You might be thinking, "Jocelyn, it's almost March. Why are you writing about resolutions and goal setting?" In that case, I would say, "Read on! There's more to goal setting than New Year's resolutions."
Ok, so there are a lot of articles out there about New Year's resolutions and how to keep them, and how setting goals instead of resolutions is better. It seems like all the information you could ever want is out there, so you might be wondering why I'm writing about this too. The answer is that despite all of this information, many people still don't succeed in keeping their resolutions or achieving their goals; therefore, something must be missing.
Let's start with the basics. The Oxford Living Dictionary defines a resolution as "a firm decision to do or not to do something" and a goal as "the object of a person's ambition or effort; an aim or desired result." These two things are not the same, but they do go hand in hand very nicely. The goal provides the direction and target whereas the resolution provides the motivation and commitment to strive for the goal. A resolution on its own is often vague and a goal on its own can lack personal meaning. In order to be successful, it is important to have both the motivation and the target. At the end of the day though, people throw these terms around a lot and often use them to mean the same thing, especially when speaking of New Year's resolutions. For the sake of this article I'm going to talk about goals, but please know that I believe all goals should be made with a resolution to achieve them.
Now if you were to use our friend Google and read a few of these articles with titles like "9 ways to keep your New Year's resolution" and "top tips for successful goal setting," you would find all sorts of advice for how to set yourself up for success. I'm going to try to avoid replicating such a list for two reasons: the first of course is that they already exist, but the second (and perhaps more important) reason is that I don't think that just reading those lists is all that helpful. That doesn't mean this article ends here though; it just means that hopefully, you find my approach to be a bit different.
It's not that I disagree with any of the standard tips, but, while some are pretty standard, others can seem to contradict each other, and at the end of the day we're all different and just because something works for one person (or even most people) doesn’t mean it's what is best for you. In addition, even if you had the perfect list, stating exactly how to achieve success in every area of your life, that knowledge doesn't mean anything until you act on it - and that is often the hardest part.
That said here is my 'list of tips' to help you navigate the overwhelming information out there, start and continue acting on your goals, and, ultimately, get the most out of them.
1. Talk to someone
Whether this is an MPC or another professional, your spouse, best friend, parent, sibling, teammate, coach, co-worker, or barista, talking helps for many reasons. There's the typical reason you hear - that by sharing and making your goals public you become more accountable to them - but it's actually much more than that. Talking can help you set more adaptive and meaningful goals in the first place, but there's a catch - don't just talk to anyone. Talk to someone with whom you have or can develop mutual trust - if you can't trust each other, you can't be honest with each other, and if you can't be honest with each other, they're not going to be much help to you despite their best efforts. Talk to people who know you well and share your outlook, but also talk to people who can provide outside perspectives (without judgement) and help you to see things in a new and different way. Finally, if you can't think of anyone in your life like this right now, and you aren't comfortable talking to a professional, try talking to yourself by writing in a journal.
2. Think about all the specifics
Setting specific goals may be the most commonly used tip out there, and for good reason. If your goal is just to be better, it is both the easiest and hardest goal you could come up with to accomplish. Better at what? Better than what? Better by when? Better how? Better why? On the one hand you will never know if you've accomplished this goal, but on the other hand, you could claim that you've accomplished it at any time. So yes, be very specific in your goal setting including creating a plan of smaller steps or goals to help along the way. I usually suggest starting with the big ideas and longer timeframes and working down from there asking yourself questions as you go to get more and more information. This is where talking to someone can definitely help. What do you want to accomplish? What will that look like day to day? When and how will you accomplish it? What might get in the way of you accomplishing this and what could help you? What steps will you have to take to accomplish it? Why do you want to accomplish it and what will your life be like when you do? Koestner, Lekes, Powers, and Chicoine (2002) found that creating specific action plans known as implementation intentions resulted in greater goal progress. Implementation intentions are plans linked to specific environmental cues which help to automatize goal-related behaviours. In other words, it allows you to work towards your goal without as much conscious effort or
3. Be flexible, positive, generous, and kind
Now that you have this super specific goal and detailed plan in place to accomplish it, it can be very intimidating. While the details and specifics are in place to help us succeed and help us better recognize and celebrate those successes, it often just feels like there are now many ways to fail. This is where the flexibility comes in. Specific goals can still provide a window of success. For example, if your goal (or part of your goal) is to workout 5 days a week, consider making it 3-5 days where 5 is your ideal, but you understand that some weeks might only be 3 or 4, and that doesn't make you a failure. Alternatively, make 5 your average number of workouts a week knowing that some weeks will be better and others worse. Positive, generous, and kind might seem like just good advice for life in general and maybe that's why it applies here too. Be gentle with yourself - change takes time and is never without setbacks, but stay positive - knowing that perfection isn't possible doesn't mean that you can't continue to strive for it and achieve some incredible results. And remember, while it's good to dream big, you don't have to do it all at once. Start with small manageable goals that can gradually build to your ultimate goal.
4. Reach out and keep talking
We've established that there may be setbacks. Life happens and things are always changing, so keep talking. Other priorities will try to take over and new challenges will arise that you hadn't thought of. Check in with your helper regularly to update them on your progress, celebrate your successes, commiserate over setbacks, set new goals, and brainstorm solutions to help achieve old ones. As time goes on you may also have more people to talk to who can provide more support and new perspectives; and you may learn more about yourself, which will help you to refine and adapt your goals as you go. Remember all the hokey sayings like "success is a journey, not a destination?" Well, they're true. A goal may be defined as a result, but having accomplished one goal doesn't mean that you just stop there. Depending on the goal you either continue striving to maintain it or set a new goal and begin striving for it. For some people, an event like New Year's, a birthday, anniversary, new job, or new school year helps them to get talking or take action, but an average Tuesday is just as good a time as any.
5. Be authentic
This is another popular tip and, again, for good reason. Setting goals that are important, meaningful, relevant, and exciting to you will increase your odds of accomplishing them (Koestner et al., 2002). I would like to go even further to say that, not just the goals themselves, but the manner in which you go about striving for them should be specific to you. Dr. Seuss has many beloved quotes but the appropriate one here is, "there is no one alive who is youer than you." You are the only person who truly knows and understands all of your unique dreams, values, and quirks. Others can be great motivators, valuable resources, strong supports, and inspiring role models, but, at the end of the day, you are the one living your life. Set goals that will get you closer to your dream life and then strive for them in a way that works with your everyday challenges.
And that's it. Do you have a favourite tip that has helped you in your goal pursuit? Or a big obstacle that seems to keep getting in the way? I'd love to hear about it. Send me an email or share with everyone in the comments section. We're all in this together. Now go get talking and planning and reviewing and goal crushing!
Koestner, R., Lekes, N., Powers, T. A., & Chicoine, E. (2002). Attaining personal goals: Self-concordance plus implementation intentions equals success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(1), 231-244. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199