New Year’s Resolutions and Other Goals: How to Make Them Work

Making New Year’s resolutions can be a fun late-December activity—but it deserves better than casual respect. The idea that “no one keeps resolutions for long” is so prevalent that January 17 has been designated “Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day,” a time for “Well, I tried” shrugs and settling back into old comfortable habits. It may be intended as a joke, but there’s nothing funny about the idea that meaningful change is a hopeless dream.

Part of the problem is that many New Year’s resolutions are based on three faulty ideas:

  • Just resolving to accomplish something will adequately prepare you to follow through.
  • If you don’t see quick progress, you might as well give up.
  • Setting long-term goals is a once-a-year thing.

The truth is:

  • It’s human nature to not “feel like” starting (or continuing) a new habit when the day comes to actually do so. Following your feelings then equals sabotaging your own progress (and no, you won’t feel more like starting when tomorrow comes).
  • Setting goals is not exclusively a New Year’s thing. To serious achievers, the best time to begin on a worthwhile goal is right now or right after accomplishing the previous goal, at any time of year.
  • Setbacks and “slow going” periods are inevitable. To succeed, you need adequate motivation and commitment to push on through.

Following are the most important “what to dos” for building that commitment.

Choose Personally Meaningful Goals

If you want to lose thirty pounds because it will be good for you or impress others—well, you’ll need better motivation than that to see the goal out. Consider what’s really so important to you as to deserve every amount of time and exertion necessary to achieve success. (With weight loss, the motivator might be qualifying to play a favorite sport, or living long and healthy to enjoy more time with your grandchildren.)

Write Down Your Goals

Or organize them in whatever form works for you: a spreadsheet, a vision board, a spoken-and-recorded statement. What’s important is that goals are clearly defined, tangible, and kept where you won’t forget them.

Start Where You Are

You probably know to consult a doctor before starting a health program, especially if you have physical limitations. Attempting immediate giant steps toward any goal is a recipe for exhaustion and discouragement, if not injury. Take stock of your present capabilities, and work on doing “just a little more” until the next level of progress becomes your “normal.” Then you can move to the next level beyond—and keep building on your achievements.

Focus on Strengths, Not Weaknesses

Recognizing what you aren’t immediately capable of does not mean letting it discourage you, even if you have severely limiting disabilities. Recognize what you can do, commit to doing it consistently, and you’ll be surprised how much can be accomplished in the long run. Also, focus on what you can do, rather than letting your goals depend on others’ responses. (E.g., “write a novel and begin submitting it to agents” rather than “write a bestseller.”)

Expect It to Be Challenging

It can’t be emphasized enough: “possible” does not mean “easy.” Expect not only to work hard, but to have days, weeks, or months when it feels you’re getting nowhere at all. Don’t give up: breakthroughs have a way of occurring just after the point where you most want to quit.

Track Your Progress

Don’t wait until the final point of victory to celebrate, or you’ll get discouraged over “how long it’s taking” before you cover a fourth of the distance. Make a calendar of “partway goals” worth patting yourself on the back for: e.g., if your big goal is to lose 50 pounds, make a note to brag to your social media followers after each 5-pound loss, and to mark every 10th or 15th announcement with a star. And keep a progress record so that, when the distance left to go looks overwhelming, you can review how far you’ve already come.  

Take Breaks

Skipping “just one day” often leads to another, followed by another, followed by total backsliding. Still, everyone needs occasional rest from their labors (people, like cars, break down when driven nonstop without maintenance). Don’t wait until you’re fatigued: schedule regular days/weekends to refresh and recharge, before you obviously “need” it. And count these days among your most important appointments.

Remember the SMART Principle

Many successful goal-setters plan by the SMART acronym, which varies in exact words but emphasizes being:

  • Specific, as in having clearly defined aims and results (e.g., “read during every lunch hour and finish 15 books this year,” rather than “do more reading”)
  • Measurable, in terms of time and/or numbers (e.g., it’s easy to tell when you’ve met the aim “walk 10,000 steps a day”—not so much if you just say “walk every day,” and then wonder whether you’ve done enough by crossing the parking lot to your car)
  • Achievable (challenging, but not based on thoroughly unreasonable expectations: see “Start Where You Are,” above)
  • Relevant (to your natural abilities, temperament, and passions)
  • Time-based (i.e., with a deadline, to head off procrastination)

Get Help from Your Friends

3 young adults working together and looking at ipad

Even with all the above, there will be days you’re tempted by thoughts of “no one understands” or “no one will know if I cheat a little.” That’s when you’ll be most grateful for human support. For maximum results, determine your accountability partner(s) at the time you set your goals, and create a regular schedule for discussing progress and/or working together on shared goals.

In conclusion, believe in your goals; believe they can be achieved; believe it will all prove worthwhile; and keep on keeping on!

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