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Dust Off Your New Year Resolutions - Goal Setting Actually Works!

Updated: May 27, 2020

Access the Goal Setting Worksheet Here

New Year’s Resolutions have gone a bit out of style; or as my nephew called the idea recently - “old school”.  The growing focus on ‘in the moment’ experiences and hyper-adaptability has made us impatient or disinterested in the time required to set, work towards, and achieve longer term goals.  However, if done right, goal setting actually works.  The effectiveness of goal setting is one of the most proven principles in all of social science (Locke & Brian, 1967; Locke & Latham, 2002; Locke & Latham, 2013).  And the new year is just as good a time as any to get started.   Below are 7 practical steps to achieving more in 2018 and a simple worksheet to help.  Cheers to old school principles that work. 1. Ensure they matter.  A goal has to be meaningful to be achieved.  So start with assessing your current satisfaction with different areas of your life (e.g., Family, Friends, Work, Service, Spirituality).  Use this to determine the areas where progress would be most meaningful to you and start your goal setting there.  

2. Write them down. Goals ‘in our minds’ are not the same as goals written down.  Goals that we think about only can actually be more frustrating because they become a source of unmet need and stress.  Research has proven that writing it down helps to make your goal more specific, which helps you to achieve it.  And if you can place them somewhere you will regularly see and be reminded of what you’re trying to achieve, even better. One of my sisters placed a picture of herself at her non-ideal weight on her mirror as she pursued one of her health goals.  She lost over 80 pounds that year and has kept it off for more than 12 years.   Written down and highly visible goals keep us from conveniently forgetting the changes we were planning to make by February. 

3. Identify what & how. Along with identifying what you want to achieve, do the work to decide how you’re going to achieve it.  For example, one of my resolutions is to spend more time in community volunteerism.  Along with taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, I’m planning to volunteer with Big Brothers, Big Sisters.  Determining how you will achieve your goal provides immediate action steps that you can take and helps maintain momentum.  

4. Choose a specific date. Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Work Week recommends identifying goals in 3 categories – what you want to Be, Have, and Do.  For goals in your “Have” and “Do” categories especially, identify a target date.  That way, you know if you are ahead or behind schedule, and you can course-correct as needed. 

5. Tell someone. Ah, the joy and pain of accountability. If one of your resolutions is challenging or significantly different than what you’ve done in the past, tell someone who you know will keep you accountable.  Many of us avoid this step because we’re assuming we’re not going to achieve the goal, and would rather fail in private, than in front of others. But if you’ve decided to actually DO something (not just try it), why not tell someone else?  The fear of failure is a powerful motive – use it to your advantage.  

6. Reward progress, even if not perfection. One of the funniest New Year memes I’ve seen showed ‘Frank the Tank’ from Old School saying “I’ve already messed up my 2018 resolutions.  Let’s go 2019!”.   I think it describes one of the reasons many of us avoid New Year Resolutions.  We’re measuring ourselves against perfection, not progress.  If you have a goal to read 12 books this year, and I told you that at the end of the year, you will have read 8, would you still pursue the goal?  Of course you would!  There’s no need to throw out your resolutions on January 2 because you didn’t achieve them on January 1.  That’s nonsense.  Attack your yearly goals as you would a problem at work or home; if your first strategy doesn’t work, try something else.  There’s no reason to work harder achieving things for others than you do for yourself.  

7. Make it simple. One of my clients shared a concept with me where she chooses one word every year to define what she is trying to achieve. This year I’m using a word, and others years I’ve used a picture.  For several years my picture was a target because I wanted to be more intentional and act “on purpose” every day.  This year my word is “Service”.  Review your list of goals and identify the common theme across what you are trying to achieve. Is your word “Truth”, “Intentional”, “Experience”?  Even when you can’t see your list of goals, the word will remind you to stay focused and centered on what you want most out of 2018. 

What are you thinking about for 2018?  Goal setting actually works when done well – let's use science to our advantage to achieve more in 2018. Click here to access a simple goal setting worksheet to help. 

Bryan, J. & Locke, E. (1967).  Goal setting as a means of increasing motivation.  Journal of Applied Psychology, Volume 51(3), June 1967 (274-277). Ferriss, T. (2007). The 4-Hour Work Week.  Crown Publishing Group.  ISBN 978-0-307-35313-9. Locke, E. & Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey.  American Psychologist, Volume 57(9), September 2002 (705-717). Locke, E. & Latham, G.P. (2013). New developments in goal setting and task performance.  New York, NY.  Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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