A How-To Guide to Realistic New Year’s Goals
The whole concept of New Year’s Resolutions is flawed — I know this as a psychologist, and as a person who has failed at it many times. True change is hard and important, and very rewarding when we do it well. I give you a real-life way to approach whatever change you want to make, whenever you are ready to make it. Forget the weird pressure on January to revamp yourself and your life, but when you feel that true readiness, you can break it down and make it happen for real, and not just for the first month of every year.
What’s Wrong with New Year’s Resolutions
We are already a few days into the New Year and this would usually be about the time my resolve to make resolutions starts to wane in the January daylight of reality. In the holiday glow/chaos of December, it’s easy to think of future days filled with kale smoothies, daily workout sessions, and reading a novel a week as a totally doable path to make you that model of health and happiness you know you can be.
With age comes wisdom. Or at least lots of practice with kidding yourself so many years in a row, you finally wise up and accept the reality.
The reality is this: January is a totally arbitrary time to suddenly change major habits, AND change is really hard.
As a health psychologist, changing behaviors is my alleged expertise. I work with people of all ages to change behaviors that affect their health, which basically includes everything. From taking daily medications (especially loathed by teenagers) to the catch-all “manage stress better,” I live and breathe behavior change.
Between my personal record of failed New Year’s resolutions and years of a day job in behavior change, I no longer believe in New Year’s resolutions and I don’t believe in them for anyone else.
I’m not abandoning the whole concept of introspection and self-improvement; of course I believe in personal growth and learning across the lifetime. I would be pretty bad at my job if I didn’t. But there are ways to at least increase the odds of success and lower the odds of failure, and the first step is to re-label resolutions as GOALS.
How to Be SMART About Your Goals
Chances are if you have participated in any work-related process improvement / strategy planning sessions over the last few years, you are familiar with the SMART goal, or some similar acronym-cutesied concept. It may have been an annoying process in whatever work world you are in – as it was in mine. But it’s actually pretty smart when we talk about personal goals. (SMART – see what I did there?)
Okay let’s take one of my goals for this year. Hmmm. I guess now I have to think of one . . .
Read more? Less social media? More time with kids? Make more money? The first step is to figure out what I’m most motivated to change, but that’s also realistic. I’m not going to suddenly bring in the kind of income those shiny, excessively wealthy realtors do on Million Dollar Listings.
“More balance” is always a contender as I envision myself running back and forth between personal and work ends on the scale of life. The whole point of more balance is less stress, but those are some big aspirations that need a step-by-step pathway or we will be in a constant state of yearning for change instead of actually changing.
So let’s do this – turn “more balance, less stress” into a SMART goal. The “S” is perhaps the most important, the anchor of the whole goal: Specific. Clearly, our aspiration of “more balance, less stress” is not specific. So what does that really look like for me, in my life? Your answer will be unique to you, but for the sake of playing along, I will pick: Do yoga more often. This works for me because I already do yoga, but sporadically, and I really love how it feels during and after, so I’m motivated to do it more.
Okay, next letter: M for Measurable. How do I know I’m reaching my goal? With a metric. I will do yoga a minimum of once a week for 30 minutes, and document it either old school on a calendar, on some app. (Now I just have to find an app . . . is there an app for that?)
Alright, I’m already feeling more confident I can do this. Next letter: A for Attainable. Now I ask myself if this is out of reach in real life, or too easy? Am I pushing myself enough? It would help me to pick a day so it’s part of my routine, so I will commit to doing yoga at home Wednesday mornings because I start work a bit later and I will be most likely to make the time. I know doing the whole yoga studio thing would be ideal, but it is just not attainable right now so I need to be honest with myself.
We’re getting there . . . almost to the end already. Next letter: R for Relevant. Is this even a good goal and does it align with my larger, long-term goal of reducing stress and living a more balanced life? Well, we know from hundreds of years of yogis and more recently, science, that yoga has all kind of health benefits via stress reduction. And if I can stick that tree position for more than a few seconds, that IS some serious balance! (Bad Dad joke, but seriously, the yoga breathing and meditative aspects help with the mental chaos too so I think I will feel more balanced.)
Last step to round this out: T for Timeline. When will I achieve this goal? I will start this week and check myself monthly, which means I can self-correct if I’m not succeeding.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF ANY GOAL. When it’s not happening like we planned, instead of surrendering in disappointed defeat, problem-solve. What’s getting in the way? How do I address that barrier? Do I need to reconfigure the goal based on LIFE not going as planned? It’s not like this is a blood oath – we can adjust.
I feel good – I’m doing this. I’m not expecting miracles or counting on some magical time extension to the 24-hour day and 7-day week. I am committing to 30 minutes one morning a week that could SO easily be swallowed up by scrolling mindlessly on my phone in that pocket of downtime I have between getting the kids to school and starting my work day. Unless I scroll through my phone WHILE holding the tree position, that is sure not adding any balance to my life. (Sorry – couldn’t help it!)
Goals or No Goals? Be Ready for the Change
What’s your SMART goal as we enter 2019? What do you want to change in your life, for your best self, that is doable and would feel SO good? Maybe the hardest part is narrowing down that list, or maybe it’s even finding the starting point. Ask yourself these questions:
1. What is most important to me?
2. What is lacking in that area, or something that’s not working right?
3. Do I have the current resources to change it? (Time, support, technology, budget)
4. What would it feel like if I achieved this goal and is that motivating enough?
Maybe now is not the time just because it’s January, and that’s fine – is there a foreseeable better time in the near future when something changes? (I basically put all behavior change on hold each year I had a newborn because that is simply enough on one’s plate.)
Maybe NOT setting goals is what’s best at this moment because there’s enough pressure from all the million parts of life right now, and the healthiest thing to do is let go of that expectation.
Some people love the motivational speakers who are so skilled at convincing us we can become exactly who we want to be in life in a 30-day program. I know it’s harder than this, and I resent how it sets people up for feeling like failures. There’s enough of feeling inadequate and inferior in the day-to-day of our modern world.
The truth is we can’t always rush readiness, and we are doing best by ourselves to be honest about current realities, limitations, and opportunities, in a realistic way. But when we do reach that point of being truly ready and we feel it, whether it’s January 1st or April 17th, we can be SMART, and not feel like a failure every February (or mid-January).