Setting New Year’s goals that are built to last
It’s that time of the year when we face the end of one year and begin to move forward to the next. It’s a time that brings about a natural desire to do some internal, psychological housekeeping. Anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution or two knows that feeling of hope, expectation and giddiness that comes at the idea of making self-improvements. Many of us also know that sinking, guilty feeling that comes with realising that 365 days is a long time and sticking with the often-restrictive resolutions for that amount of time, through the stress of daily life, can end up being simply more hard work! Studies show that only about 8% of people stick with and achieve their New Year’s resolutions!
That’s not to say the answer is to give up on trying to grow, challenge and improve ourselves. Perhaps, it is more the way we approach such things; the attitude we take towards them and what we choose to focus on. In fact, marking events in our lives with rituals, such as setting New Year goals, is healthy and good practice. So often we dash from one task to the next, without stopping to acknowledge what we may have already achieved. A good starting point then for New Year’s resolutions may be to take 10 minutes to reflect on the year that has been. You might want to prompt your reflection by asking yourself questions such as the following:
- What were some of the challenges you faced and overcame?
- What did you do well?
- What goals did you have which you achieved?
- What could you have done better?
You can even do this with a friend or a partner, asking each other these questions. The idea is to spend a bit of time acknowledging what you have already achieved before you head towards the next goal.
What will you take forward?
Once you have taken stock of what has already been, you can start to shift the focus to what you are going to take forward with you. Turn your attention to the specifics of what made some things successful and others more challenging. What helped you to achieve goals or overcome challenges? Which of these skills and lessons do you want to take with you into another year? You could form a list of the top three attributes you developed or strengthened in the past year which you will be carrying with you into the future. You could even take note of any particularly unhelpful behaviours you noticed which made the past year more difficult and make a choice to do these less often or even seek assistance with letting them go. If we don’t take the time to acknowledge what we have done well in the past, then the available lessons we experienced can be lost in the rush to get onto the next thing.
Now that you have a clearer idea of what you have already achieved and what made that possible, you’ve created a sound foundation on which to turn your attention to goals for the New Year. Setting goals is key to having a sense of hope and excitement for the future. When we have a plan for how we are going to achieve those goals, then we increase our chances of attaining them. A key first step in this process is to set an attitude towards the task you are committing to. Many of us set out with rigid goals and ideas that we must achieve these or else we have failed. Such an attitude comes hand in hand with guilt and sometimes even shame. Quite frankly, life’s tough enough without us having to add to the difficult feelings and experiences box in the process of trying to improve ourselves!
The attitude we adopt towards our goals and plans is often where success and failure is determined. We want to set goals that are resilient. That can withstand bumps in the road and moments where we lose our way. So how do we go about getting a resilient goal setting attitude?
Detours are par for the course
A critical first step is to expect to sometimes lose your way and stray from your goals. Much like giving up an old habit, sometimes we fall off the wagon. We have a choice to declare that an absolute failure and go back to our old ways, or to take stock of where we are, what’s happened, and stand back up, dust ourselves off and climb back on for another go. When we see these momentary lapses as just that, a brief detour, then we are less likely to declare it a catastrophe and throw the whole plan out the window. If we accept up front that it’s going to happen and have a plan for how we will respond and get back on track, then the quicker we can get back to the plan.
If we respond to these detours with compassion and without judgment, we can get back to our goals more quickly. Try to see lapses as neither good nor bad, but just simply something that happens when we try to make changes. In fact, this attitude has been key to the smoking cessation cause. Researchers noticed that when people saw relapses as just part of the inevitable process of ultimately quitting, people were more likely to keep on trying and ultimately succeed. Try to see these lapses as a learning opportunity. Notice what may have triggered the lapse, what were the earliest signs that it may have been about to happen? Then next time you notice these triggers and warning signs, you can choose to respond differently.
Bring your focus back
If a lapse does happen, refocus your attention to the goal you were working towards. Perhaps you will need to make a few changes to the goal or the plan on how to achieve it. Use what you have learned to improve the plan. If you notice your inner voice being critical, gently bring your attention back to the goal and the immediate next step and compassionately move towards it.
Letting go of an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to New Year’s resolutions can bring us the freedom to pursue our goals in a healthier way and with a greater chance of achieving them. And when the New Year rolls around again, even if the entire goal has not yet been achieved, take a moment to reflect on those aspects which you did attain and then focus your attention to that which remains. Each step along the plan is progress. Remember it’s not a sprint but rather a bit of a Sunday afternoon meander, try to be curious, learn from the detours and enjoy some of the process of getting there.