New Years Resolutions: Tips on setting goals.

As 2016 starts, so to do our attempts at new years resolutions. Often well-intentioned, these resolutions can flop and bring a sense of failure and disappointment. A common theme that has arisen in counselling with the new year is the struggle of understanding, setting and achieving goals. This blog post will provide some ideas on how to set and obtain goals. The suggestions here are taken from various articles I have read and discussions with people I would classify as good goal setters.

  1. The first step is to identify a goal. Ask yourself what specifically is it you want? This goal has to be framed as a positive, “I want to be more assertive” versus a negative, “I don’t want to be a push over.” Neuro-linguistic programming has a lot to say about this distinction, but it comes down to the fact that negative thinking can freeze us, brings up instances/memories of being a push over, and can sap the motivation from us leaving us feeling helpless. Make sure this goal is realistic, in the sense that it is something that people can actually achieve- e.g.,, we can fly, but in a machine, not alone.
  2. The second step is to ask yourself how will you know when you have achieved this goal. Its important to really outline this for yourself, as we can often achieve something and don’t reflect back on it, therefore ignoring all positive steps we take in life. Describe this in sensory terms, how will you feel, what will you be doing differently, what will you see and hear that indicates you have obtained this goal? For example, if your goal is to feel more productive, you might state that you would feel a sense of achievement, you would notice more work being done, you would perhaps feel well rested, etc.
  3. The next thing to consider is who, where and when you want to obtain this goal. When: you need to give yourself time to set up the steps to obtain the goal, so it is probably unrealistic to have the entire goal by tomorrow. For this reason it is smart to break large goals into smaller chunks so you feel like you are moving towards it. So if you wish to be more productive, this might mean getting more sleep, something you can start on today. You should also be aware that humans are generally bad at predicting what makes us happy, and often we set large goals we think will create a sense of happiness, only to be disappointed once we have it. So you might get a degree thinking being a doctor would make you happy, only to find out you dislike the job and the long hours. For this reason it’s always important to test your goals by talking to others who have a similar job, trying to job shadow, looking into career information on job requirements, etc. You need to create an understanding of the whole picture as best you can to see if you actually fit within it, and how others respond to you once you have reached your goal. A common new years resolution is to increase exercise and get healthy. So you plan to do this by running at the gym, only to realize you hate running and it hurts your knees. It might be helpful to talk to others about what they do, test other exercise options. Perhaps yoga or riding a bike is best for you versus running. For this reason it is important to anticipate what possibilities you can, and to ask around to get more information to inform your goals.
  4. Now that you have a goal in mind, and know what it might look like to achieve it, you need to ask yourself what stops you. A lot of people often have ideas of what they wish for, but get stuck in moving towards them. It’s important to figure out what is eating your motivation and keeping you from obtaining your goals. Then you can start to reflect on what resources you might need to help you. Maybe your goal is to change careers, but you get scared and hopeless when looking up job opportunities because it means going back to school, a prospect that terrifies you. This is a good thing to be aware of, because now you can think about what resources can help you get over this fear of going back to school. Identifying this fear can also help you think about alternative pathways to obtain your goal. You then can reflect on what resources you do have that can help you. Perhaps your current work experience and education can be used in other career paths similar to what you want.

I also like to remind people that the closer we get to things we want, the more we might avoid it. There is a whole approach-avoidance theory to explain this, but often it can link to fear of failure, worry about being disappointed, and being scared/worried about what comes after you have obtained this goal. So you get your education, or you change careers, you lose 10lbs but then what? We worry that this might not actually bring happiness but a sense of stagnation. It is important to remember that many of us are goal driven creatures, so setting new goals is always a good idea- small and large. It might be that you work and start saving for a vacation, or you start focusing on your hobbies now that school is completed. Maybe after losing those 10lbs, you work on building muscle and staying healthy.

These are just some ideas about how to set and obtain your goals, and there are many theories out there. For many, it is even just the first step of reflecting on what it is you want in positive terms, that can be a powerful tool to create positive change.