Whether you’re trying to get healthy, improve productivity at work, or develop a new skill, chances are the new year is motivating you to make a change. Or perhaps it’s reminding you of the all-too-familiar annual cycle of setting — and failing at — your resolutions.
Turns out, we’re pretty bad at sticking to our new year goals, with most of us abandoning our efforts to change before we’ve even taken down the holiday decorations. While 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, a mere eight percent actually succeed in accomplishing their goals. Feel futile? Alter your views of goal setting, and it doesn’t have to.
According to recent research, there is more to successful goal setting than motivation. We talked with experts, from psychologists to entrepreneurs, who gave us their insight on how to make this year the best one yet.
Don’t make goals arbitrarily. If you don’t want your determination to wane, set goals that align with your values and have personal significance — whether it’s January 1 or not.
Marc Prosser, cofounder and publisher of Fit Small Business, has noticed that many people commit the error of making unrealistic goals.
“The biggest mistake is setting a goal on something you feel you should be doing instead of something you want to be doing,” Prosser says. “By simply making a goal, you already feel like you’ve accomplished something. But it’s easier to do something you want to do that is high priority, than to make something you don’t want to do a high priority.”
Part of successful goal setting, he says, is determining who you want to be, rather than what you want to do.
“Start by identifying your values,” he says. “It is important that you take time to reflect on what is important in your life and can put words to these main categories. Values are the underlying units of the things we do in our life and they are by definition never finished. Many people forget to look at their own values before goal setting.” Here are some examples:
Value: Strengthening Personal Relationships
Resolution: Set a goal to call a friend or visit a relative at a specific time each week.
Value: Becoming Financially Independent
Resolution: Resolve to increase the percentage of your paycheck that you put aside for retirement each month.
Ryan O’Donnell, the founder of the Institute of Meaningful Instruction, has also found this value-oriented step crucial in his work with applied behavior analysis.
“Setting good goals should start with reviewing the large categories of life that you care about,” O’Donnell says. “Then you should identify how much of your time in the last week was spent toward each area. We have often found that this leads people to quickly seeing areas where they can make goals.”
Not much can happen without a plan. After establishing the right kind of goals based on your values, develop strategies to help you accomplish them, says clinical psychologist Stephanie O’Leary.
“Without specific strategies, it’s unlikely that change will occur because we are all creatures of habit,” O’Leary says. “However, once you create a game plan, you will be more likely to shift your behavior.”
O’Leary saw her own strategies helped her reach goals in the creation of her business.
“Goal setting was instrumental in the success of my private practice,” she says. “When I started, I had just a handful of clients. It would have been easy to panic, especially after signing a lease for an office. Instead, I made monthly goals in terms of how many sessions I wanted to schedule and also brainstormed ways to make it happen, such as volunteering my time in the community and giving talks for various groups. I also set aside a certain number of hours a week to connect with colleagues in the area.”
Know Your Environment
Construct and follow your own regimen, but don’t rely on willpower alone to change your behavior over the long term. O’Donnell says environment has a lot to do with the success (or failure) of your goals.
“Often times people will have great ideas about how they can change their life, and all of that excitement might help the person achieve their goals at first,” he says. “However, as time goes on people return to their day-to-day routines, which is usually counterproductive to their resolutions.”
Take an If-Then approach to succeeding in your goal. You can’t control every aspect of your environment, but planning ahead for situations that could potentially derail your goals — like avoiding water cooler chit-chat if you’re trying to more productive at work — can keep you on track.
Think Small and Reward Yourself
Sometimes, the overwhelming stigma of a New Year’s Resolution carries with it the pressure of change. Try working toward small wins before tackling larger goals.
Want to be healthier? Instead of making a goal to hit the gym for an hour every day, start by taking walks three times a week. Once you master this, move toward a bigger goal. Your confidence in establishing a new identity will reinforce your behavior and provide motivation for further change.
“This is the biggest factor I see in achieving goals, whether they be personal or professional,” he says. “People fail to give themselves credit for the great things they’ve already accomplished. After achieving something worthwhile, the initial enthusiasm wanes, and people fail to acknowledge those accomplishments with regularity. When one takes the time to pause, reflect, and celebrate how far they’ve come that arms them with the confidence necessary to persevere.”
Measure Your Progress
Without a figurative (or literal) yardstick to measure your results, your actions will have little meaning.
“You can measure goals is many different ways,” O’Leary says. “Some people do best with a simple list, others like to create a calendar with daily tasks to stay on track. A fun way to keep things moving is to use the tried-and-true kindergarten approach of giving yourself a star or smiley face whenever you take a small step toward your ultimate goal.”
Keeping conscientious track of your goals also allows you to analyze your values, strategies, and behaviors, and to make adjustments as necessary.
“Reviewing goals allows you to determine if your strategy is working or if it needs to change,” O’Donnell says. “Goal review should also be accompanied by a values review. You should see if the goals you previously set still fit with how you view your life.”
Get the Right Tools for the Job
And whether you’re a traditional pen-and-paper person or glued to your smartphone, there are a multitude of free and low-cost resources available to track your goals. Try creating a vision board or use a traditional goal-setting worksheet. The virtually-inclined could try the You Need a Budget app if you’re looking to save money or the Journal Your Story app if you’re wanting to keep a journal more consistently. As you measure your results, whether on-screen or on-paper, keep friends and family involved. Accountability increases your chance of success.
“Create a support network of people related to goal setting,” O’Donnell says. “It is important to have a community of people that you share your goals with. This allows for motivation but also allows for you to learn from other people. The support network can be online or in person.”
One thing is certain: once the confetti falls and the ball drops, you’re left to face your New Year’s goals head on. Follow in the footsteps of these experts and make your 2017 resolutions a reality.
Kasee Bailey is a freelance writer who draws on her experience working at one of the nation’s top b-schools to report on education, savvy startups, and the latest business trends.