Measurable in that certain criteria measures progress
Achievable meaning that it’s possible to reach
Relevant to your values and other life goals
Time-bound meaning that at a predetermined time you’ll be able to identify whether you have or have not met the goal
The “SMART” acronym is a helpful starting place for any goal-setter. That being said, there are several more steps you can take to set yourself up for success when it comes to achieving your goals.
Imagine you notice that every time you write in your journal, you feel less anxious and make clearer and more definitive life decisions. You decide that you want to set a “SMART” goal to write in your journal once per day for 10 minutes for the next 6 months. You might then wonder, what can I actually do to achieve this goal? Consider the following tips:
Size up. Goals often feel daunting. Working your way up to your goal — for example, by starting to writing for just one minute and adding another minute per day until you reach 10 — can help you build a sense of mastery that keeps you motivated. You may also think about what smaller steps need to get done in order to even begin to work toward your goal, such as buying a notebook and cleaning off your desk.
Troubleshoot. Plan ahead of time for barriers that might get in the way of achieving your goal. Barriers are often logistical (not having access to what you need) or motivational (lacking the drive or inspiration). One way to address the logistical barrier of not having materials to journal with may be to put a small notebook and pen in the bag you regularly use so that you can write on-the-go. To anticipate motivational barriers — for example, thoughts like “I should really spend this time answering emails instead of journaling” — you may keep a list in your phone’s notepad of all the reasons you set this goal in the first place, or a list of statements that challenge your unmotivated mind (“I know you think you could be answering emails right now, and you always feel less anxious about emails after you’ve journaled”).
Remind yourself regularly. Find ways to regularly remind yourself of your goal. This may mean setting a daily reminder on your phone, leaving post-its throughout your apartment, or working toward your goal alongside a friend or family member who will hold you accountable (and vice versa!).
Keep tabs on your progress… Set regular check-in times for yourself (weekly, monthly, quarterly — whatever you think will work best for you) to help you follow through on your goals. This may be something you do mentally by asking yourself, “How have I been doing with this goal?” or you may find it helpful to keep a visual tracker of your progress. Consider putting a smiley face on every day of your calendar that you write in your journal for 10 minutes. Then when it’s time to check in with yourself, you’ll have a visual representation of your progress.
…and reward yourself along the way. Research shows that when rewards are given while working toward a goal (rather than waiting until the goal is fully achieved), people experience more motivation. So alongside keeping tabs on your progress, schedule rewards for yourself for the steps you take toward meeting your goal. You may decide that, to start, you’d like to write in your journal for 10 minutes per day at least 4 times per week and that — if you’re able to do this — every Sunday you’ll reward yourself by ordering takeout rather than cooking. Keep in mind that in order for rewards to be motivating, they have to be something you actually want to work toward.
Expect imperfection and be open to being flexible. Achieving our goals isn’t easy. Treating yourself with compassion will help you maintain motivation, even when you feel like you’re failing to meet your goals. Keep in mind that goals can (and often need to!) be revised, and that you’re setting yourself up for more success if you reframe “failures” as “opportunities” to continue working toward your goals.
Setting and working toward goals doesn’t have to end when the excitement of the New Year fades. Whatever you’re working toward, we’re wishing you success and hoping that these tips will help you along the way!
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