As W.C. Fields famously said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” Yet, many of us still kick off each new year with a series of our own resolutions we fully intend to keep, but rarely do. We know goals are good for us, so why are they so hard to stick to? It turns out there’s some science to help answer that question, including that the better we are at setting goals, the better we are at keeping them. So what makes for a good goal? Here are some tips to help create some resolutions you’ll be more likely to keep this year.
Start at the end, but don’t stop there
When we set goals, we often only think about the end game. Goal setting complete! When it comes to effectively setting a goal, though, if we start and end only by thinking of the finish line, we’re not much more likely to reach it than if we’d never thought of it at all. Instead, successful goal-setting relies on understanding what steps are required to achieve it and, even better, a timeline for each one.
If you decide you want to lose ten pounds, for example, consider that your first step, and then keep walking - because next you’ll need to understand what’s really involved in reaching that goal. Based on your current weight, BMI, calorie intake,daily activity levels and lifestyle choices, what changes will you need to phase in to finish the route? To be successful in reaching your goal, you need to know what your next kilometre looks like, not just your first step.
Set an expiration date
New Year’s resolutions are a great example of goals we set and forget, to be revisited next year, same time, same place. The problem with New Year’s resolutions is the inherent suggestion that they’re goals for the entire year, and therefore don’t require an end-date or regular status check. Instead, the S.M.A.R.T. method, a widely used model for successful goal setting, says goals that are specifically time-bound are more likely to be met than those without a best-before date. Short-term timelines are an easy, built-in reminder that will keep your long-term goal top of mind as you go about your daily business, and harder to ignore as your ultimate due-date approaches.
Create the right (head) space
Our daily routines, and competing priorities for our limited attention, can result in lots of things escaping our notice. But you can use your brain to help achieve your goals by deliberately seeking out information, environments and examples related to getting there. For example, if your goal is to run a 5K race, but you’re a non-runner now, you can make a point of noticing how many others in your area go out for an evening run, learn about trails in your area that can make running more fun, and look into opportunities to get started with casual runs.
To engage in all this deliberate action, it helps to make goal-setting a meaningful, mindful experience, so that our brain identifies it as a priority. Things like writing our goals down, and keeping track of our progress in measurable ways, keep our goals top-of-mind and in-sight, instead of expecting things to work themselves out.
Small and steady
Sure, ‘running a marathon’ sounds a little more exciting than ‘a couch-to-5K program,’ but progress happens in the planning, and an increasing amount of research shows that we’re more likely to be successful when we set smaller, incremental goals in service of - and potentially instead of - our loftiest, aspirational dreams.
By setting, and meeting, more short-term attainable goals, we enjoy a sense of momentum and satisfaction, which keeps us motivated to stay on track. In this way, we’re more likely to make progress towards a long-term, challenging goal than if we had started with only a focus on the finish-line glory in the first place. It becomes a lot more likely that we’ll run a marathon if we can manage a run around the block first.
Make sure your goals get along
Another common mistake we make is using a specific milestone (ahem, New Year’s) to be a catalyst for change across all categories. What happens when we use one time of year to identify all of our ‘areas of improvement’ is that they may actually work against each other. For example, if you’ve decided you want to learn to ski -- a great personal development goal in service of a healthy, active lifestyle -- there may be an initial (and ongoing) outlay of associated expenses. So it might not be the right time to also set a goal of building a more comfortable nest egg with bigger monthly RRSP contributions. If you set multiple goals at one time, make sure you prioritize them, and identify whether any are competing with another. Looking at your goals holistically will ensure you’re setting yourself up for success from the start.
Amanda Ashford is a Brand & Communications consultant building brands with purpose and using business as a force for good. As a global traveller, Amanda is constantly inspired by the sounds, scenes and stories found around the world, and our shared passion for purpose that connects us all.
Amanda Ashford is a paid spokesperson of Sonnet Insurance.