If you’ve ever eagerly started the new year with ambitious new year’s resolutions—only to fall short just a few weeks or months in—you’re not alone. The good news is, it is possible to set goals and achieve them.
Whether your ambition for the next year is to run a marathon, learn how to speak French or read a book a month, setting good goals gives you something to work toward.
“Goal setting, when done really well, can lead to identifying things that matter to you in life and what’s important to you,” said Zane Dodd, PhD, licensed counseling psychologist at the Chrysalis Center. “That gives you a sense of direction.”
With that in mind, follow these tips from Dr. Dodd on how to set and reach your goals.
Setting good goals
Find your “why”
One major reason people fail to achieve their goals is because they lack the motivation. According to Dr. Dodd, the key here is finding your “why,” or the driving force behind why you’re setting a goal in the first place.
“It’s easy to force goals on yourself that aren’t truly aligned to your values or what you want out of life, especially when we turn the page into a new year,” he said. “When this happens, we end up suffering through our goals, giving up on them, or feeling left with frustration or despair when we fail.”
Are you aiming to run a marathon because you really want to run a marathon, or just because it seems like something you should do? Or maybe because your friend or coworker is doing it?
Dig a little deeper to find your “why.”
Set smart goals
Set the kinds of goals you have a greater degree of control over. You can’t truly control whether you actually win a game, but you can control how you prepare and how you show up. Set goals that are within your control, not dependent on something or someone else.
Make it objective and measurable
Goals like “I want to feel better” or “I want to be happier” are easy to make, but impossible to measure. Set a measurable goal and make sure you build in a feedback process so you can regularly evaluate your progress.
“If you accomplish that measurable, objective goal with purpose to you, you’re more likely to feel the sense of happiness, accomplishment or whatever the original subjective goal might have been,” Dr. Dodd said.
Set appropriately challenging goals
Dr. Dodd recommends you set goals that push you, but don’t overwhelm you.
“If you choose a goal that’s too easy, there’s very little motivation, excitement or energy,” he said. “If it’s overwhelming, you’re likely to give up quickly or you may continue to see it through, but you feel like a failure because you can’t do it fully.”
Layer your goals
While the thought of learning a whole new language or running a whole marathon might seem overwhelming, it’s not quite so daunting when you break that up into chunks and work your way there over time. Layer your goals with short, intermediate and long-term aspects.
“Take distance running, for example,” Dr. Dodd said. “A distance runner breaks it down into splits and mile times. Then as it gets closer in, it’s looking at the next street sign. When it gets really hard, the goal becomes very short-term—it’s one step, then another, then another, until you reach your end goal.”
It’s okay to update your goals as you go. Don’t be rigid about it if you find a particular goal too hard or too easy. Making changes doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’re truly committed to seeing your goals through.
What if you fail?
So, what happens if you follow all these steps and still find yourself failing to reach your goals? Don’t throw in the towel just yet. With the right attitude and a few adjustments, it’s easy to get back on track.
“Be curious rather than critical about a setback,” Dr. Dodd said. “We get really self-critical if we feel like we’re not on pace, and this leads to shame. Shame tells us to go hide, which leads to avoidance.”
If you find yourself falling short of a goal you’ve set, follow these tips from Dr. Dodd:
- Dig a little deeper. Ask yourself, am I doing this for me or someone else?
- Consider whether you just need to find your “why.”
- Get interested. What causes you to struggle? What might help shift your focus so you can be more successful at this goal?
- Allow yourself to do something small towards the goal when you can’t do it all. Just keep the momentum going. If you’ve missed the gym for a week but can’t get in an hour long workout today, allow yourself to get in 15 minutes of pushups and situps at home.
“It becomes a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious cycle,” he said. “Perfectionism undermines a lot of potential progress.”
At the end of the day, goals should challenge you, grow you and bring more joy into your life. Whether your goal is to get your master’s degree, pay off your debts, or do 10 push-ups a day, putting these tips into practice can help you get there.
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