It's January again. As a therapist, I used to have ambivalent feelings about Januarys. On the one hand, I felt excited to see clients march into session with a glow of hopefulness and optimism about the new year. They seemed excited and determined when telling me about the resolutions they had made. On the other hand, it was disheartening because I knew that many clients would not end up achieving their resolutions. I started dreading January and would nearly cringe at hearing the words "new year's resolution".
Like any cognitive-behavioral therapist would, I challenged my perspective about January and resolutions. After all, "new year's resolutions" were really just goals, and I was all for people setting and working towards their goals.
To better understand why resolutions weren't working for many of my clients, I examined the differences between those who achieved their resolutions and those that ultimately did not. I observed that people who ended up achieving their goals had the following in common:
Their motivation to complete their goals didn't waver as time went on. They knew what they wanted and had strong and consistent reasons for wanting to complete their goals.
They had a system in place to monitor their goals progress. Periodically they checked in with themselves on their own progress.
They talked to family and friends about their goals and asked for support when they needed it. They built a support system that helped to cheer them on and keep them accountable for working towards their goal.
I have taken my observations of goal achievers from throughout the years and combined them with therapeutic tools to identify the necessary steps people need to accomplish their goals. Below is my list of four steps integral to setting and achieving goals or new year's resolutions.
1. Evaluate your motivation to work towards and obtain your goal. To do this, start by asking yourself these questions:
How important is it for you to complete your goal?
How much do you actually want to work on the goal?
Look at your answers to these questions. Do you note any discrepancies? For example, maybe the goal is really important for you to complete but you don't really want to work on it? This type of discrepancy isn't uncommon. People struggling with anxiety often come to see me wanting to be cured of a particular phobia or worry, but are resistant to confronting the very same phobia or worry. The discrepancy between viewing a goal as important and actually wanting to take the steps necessary to complete it interferes with a person's motivation or desire to follow through with the goal. This motivation needs to be addressed immediately. One way to address this is to write out the short and long term benefits of working on a goal and the short and long term consequences of NOT working on the goal. This exercise can help increase motivation. If motivation is still an issue, make a list of reasons why you don't want to work on the goal. These reasons are your barriers. Realistic reasons can be addressed by using problem solving and unrealistic reasons can be addressed through cognitive restructuring. Working with a cognitive-behavioral therapist on these barriers can be helpful.
2. Create S.M.A.R.T. goals. The acronym S.M.A.R.T. was originally created in 1981 by George Doran and defines five criteria of effective goals. These five criteria have been modified in more recent years to be
Specific - Describe specifically what you want to accomplish. This addresses the who, what, and why of the goal.
Measurable - Describe how you are going to measure the progress of your goal.
Attainable - Describe the actions or steps you need to take in order to reach your goal. This is the "how" of accomplishing your goal.
Realistic & Relevant - Make sure your goal is something that you can realistically do. If you have never run before in your life, it might not be realistic to set a goal of running a full marathon next month. Your goal should also be relevant to your overall long term goals.
Time-bound - Describe your timeline for completing your goal. When do you want to achieve your goal? This is the "when" of your goals completion.
Here is a good example of a goal that is consistent with the S.M.A.R.T. format. "I plan to lose 10 pounds in three months because I want to live a more healthy lifestyle. To do this, I plan to engage in 60 minutes of exercise three days per week and eat takeout once a week or less."
This goal addresses who is doing the work (the individual), what work is being done (weight loss), why (to live healthier), how (plan of going to the gym and reducing eating takeout), when (the weight will be lost within three months) and it is measurable (measuring progress in pounds lost) and realistic (losing 10 pounds in three months is possible and can be done in a healthy manner).
3. Schedule check-ins. This is a time to review the progress that you have made on your goals and to address any roadblocks you may have encountered. Depending on the type of goal you are working on or your own personal style, you may want to schedule more frequent check-ins. Set a time on your calendar or an alarm on your phone to remind you of your check-in. If you haven't been progressing as you hoped, consider what is interfering with your progress. Is the progress you want unrealistic? Do you have financial or other responsibilities that are interfering with your ability to follow through on the action steps you outlined? Note that having roadblocks is perfectly normal and they will not hinder your success, as long as you can identify them and remove them.
4. Accountability - Sometimes, it takes a village. Everyone needs support and help from time to time. Talk to others about your goals. Be sure to share with people you think will ultimately be supportive of your goals. This support system can encourage you when you notice your motivation levels flagging, or when you encounter temptations. They can help minimize barriers to your success. For example, if your partner knows you are working on living sober they may be less likely to keep alcohol in the home. They can also serve as a sounding board and an extra brain if you find you are hitting roadblocks along the way.
What are your action-based goals this new year? Share them with firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doran, G. T. (1981). "There's a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management's Goals and Objectives", Management Review, Vol. 70, Issue 11, pp. 35-36.