by Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

Why New Year’s resolutions fail

It’s late January, and all around there are gloomy thumps as people start falling off the wagons of their New Year’s resolutions.

Stop smoking. Only drink at the weekend. Don’t waste hours binge-watching Netflix. Stop eating sugar.

These are tough goals, and frankly, we’re setting ourselves up to fail if our goal setting goes no further than these bald statements. Happily, there’s plenty of good psychology research to help us succeed. Here are ten tips:

What beat-the-odds goals look like

  1. They are framed in the positive, not the negative. Instead of “stop eating sugar”, try “build my healthy eating habits.” Turns out, we humans don’t like to feel inhibited, so set your goal up as something you want to approach, rather than something you want to avoid.
  2. They are measurable and concrete – but realistically so. In other words, don’t expect to be able to jog that full marathon course by Easter. When it comes to goals, humans are chronically optimistic. Elegant experiments have shown we tend to incorporate good messages into our forward planning and expectations, but we ignore bad messages.
  3. If goals require any kind of sustained effort – and worthwhile ones typically do – they need to be broken into sub goals. As Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. If your goals are concrete and measurable, sub goals become easier to identify. We say sub goals are marvellous because:
    • They help the chronic procrastinators among us (15-20% of thepopulation apparently!) actually get going
    • They build our realism by clarifying how many steps will actually be involved
    • They remind us that progress is the thing – not perfection.

Goal setting for success

  1. Big picture planning: before you embark on pursuing your goal, take a few minutes to think about how you’re going to approach it. If this were a business plan, you wouldn’t say “grow profit 20%” and leave it at that, would you? So: brainstorm different options.  If you’re a wannabe marathoner, will you get a personal trainer? Join a running club? As part of this planning, think through what could go wrong. Brainstorm ideas to get around the likely obstacles. What motivates you?
  2. Short term planning: build ways to avoid the “what the heck” downward spiral. Manyof us are sadly familiar with this problem! You’re on a diet, but you ate pizza with friends. Now, believing you’ve ruined your progress for the day, you buy a tub of ice cream on the way home…because what the heck.  Here’s a great research-based tip to avoid short term problems: plan ahead using “if-then”. If I am offered wine at the BBQ, then I will ask for sparkling water instead. Having a plan in mind increases your chances of making a choice aligned with your goal.
  3. Another tip, based on research into willpower, is to become aware of when your willpower is likely to be weak. Research has found that the part of our brains that makes choices and decisions all day long at work is the same one that runs our willpower. Like a muscle, it gets tired. Willpower is also undermined by fatigue and hunger. Can you imagine a worse time than late Friday afternoon to rely on pure willpower to see you and your diet through the office drinks and nibbles unscathed?

What makes a goal a “good” goal?

Enter positive psychology (which we at Professionelle like. A lot). Some goals will deliver us greater wellbeing and happiness than others. If a sense of wellbeing is important to you, consider these further tips when you are goal setting:

  1. Choose goals that:
    • bring you closer to other people – that grow relatedness
    • build your skills, knowledge and expertise – that grow competence
    • are authentically aligned with what you value and enjoy – that are intrinsic to you, rather than externally imposed
    • are a stretch – because authentic self-esteem comes from achieving challenging goals
  2. For those stretch goals, the research indicates your mindset really matters. Specifically, a ‘growth’ mindset, in which you believe can eventually develop and grow the abilities you need, rather than a ‘fixed’ mindset in which you only test yourself against what you are able to do now, will lift your chances of success.
  3. Remember that is OK to let go of goals if they no longer work for you. Sometimes this is a matter of age and stage: we are not the same people in our forties that we were in our twenties, and it is not a failure to be seeking different things.

And don’t forget to…

  1. Celebrate!  As working women we are often tough on ourselves, particularly when we don’t achieve as we wanted to. When our efforts do bring success, even of a partial milestone along the way, we owe it to ourselves to savour the moment with a suitably-sized reward or celebration. This builds our sense of wellbeing and recharges our psychological reserves for the next leg of the journey ahead. If we can share it with friends and loved ones, so much the better.

Working it through

If you like the idea of setting goals, planning, and tracking progress on them through the lens of positive psychology, why not check out Professionelle’s goal setting ebook here:

6 Steps to Goal Setting That Work






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