After the excitement (and possible hangover) of New Years Eve we have all played around with the idea of committing to something that promises to make us happier, healthier or even wealthier. The start of a new year brings with it the idea of New Years Resolutions.
Of course many of us have trouble sticking to these resolutions. In fact I have read a statistic that only 8% of people who make New Years Resolutions actually stick to them. And there is good reasons why most of us do not stick to resolutions, or goals in general, and that’s because most of us do not know how to set effective goals we can stick to.
As a counsellor and naturopath a big part of what I do is encourage people to make behaviour changes. Because of this I have studied extensively much of the research into what works when it comes to setting goals and I present what I have found below.
1. REVIEW WHAT WORKED IN THE PAST
We get so busy focusing on the future we forget to reflect on how we have done in the past. Spending some time to write out our achievements over the past year, what worked well for us, and what we can learn from, helps to build a sense of self efficacy that is motivating when we start to set goals. It also helps to develop a realistic sense of what we are capable of.
2. WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO STRUGGLE WITH, GIVE-UP, AND MAKE ROOM FOR?
We often get excited about the benefits of a goal, and lose focus on the difficulties we need to be open to if we are actually going to achieve it. By preparing ourselves for the obstacles we may face, and rating how willing we are to be open to those difficulties, we better equip our ability to handle them as they arise. For example, if your goal is to save money for an overseas trip, visualise all the times you will need to reduce your impulse purchases and how difficult that may be, and rate how willing you are to endure this.
3. WHAT IS THE VALUE DRIVING THE GOAL
The value behind a goal is what it is about the goal that is personally meaningful to us. You might have the same goal as any other person, but the value behind that goal may be completely different. For example, a person may want to give up eating meat. For some the value beneath this goal may be compassion and reducing cruelty to animals, for others the value may be health as they see it as a healthier option, and for others it might just be a challenge to live without something for a while and their value might be discipline or perseverance. Getting clear on our values helps us stay on track towards our goals. Ask yourself “what about this goal is meaningful for me in the long term? What does it say about me as a person to achieve this?” This helps us to stay motivated and on track, and studies have found that goals aligned with our own personal values builds a greater sense of wellbeing, meaning and purpose into our lives.
4. GET S.M.A.R.T.
This stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound.
We are more likely to achieve our goals if we are really clear about what they are, i.e. we need to be SPECIFIC. A goal such as “My new years resolution is to get fit” is very wishy washy. A more specific goal might be “I want to be able to jog for 30 mins straight and not run out of breath”.
Goals are best if they are MEASURABLE and regularly recorded. For example, I ask many of my clients to keep a food diary when they are making changes to their diet. This way they measure what they are eating daily and by recording it can reflect on how they are doing and where they may need to work harder.
For goals to work they need to be ACHIEVABLE. This seems self-evident but people often overestimate what they can achieve in the short term and underestimate what they can do in the long term. Reviewing your year before can help you to make more realistic, achievable goals. For example, saying “I am going to run a marathon in 2018” may not be so realistically achievable if in 2017 you never even ran to catch a tram.
Goals need to be RELEVANT to our lives. This means they need to connect with out core values of who we want to be in life. If a goal is based on impressing others and not on what is personally meaningful to ourselves we will often fall short of achieving it.
Goals need to be TIME BOUND, that is to say they need a specific end point at which they will be finished or measured. Writing down the exact time each week you will commit to your goal and putting that in your calendar leads to far greater likelihood you will commit to it than having a vague desire to “do it sometime next week”. Commit to a time, and have a plan B in place if that time doesn’t work out.
5. FORGET WILLPOWER: At least to start with. Willpower is like a muscle, it takes time, patience and repetition to develop, and it needs to be specifically built in response to the needs of a situation. So if you have been eating the cookies every day out of the staff kitchen, its going to take quite a while before the willpower muscle of resisting cookies gets strong enough to fight the urge every day.
