Whether you’re calling them New Year resolutions, or simply thinking about things you’d like to achieve this year, January is often a time of setting goals.
But it can also be a time of beating ourselves up – when those ambitious targets fall by the wayside and we’ve ‘failed’ by the time February arrives.
Is it possible to make new goals actually stick? Or is there another way of approaching it, so we don’t end up feeling worse than before we started?
Why do you want this?
“The thing about setting goals is that it’s about improving your life, not creating another stick to beat yourself with – and it all starts with compassion,” says coach and podcaster Meg Kissack, founder of The Rebel Rousers.
“Any goal needs to be compassionate, flexible and sustainable. You need to meet yourself where you are right now, and stop comparing yourself to where you think you ‘should’ be by now.
“When setting goals, I recommend asking yourself three things,” notes Kissack. “Is this something you actually want, or is it something you feel like you ‘should’ want? How can you do it in the most compassionate way possible? How can you make it sustainable?”
Ditch the wagon
A big reason new year goals ‘fail’ is because we let ourselves believe it’s all or nothing. Either we’re on the wagon, or we’ve fallen off. But life happens. Humans get tired. Someone throws a birthday party and you need a lie-in (we can but dream!).
“Remember, you’re not aiming for massive perfect leaps. You’re aiming for tiny imperfect actions,” says Kissack.
“There needs to be some acceptance that there will be times you fall off the wagon and that’s OK – that’s a human thing, not a personal flaw.
Sometimes we need to fall off to remember why it mattered to us in the first place, give us the perspective we need to change it to make it work the way we work, or re-evaluate if it was the goal for us in the first place.”
Embrace immediate gains
Dr Ian Taylor, Loughborough University’s senior lecturer in Psychology, says: “Immediate benefits are much better at motivating than delayed benefits.
To get a bit geeky, motivation comes from the benefits, not the behaviours. This means, if your benefits are in the future, then there’ll be little motivation to do the behaviour.
But if the benefit is immediate, then its motivational power will be associated with the behaviour.”
Imagine you want to take up a new exercise regime. If your goal is to reach a particular physical change that feels way off in the future, your chances of sticking with that regime are a lot lower than if your focus is simply to enjoy doing the exercise each week.
“A great immediate benefit of activities like exercise is the mental health boosts it brings,” says Taylor. “However, this motivational principle applies to any new behaviour. Focus on immediate benefits to stay motivated.”
Build on this further by celebrating your wins along the way – rather than fixating on some daunting, far-off target – even if that’s just doing a week without scrolling Instagram in bed, or running a kilometre without stopping.
“Celebrating your wins, no matter how small, is a proven way to create a more motivated mindset.
Every time you give yourself credit, the pride you feel releases a small hit of dopamine, which makes us feel good,” says mind and body coach Kim Raine.
“We love feeling good and want to feel more of it more often, hence there is more chance of us repeating the action.
This is why ticking tasks off a list feels so good – it gives us a sense of achievement. Try and recognise each time you complete a task or action.”
‘Be’ your goals
“Motivation can sometimes be a bit abstract and hard to describe, however, we all have a robust type of motivation inside us.
Our identity is one of the best motivations that exist because we all find expressing our identity very easy,” says Dr. Taylor. “Someone who considers themselves to be an ‘exerciser’ doesn’t find it difficult to engage in exercise.
Someone who identifies with being ‘healthy’ finds it very easy to [eat healthily].”
He suggests focusing on ‘being’ our goals, rather than goals as something we ‘do’ or ‘have’. So if your goal is to write a novel or paint more, think of yourself as ‘being’ a writer or an artist.
“Think about who you want to ‘be’ and work out how to do that. After a while, these types of goals become much easier to sustain,” says Taylor.
Does it have to feel so hard?
Trying to transform into some sort of ultra-disciplined ninja? If it feels too hard, maybe it is. “Humans dislike effort in most circumstances,” says Dr. Taylor.
“Many people think goals should be challenging. However, in the beginning of trying a new behaviour or hobby, the opposite is true.
Neuroscience research tells us the feeling of effort isn’t very pleasant, and humans are predisposed to avoid things that aren’t pleasant.
“When individuals have developed confidence and skills in their new chosen behaviour, then this avoidance of effort can be overridden. But in the beginning, it’s best to take things easy,” Taylor adds.
“This principle can also be used when planning to do an activity. Make it as easy as possible by making all decisions ahead of time.
Pack your equipment, so you don’t have to find it, choose a place that’s easy to get to. All these things minimise the effort required.”