The average New Year’s resolution lasts a little under 4 months. Although most of the American population is committed to lofty fitness, travel, and work goals, New Year’s resolutions are notorious for not sticking around very long.
Whether you’re setting goals in January or later in the year, there’s no shortage of societal pressure to achieve. From getting a promotion at work to eating a healthier diet, it’s not uncommon for happiness to be tied to achievements and what we think may come with those achievements.
So how can we redefine goal setting to better meet our emotional needs? Let’s discuss how to set goals that serve us well, how we work towards these realistic goals, and how goals can enrich our lives.
What Are Goals, and Why Do They Matter?
“Goals are usually things we want but have difficulty achieving even when we know they are achievable. In other words, a goal is a detour from the path of least resistance.” – Elliot T. Berkman
Goals can be broad (“I want to write a book”) or narrow (“I want to write a 650-page fantasy novel by June”). Dr. Edward Locke, along with his colleague Dr. Gary Latham, helped pioneer a deeper understanding of goal-setting and exactly how goals motivate us.
In addition to showing that working toward a goal was motivating in general, he demonstrated a “sweet spot” when it came to goal setting: if a goal was too difficult, motivation dropped sharply. However, if a goal was specific, challenging, and actionable feedback was provided, motivation remained high.
As we discuss attainable goal-setting in-depth, keep in mind that goal-setting can be difficult for individuals grappling with certain mental health conditions like major depressive disorder or seasonal affective disorder. Not achieving a goal can also be incredibly de-motivating for most of us, reducing the positive impact of goals.
However, setting goals helps us continually consider what matters to us, envision where we want to be in the future, and gives us a heightened sense of self-efficacy and motivation when we do achieve them.
The Science Behind Goal Setting: What Makes a Goal Good?
By the end of the month, 8% of people will have abandoned their new goals and resolutions already. You might wonder if it's that difficult to achieve a goal. If you've ever struggled to get out of bed in the morning to start a new exercise habit or meditate every day, you know the answer is yes, it is.
Humans have always struggled with making lasting behavioral changes - but it's easier when you set realistic goals. Here are 3 key things to consider when setting personal goals that determine if those goals will be successful.
1.Alignment with your values
Setting goals that are aligned with your core values is a good foundation for success.
Let's look at an unsuccessful example.
John sets a goal to go to a new museum every month out of a desire to learn more about art and culture. However, he doesn't consider knowledge of art and culture an important factor in his self-worth and self-image. Does this goal seem achievable and make sense for him? Do you think John will be able to see this goal through?
You may not know what your core values are - and that's okay. Consider what informs your self-image most strongly. Is it your kindness towards others? Your work ethic? Your love for family?
Humans tend to be motivated to maintain a positive view of themselves by affirming their core values, whether through thoughts about what they will do in the future or through current actions. You can use this self-protective mechanism, known as self-affirmation theory, to help you achieve your goals. You affirm your core values and positive self-image every time you work toward a goal that aligns with who you are.
Let's look at a successful example.
Jane identifies her strong work ethic as crucial to her positive self-image. She sets a goal to ask for a promotion this year. When she goes above and beyond at work, shares her ideas, and offers to help her colleagues out, it feels in alignment with what she cares about. Jane finds working toward her goal motivating, even when it’s difficult.
2. Lack of shame and self-judgement
Shame is one of the most powerful negative emotions we can experience. It tends to be associated more with how we feel about ourselves as people rather than how we feel about a specific event. Think, "I'm a bad person" vs. "I feel bad I said that to her.”
While shame can be a short-term motivator for change, research shows that people who believe they are unlikely to achieve a goal - including people experiencing shame - are less motivated than people who believe they can achieve a goal.
For this reason, setting goals from a place of shame is not an effective method of goal setting. Examples of this would be:
- Setting a goal to diet because you feel ashamed of the weight you gained last year
- Setting a goal to exercise more because you're ashamed you haven't set foot in a gym in five years - and you’re embarrassed to admit that to anyone
- Setting a goal to be promoted at work because your family criticizes your lack of professional success
Instead, adjust your goals to align with your values. Consider with compassion what might enhance the quality of your life and set goals from a place of love for yourself.
3. SMART goals
SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant/realistic, and time bound. A key to setting attainable goals is setting specific goals and ideally, smaller goals. SMART goals are designed to be realistic, giving you small steps toward achieving a goal that feels manageable.
SMART goals also work for your brain, activating the reward system more often. Let's look at an example.
Let's say your goal is to meditate for 10 minutes, upon waking and before leaving your bed, by using Headspace daily for 2 months. You’ll measure the success of this goal by journaling about how stressed you felt every day on a scale of 1-10 and consider a level of 5 or below a success. Your aim is to achieve 2 weeks of a 5 (or below) stress-level in the next two months.
First off, this goal is very specific – including the what, where, and when, as well as how results are measured - that you never have to think about the details. Additionally, every time you do your 10-minute Headspace meditation before rising, your brain's reward pathway lights up, further keeping your momentum and motivation levels going. While it's not impossible to achieve a vague goal, like "I'll meditate every day,” it is easier to not do it when you don't have the details planned and the time dedicated.
Without specific, manageable goals every day, you may not get the full effect of the brain's reward system, either. It's wired to reward and reinforce particular behaviors. Huge variations in where and when you meditate may make it harder to gain that momentum that achieving your effective SMART goals gives you.
If you're thinking that the specificity of SMART goals feels restrictive, remember to give yourself compassion around your goals. No one expects you to be perfect, and you shouldn't expect that of yourself either. If you miss a day of progress toward your goal, that's okay.
When your goals are aligned with your core values and you can show yourself compassion instead of shame when you miss a day of progress, it's easier to get back on track the next day and gain your momentum back.
Work Toward What You Want to Accomplish This Year
Achieve goals that matter to you this year by setting goals that align with your values, are rooted in the desire to enhance your life, and are specific. We may not achieve everything we set our mind to, but the goals we do achieve are positive agents for increasing our belief in our capability to handle whatever life throws our way.
If you’d like therapeutic support as you work toward your goals, contact Inspire Behavioral Health to set up an appointment with one of our mental health care providers. We're here to help you set yourself up for success this year!