New Year, New Goals

The passing of a new year signifies something special. It marks the shift from old to new; embodying hope, faith and belief. The month of January reminds us that if last year was less than a smashing success, this one can be better.

Now that the new year is upon us, consider why you might want to set a different kind of resolution: one that you will actually accomplish! Think about it. Do you want to lose weight? Earn better grades? Improve yourself financially? Each year, 40 of every 100 Americans have similar aspirations. But of those 40 people, only 3.2 of them will accomplish their goals.

Personal development experts and self-help gurus have been preaching the positive benefits of goals for centuries. Recent research indicates that they’re right: Goals are good, but not all goals are created equal. As psychologist Lisa D. Ordonez wrote, “Hundreds of studies conducted in numerous countries and contexts have consistently said that setting specific, challenging goals can powerfully drive behavior and boost performance.”

Psychologists have uncovered many ways to increase the likelihood that we will stick to our goals. For example, instead of writing 20 goals this year such as, “Lose weight, earn $100,000, get straight A’s, win an award, get a promotion,” you might try writing just one or two moderately sized goals. As Henry David Thoreau said: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”

Most goal-setting researchers also agree that setting long lists of goals can be counterproductive. When the list becomes too much to manage, our level of self-efficacy tends to drop. When this happens, we are at risk for giving up on our goals because our belief in our ability to achieve them has dropped. When we don’t think we can accomplish our goals, we often fail to engage in the hard work and perseverance necessary to achieve them.

After narrowing our list of goals down to our most important, for example, “Get straight A’s this year,” we might take some advice from Michael Pantalon, who said that we are much more likely to stick to our goals if they are actions rather than results. So rather than write, “Get straight A’s,” consider a list of actions that would result in that outcome. You could write, “This year I will study for two hours everyday. I will meet with each of my professors in their office hours at least three times per term. When I get my syllabi, I will map out my semester on a big calendar with circles, stars and highlighters.”

Other research shows that we are much more likely to accomplish our goals if we set a specific time and place in which we will accomplish them. For instance, you could write, “This year I will study for two hours every morning from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. I will study at the nice wooden desk in my room. My cue for completing this action will be right after I drink my morning cup of green tea.”

Finally, almost all goal-setting experts suggest that you make your goals attainable. They advise that it’s best to set goals with moderate levels of difficulty. For instance, if you have never studied a day in your life, you might consider making this goal slightly more achievable than studying for two hours every morning. You might try to start studying for just 20 minutes a day, and then continue by working your way up. If you successfully studied for 20 minutes every day in your first week, the next week you can try 25 minutes a day. By the end of the 10 week term, you may have cultivated the habit of studying for 65 minutes every single day! It helps to choose goals like Goldilocks does porridge. Find the one that feels just right.

One great benefit of New Year’s resolutions is that they are time-targeted. So this new year, after the champagne bottles have all been popped and the ball in New York City has dropped, turn your dream into a single, action-based, specific, attainable and time-targeted goal. As you start walking on your New Year’s journey, you may find yourself comforted by the words of motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, “A goal properly set is halfway reached.”