In Defense of Resolutions

Let me start out by saying that I don’t really buy into the idea of New Year’s resolutions. I spend my days trying to help people reach their goals all through the calendar year and January 1st is just an arbitrary starting point. Who says you can’t make a life change on June 25th?  Anyway, I think part of the reason that New Year’s resolutions don’t stick for some people is that January 1 serves as an external motivation factor. The “new year, new me” mentality tricks people into declaring goals that they haven’t thought out or planned,  or goals that they aren’t motivated enough to maintain. I ran across a Forbes article recently that noted that just 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Something is wrong here! What we know about motivation is that external (extrinsic) motivators are good for a “first push” toward a goal, but don’t often lead to sustained effort, which you need to carry out a year-long resolution. Internal (intrinsic) motivation is best because it is based on personal wants, desires, or values and this is not easily swayed by the changing external situation. Self Determination Theory poses that intrinsically based goals actually lead to better overall mental health and well being, too.  In other words, it’s important to think about WHY you’re setting the goal. Is this goal for you, or is it for status, recognition, or because someone else wants you to? Goals that are set on the basis of pleasing or impressing other people tend not to be as successful and tend not to make you happy. So ask yourself:

Is this resolution for me or for someone else?

Next, it’s important to set a good goal. What I mean by this is that there’s been lot’s of writing out there about ways to set goals that are more likely to lead to achievement of those goals. One of the more popular systems is the S.M.A.R.T. goal. SMART goals have 5 important characteristics. They are:

  • Specific– Goals are better when you make them as specific as possible. The more specific the goal, the clearer the picture of success and the easier it is to measure your progress. So, “I’m going to save $20 a week and deposit into a savings account at X Bank” is a lot better than “I’m going to save money this year.”
  • Measurable– It’s important to be able to know whether you’ve met your goal, so use language that can be quantified (numbered or counted) rather than relative language. Rather than saying, “I’m going to do better at going to the gym this year”, you could say “I will go to the gym at least 3 times per week.”
  • Attainable– Sometimes, we get a little carried away with our resolutions and make sweeping goals that we probably wouldn’t even be able to achieve in  year (or ever!). If you just started exercising, think carefully about whether a marathon is the appropriate next goal. This is not to say you shouldn’t set lofty goals, but it will be helpful to focus on some intermediate steps. For instance, maybe you want to quit smoking all together, but a more attainable goal for right now is cutting back. Then when you reach that goal, you can think about revising and expanding the goal.
  • Realistic– So, the first piece of this is making sure the goal is consistent with what you know about yourself. Does it match the skills and talents you currently possess or ones that you will work to develop? If not, you may want to reconsider.  Second, most people thrive when they set intermediate goals- ones that will present a challenge, but don’t feel overwhelming. Goals that are either too much or too little generally lead to lower motivation and exertion to complete them. Perhaps you want to eat healthier. If your diet consists of hamburgers and cheetos right now, it’s probably unrealistic to do a full transition to spinach salads and quinoa. So, a more realistic goal might be to trade out some of the unhealthiest foods for healthy ones or limit consumption of those foods to a day per week.
  • Time-Sensitive- Give yourself a timeline. If you have a goal that you think will take all year, use calendar dates as a way to meet some intermediate goals. Deadlines help to keep us focused and put the pressure on (hopefully in a healthy way) when we get a little distracted. So perhaps you may want to lose 60 pounds this year. It might be better to say you will lose 5 pounds by the end of each month as the time intervals are smaller and you can measure your progress along the way.

So take a minute to ask yourself:

Is my resolution SMART?

SMART goals help to “get your mind right,” so to speak, but there are some other things that can help you reach your goals too. Here are some suggestions.

  • Get a buddy. Social support is an excellent motivator for all kinds of goals. This could be in person accountability, or through online support groups or connections.
  • Don’t keep it a secret. We are more likely to achieve our goals when we’ve made them public- it helps to add a layer of both accountability and support. You could decide to tell your whole social media network, or just a few close friends- it’s up to you.
  • Keep track of your progress- with any goal, it’s important to keep track of what you’re working toward- perhaps this is keeping information in an app or journal on your phone, or maybe it’s visually representing your progress on a calendar.  I like to keep things visual because it helps remind me what I’m working toward and redirect if I’ve gotten off track.
  • Prepare for setbacks. Very few of us set a goal and carry it out flawlessly. You will mess up-it’s a part of the process. Just try to figure out what happened and get back on the wagon!
  • Consider rewards (or punishments) for intermediate goals. Though intrinsically based goals or best, some external motivation can’t hurt. Perhaps you could give yourself a reward (a massage, a new outfit or toy) once you reach a certain goal. You could set up some punishments if you don’t meet intermediate goals, but research indicates that contingent rewards tend to be more motivating.

After all this, maybe I’ll set a resolution this year after all! 🙂 Hopefully, this helps you to set a resolution that you can stick to and achieve. Happy New Year and make Well Choices!


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