Setting and working toward achieving goals is a valuable tool to enhance emotional well-being. In fact, it may be one of the more powerful tools we have to becoming lastingly happier (Lyubormirsky, 2008). “People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers, or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project” (Lyubormirsky, 2008, p.205). There are several benefits individuals receive from pursing goals. Including increased feelings of confidence, an added sense of purpose and feeling of control, added structure to life and more effective time management, to just name a few.
Every New Years, people get ambitious and enthusiastic about setting new goals, or resolutions, for the upcoming year. While statistics vary on the exact percent, the overwhelming conclusion is that most people do not achieve or keep their New Years Resolutions.
Let’s discuss the keys to goal setting that optimize your chances of achieving success.
Pursue Intrinsic Goals
Intrinsic goals are the goals you set because they are meaningful and inherently enjoyable or satisfying to you. Whereas extrinsic goals are based on what other people think about you (e.g. goals that you think would make you more popular, likeable, or powerful). Consider the ubiquitous new years goal of weight loss. Is that an intrinsic goal? To be healthier and feel better in one’s body? Or is it an extrinsic goal? To be more attractive to others? The answer to this obviously depends on the person, but one is less likely to succeed in his or her goal if it is about trying to manage the perceptions of other people. People are more likely to achieve intrinsic goals because we are more likely to persevere at goals that are inherently enjoyable and meaningful.
Taking intrinsic goals one step further, what would be some goals for you that fit with your personality and deeply held values? If you find creativity and artistic pursuits inspiring, an authentic goal would be to develop more of your talents in this area. If you are extroverted by nature, an authentic goal may include having interactions with others as a central part of that goal. It’s easy to drop goals that aren’t in line with our personality or values because they are likely to be difficult, unenjoyable, and don’t “ring true.”
For example, if you wanted to broaden your knowledge base as a New Year’s resolution, but reading books has never been a big value of yours, committing to reading 50 books the upcoming year is an overwhelming and likely unachievable goal. However, if you value interesting discussion and learning from others, it might be more reasonable to seek out inspiring, educational podcasts, or a handful of books you’d like to read this upcoming year.
These kinds of goals can be thought of as goals that are in line with your authentic-self and are geared toward enhancing your life. Contrasted with avoidance goals, which are about avoiding or preventing an undesirable outcome. For example, an avoidance goal would be doing something to avoid feeling like a failure, preventing a break up, avoiding being fired at work, etc. Approach goals are what you are going to add to your life, or framed in a way of what you want to include in your life (e.g. a healthier relationship with others or your body). So, what do you want to add to your life, or what do you want more of in your life?
Make sure that first of all, you don’t set too many goals as that will overwhelm you emotionally and physically. If you set more than one goal, strive to have those goals congruent with one another. For example, if you have the goal to become more active physically as well as develop your interpersonal relationships, see in what ways those goals can overlap. Perhaps you set a walking schedule with a friend, or attend yoga classes where you interact with others.
Goals that are based on activities instead of concrete outcomes are associated with more happiness. In other words, a goal that leads you to take on new challenges, meet new people, create more memories, etc. will enhance your well-being over a goal based on an outcome (e.g. build your photography skills versus buying a new car). So what is an activity you want to add to your life that may or may not have a concrete outcome? Instead of setting the goal to finally write your novel this year, the goal may be better adjusted as write 30 minutes, five days a week.
Our awareness that achieving goals can, and should, take time, is important. We need to be flexible about our timelines with our goals and adjust them where necessary. We can also be flexible when we realize we may have “bitten off too much” in pursuit of a grand goal. Perhaps we need to make that goal more manageable or break it into manageable steps. We should also be aware of our life circumstances, and constraints. Perhaps we have the goal of starting a successful business one day but we have three young children at home. Maybe this year won’t be the year that allows you the emotional and physical time necessary for such an endeavor. Seek to make goals that are conducive with the life you have now.
It is easy to give up on goals where we don’t see any progress. It can be helpful to continue to feel motivated toward achieving a goal when we can track our progress. Some goals are more easily tracked than others (e.g. writing thirty minutes a day vs. improving our singing voice). However, there are ways we can quantify our progress in a measurable way. Break the goal down into steps and set up a kind of tracking system. For example, in an excel spreadsheet or your day planner.
Reward Your Progress
As you meet milestones, you may want to consider rewarding yourself for the hard work you’ve done so far! A little extrinsic reward can bolster you to continue to work toward the goal. Especially if you’ve chosen a goal that is meaningful but may not yet be intrinsically rewarding. These extrinsic rewards can continue to motivate you toward a goal if you haven’t yet felt the intrinsic reward of that particular goal pursuit. These rewards can be simple from a pat on the back to a movie night or something that feels rewarding and celebratory to you.
Be Accountable to Others
Accountability can go a long way in helping us to stay motivated and on track with our goals. Choose someone in your life who you know has your best interests at heart, and share your goals with them. You may want to talk with them about how they can support you as you move toward achieving these goals. At a minimum, it is helpful if you or they check-in with you periodically about your progress. Others can also be helpful to brainstorm how to overcome barriers to your success at a goal, if/when you encounter them. Others are also great resources of celebration when you make significant progress in your goals!
Lyubomirksy, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. Penguin books. New York City, NY.