It is far better to change the environment. For example, studies consistently show that if the cookie jar is on your desk at work you are far more likely to eat the cookies than if they are hidden on the top shelf in the staff kitchen in an opaque jar. Similarly, if you are trying to eat healthier keep healthy food in clear jars at eye level in the fridge or on the bench top at home, and store the less healthy food in harder to reach and see spots.
6. PIGGY-BACK YOUR GOALS: Setting new habits of behaviour is super hard. Changing old habits is even harder. So it’s better to attach a new habit onto an existing old habit that’s already working well for you. For example, every morning I always wake up and make myself a coffee. My new behaviour I wanted to add in was to start meditating daily. Rather than pick a random time in the day I set a goal in my mind that every time I make my morning coffee I go sit in my meditation area to drink it. I am then automatically ready to meditate and most mornings I do exactly that.
7. SET YOURSELF UP TO WIN: Figure out your longer-term goal, e.g. being able to do ten chin ups in a row. Work out the first thing you can do towards that goal that you can 100% commit to, e.g. every time you go to the gym for one week aim to do a half chin up. Build up gradually from there. Always end on a high note. We are more likely to repeat behaviours that feel good, so building on small wins builds a sense of pride and mastery, which leads to consistency in our approach
8. FOCUS ON CONSISTENCY: Forget perfection for the time being, in fact you can even forget progress too, when attempting a big change in your life consistency is what will get you to your goal. As frustrating as it is to sometimes plateau at something it’s the consistent application towards your goal that builds skill, competence, stamina and ability.
9. COMMUNITY: Ask friends to join you in working on your goals as having a person working with you helps build motivation. There is a big caveat here though – try not to tell too many people what your goal is unless they are directly helping you to achieve it. Part of the psychological reward we get from achieving a goal is the impression we make on other people by achieving it. It turns out that psychological studies have shown that just by telling people we are going to do something gives us a similar feeling of reward in our minds as if we had already completed the goal. This actually reduces drive and motivation. So find someone to work with towards the goal, but keep the goal otherwise secret.
10. SELF-COMPASSION NOT SELF-CRITICISM: Studies have found that the leading thing that can stop people from engaging in behaviour change is having a strong inner critical voice. We tend to think we can motivate ourselves by beating ourselves up, guilt tripping ourselves and by bullying ourselves into changing. The research shows the opposite. People who engage in a more self compassionate approach of encouraging and coaching themselves along are far more likely to complete their goals than those who engage in critical self talk. In the Mindful Self Compassion classes I run, we do an exercise where we write a letter to ourselves asking us to change a behaviour that’s no longer serving us, and we use encouragement, self compassion and kindness to motivate the change. This I have found amazingly successful in helping people, and in helping myself change habits too.
11. GRATITUDE AND ACCEPTANCE: Have you ever noticed that most of the time peoples’ goals are about changing some aspect of themselves or their lives? There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) implication there that we are just not good enough. Maybe 2018 it might be a time to focus on some different goals. To accept some part of ourselves that we have always wanted to change as a unique part of who we really are. To feel gratitude and appreciation for all the good things we have and qualities we possess already.
Our mind is the most amazing problem solving machine in the world, so it loves to see problems everywhere it looks, it’s not designed really to savour and appreciate things as they already are.
Studies show that truly happy people spend a lot of time feeling grateful for things that are already good in life. This is not a natural skill of the mind and takes patience and training.
A beautiful idea I know many people have tried is to start a gratitude jar. Every day you write down on a piece of paper what you are grateful for and place it in the jar. At the end of the year you read back over it all, savouring and appreciating the year that’s been. This is a wonderful exercise for families to do together too.
So there you have it, that’s my top eleven tips for how to get clear about your goals and New Years Resolutions for 2018.
Lastly, factor in time for gratitude, appreciation and acceptance in 2018 too.
If this is an area you’d like to know more about and master contact our Wellness Hub on 03 9889 8008. Our team is ready and pumped to see your limitless potential!
B.HSC (Naturopathy), Grad Dip (Counselling), Mindful Self Compassion Teacher