It’s the first week of January. Have you set your New Year’s Resolutions? Have you broken them yet? If you’re like most of us, you’ve set resolutions and—unfortunately—you’ve possibly already broken them.
I have mixed feelings about resolutions. On the one hand, I love the fresh start that the new year represents for most of us; a chance to consider the year ahead and to identify what we want the year to look like. However, there are some patterns I see with resolutions that undermine their effectiveness and kinda make me crazy.
My Gripes with Resolutions
First, resolutions are often guilt-induced endeavors that result from the holiday season. For most of the us, the holidays are a time of indulgence and relaxation. We eat more sweets, attend more parties, skip more workouts, and stay up later at night.
As we emerge from our holiday-induced fog, it is natural to yearn for more structure, routine, and balance in our lives. Enter new year’s resolutions. We want to organize our homes, clean up our diets, trim our bodies, and structure our lives, but the problem is that—for most of us—we go to extremes when it comes to new year’s resolutions.
Rather than rebalancing our intake toward more whole foods and fruits and veggies, we decide to completely eliminate sugar. And, instead of resuming a sensible exercise program, we decide to hire a former Green Beret to bully us into doing more burpees while we strive mightily to keep our kale protein shake in our stomachs. Happy New Year.
Second, often our new year’s resolutions are externally motivated rather than coming from a deep sense of purpose within ourselves. There is a lot of peer pressure when it comes to choosing new year’s resolutions. If you’re not doing the latest keto diet, then you’re definitely not in the in-crowd. Any type of behavior change is difficult to make, but if it is not intrinsically driven, it is nearly impossible to sustain over time. When we choose resolutions that are driven by the crowd, change is short-lived at best.
Third, new year’s resolutions are often impulsively made without the necessary infrastructure to ensure their success. It’s easy for each of us to consider changes we want to make to our lives on new year’s eve, but it’s quite another story to wake up on January 1st with the tools we need to take action on the changes we want to make. Setting goals that set us up for success takes time and effort. There’s an entire corner of psychology that addresses this issue—goal theory.
Here are some of my favorite recommendations as you consider the year ahead, goal setting, and creating a life that is engaging and meaningful.
Ready. Set. Goal.
Do a year-end review before setting goals for the year ahead.
How far did you get on your goals? How realistic were you? Did you stretch too far? Did you undershoot? Over-promise? Under-deliver? Miss timelines? Did you have enough accountability? Were you lacking key motivators? Did other goals become more important during the year?
As you review your goals for the previous year with these questions, you will learn valuable information to guide your goal-setting for the year ahead. We often assume best case scenario and fail to plan for real-life scenario. Be willing to adjust timelines, defer goals, and make hard decisions between top priorities. Consider goals that address patterns that emerged from your year-end review. For instance, if you noted that accountability was a weakness, set a goal to substantially strengthen your accountability in the year ahead.
Consider a Theme for the year.
This idea comes from Dr. Anna Packard, and I love it! She picks a theme word for her year, and then her goals tend to radiate around that theme. For instance, my theme for 2019 is Connection. I want to prioritize connection in my life this year. This theme is showing up in my professional goals, personal goals, and relationships goals. It’s a great way to carry a consistent thread of meaning through the days and weeks of the year and through the various activities of life.
Pick goals in the important domains of your life.
Goal setting can be overwhelming, but breaking down goals into different categories can be helpful. Identify the important domains of your life, and then consider a goal in each of those domains. The idea is to have balance with goal-setting, not to overwhelm!
For instance, it’s very easy for me to set about 525 goals for work (legit) and 2 for home. This is how my mind works, and I’m often very comfortable in the work domain. But I recognize this is completely unbalanced! Therefore, I always include goals in other domains that are personally meaningful to me and limit the number of goals I can include in the work domain.
Focus on adding things to your life rather than eliminating things.
As humans, we are geared toward the negative and we tend to focus on a scarcity mindset. This makes goal completion challenging! Rather than focusing on eliminating behaviors, focus on adding positive behaviors to your life. For example, rather than “cutting out dessert” (which, honestly, why would you ever do that anyway, because duh, dessert! Read this post next https://melissahsmith.wpengine.com/intuitive-eating-works/), set your goal as “increase fruit and veggie intake to 3-5 servings per day.”
