New Year’s Resolutions: a Guide

January is here! How are those New Year’s Resolutions going?

Choosing the right goal depends both on big-picture thinking and detailed planning. A goal should focus on something that is important to you, but also challenges your status quo. If you’re already mostly there, good for you- but no goal. Goals provide the framework for us to do more, not pat us on the back for things we do well.

In order to assess how worth-while your efforts might be, ask yourself this: “What would be the most exciting outcome if I successfully achieved this goal?” OK now… Is that end-game really important to you? Assessing your current life priorities is crucial to answering this question. Some goals are best saved for later (or never), and that’s ok, because if it isn’t a priority for you now, you won’t be successful.

 (If you’re brainstorming as your read along, here are a few example “life priorities” you could think about: Family time, saving money for _________ (travel, house, independence), getting more sleep, getting more exercise, eating healthier.)

After you’ve identified your priorities, here are some other elements to successfully setting and meeting your goals:

  1. A goal without strong motivation has little chance of working.

As previously stated, you will be more highly motivated to achieve a goal if it relates to your top priorities. You can, however, help yourself feel more motivated in other ways as well. One way is to make your goals incremental so you gain confidence in small successes over time. Example? Cutting down by 1 cigarette a week instead of trying to quit all at once (will still improve your health!). Or tackling a weight loss goal as 1 pound per week, rather than the final number.

Another strategy is to reward yourself after meeting a milestone. For example, 2 weeks on track is rewarded with a night out to the movies, to dinner, or whatever will get you excited! The key is for the reward not to contradict the goal: If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t reward with cake.

  1. In order to “find time,” as most of us believe is the game, we actually need to make time. I take this example from Laura Vanderkam’s Ted Talk:

If your water heater broke and flooded your basement, you would find time to address it. Treat your goal like a flooded basement—high priority J — and you’ll make time. This will work if you, again, have a goal that is based on your top priorities.

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  1. Once you have chosen a goal, the nitty-gritty, day-to-day moments come down to willpower. Instead of thinking of yourself as someone who has it or not, consider it something you can work on and improve.

Those who are most successful, says Baumeister and Tierney (authors of Willpower; Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength) are people who don’t test themselves all the time. Everyone knows that when you walk by a plate of cookies all day, you will eventually give in. However, if you only pass a cookie once, chances are you’ll be able to resist.

What to do about it? Think about your social engagements, home and work environments. Do they help you achieve this goal, or tempt you to fail? Are some things within your control to change? For example, if you don’t keep cookies in your house, you can’t give in to the temptation.

  1. Choosing goals should not be more exciting or fulfilling than the success of achieving them. Many researchers have pointed out that if you get too much satisfaction from talking about your goals, you may feel less motivated to take the actions towards results.

What can you do about it?  Either tell no one about your goals until they’re completed… Or make your goals less exciting to talk about. Instead of, “I’m going to run a marathon this year!” Try “I’m going to follow a marathon training schedule of 6 weekly runs from February through May of 2017!” The second goal is both action-oriented and less exciting to talk about. 

SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Reasonable, Time-specific

Decided on your priority? Made your commitment? OK now break it down and make sure the goal itself will work for you. Here are a few examples:

  • Want to get 8 hours of sleep a night? The way to make it a smart goal might be: “I get in bed by 10pm on weeknights beginning January 16th, 2017”.
    • Measurable? 10pm.
    • Specific? In bed by (this is important: Do you read for an hour? Pick the specifics that will make you successful)
    • Actionable? I get in bed…
    • Reasonable? Only on week days. (This is where you could adjust if you need to take smaller steps to get there. Are you currently getting into bed at 1am? Maybe start with midnight and move it up an hour each week)
    • Time specific? Beginning January 16th, 2017

Don’t tackle too many: You could start with your main priority and choose 3 goals that are relevant.

For example, if you’d like to make family time your priority, 3 smart goals could be:

  • We have a home-cooked family dinner with all present by 7pm 1 night a week by February 1, 2017
  • I make a grocery list on Sunday night to plan for family dinner by January 29, 2017
  • Before bed on Sunday nights the family agrees to date and time of weekday family dinner by January 29, 2017

To conclude: Choose a goal based your top priorities. Assess your motivation, time, and willpower towards this goal and identify ways to improve your success through these areas. Don’t tell anyone about your goal and make it SMART. Have confidence to get started, but don’t be discouraged if you hit road blocks: Reassess, recommit, and have faith in your ability to succeed.


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