With goal setting, we are cultivating health behaviors and focusing on adding positive practices to our lives rather than focusing on eliminating things from our lives.
Vary the size of goals.
Goals come in all shapes and sizes. They are very personal, so don’t feel any need to compare them to anyone else (talking about goals here, nothing else folks). You may be able to accomplish some of your goals quite quickly. That’s great, it will build momentum for some of your bigger goals. Have a stretch goal that scares you, but not every year should include a moon-shot goal. Setting one goal may take other goals off the table. Plan wisely according to the other demands on your year.
Use the full year.
Although many of us traditionally set our goals for the year in January, it’s not the only time to set goals or to work on goals. I like to map out my goals for the entire year and then assign goal focus to specific quarters of the year. I find this very helpful for managing overwhelming feelings at the beginning of the year and keeping me engaged throughout the year.
Prioritizing specific goals is also important so we don’t lose focus and energy. During any quarter, I am typically only focusing on 2-4 goals. This keeps my energy up, my attention isn’t diluted, I’m not overwhelmed, and I accomplish the goals in a 90-day window. Get in, get the work done, celebrate, and move on. This builds momentum and confidence as I progress through the year.
Set fewer goals and be willing to adjust.
Most people set too many goals and overwhelm themselves before they’ve even begun. Start small. Set fewer goals. You can always add more goals, and most years you likely will since there is no way you can anticipate the opportunities that may come your way. Be willing to eliminate goals that no longer work for you.
One year I decided to do an MBA program. That was definitely not one of my goals in January, but it became one of my top goals as of July 1st. A lot of adjustments had to be made—just ask my husband! Some goals were deferred, others scrapped altogether. Adjustments are okay, just be clear that avoidance and justifications aren’t creeping in.
Consider both achievement and habit goals.
There are different types of goals for different purposes. Achievement goals are designed to reach a specific target, usually with a specific end date or end result in mind (i.e., graduate with an MBA degree), whereas a habit goal is focused on cultivating a new habit, such as eating 3-5 servings of vegetables per day. Both types of goals are important for balanced living, and should be part of your goal-setting plans. (Check out Michael Hyatt’s work on goals, it’s excellent https://michaelhyatt.com/)
Use the SMART framework.
Set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. The more specific you can make your goals with identified behavioral targets, accountability, and key motivators, the more likely you are to succeed.
Identify your WHY.
As indicated, behavioral change is challenging, which is why connecting goals to purpose is so important. What is your reason for setting the goal? Why are you doing this? Why is it important to you?
Goals that are intrinsically motivated (coming from a sense of purpose and values) are much more likely to be accomplished, and it’s important to remind yourself of your WHY when you don’t want to do what you’ve committed to doing. For instance, grandma keeps a picture of her grandkids by her alarm clock so when it goes off each morning, she is reminded of her desire to ride bikes with them during their visit this summer and so it helps her get up and get her walking shoes on.
Write your goals down, review them, and make yourself accountable.
Write your goals down at the beginning of the year in detail, review them daily, and make yourself accountable weekly. At the end of each week, I review my week and progress on goals, and then use this review to identify my goals for the week ahead. I re-write my goals quarterly as it allows me to review them in detail, make adjustments as needed, and add key motivators, next steps, and progress notes.
Accountability is tough because it makes us oh so vulnerable, but it is essential. It’s not enough to be accountable to yourself. You must make yourself accountable to someone else. Whether it’s a coach, a friend, a spouse, a therapist, a colleague, or a group, make yourself accountable.
Growth becomes exponential when we become clear about what matters, what we must do to live a purpose-driven life, and when we harness ourselves to others who care enough about us reaching our potential that they will lovingly—but directly—call us to account. Keep those ones close.
Give yourself permission to not set a goal.
Really. If you’re not feeling it, don’t feel pressure to set a goal. You may be overwhelmed with all you’re managing now, so let that be enough. Give yourself space to be where you are without judgment. Don’t let anyone’s else’s timeline dictate your own. I often take all of January to consider my goals. Sometimes I feel inspired, and other times I don’t. Oh well. Be mindful and know that to be mindful is enough.