The making of resolutions is a time-honoured part of welcoming in the New Year.
Whether we plan to spend more ‘quality’ time with our kids, lose a few kilos, or take up knitting, there is something about starting a fresh new year that has us setting goals and articulating our aspirations.
While studies suggest less than 25% of people actually stay committed to resolutions after 30 days, and only 8% accomplish them, we persist with positivity and enthusiasm.
We’ve all heard the adage to write down our goals (based on a now-discredited Harvard study) to improve our chances of success - but there’s more to it than that.
By taking time to think about our approach and act on our plan, we are more likely to succeed, and for our achievements to be sustainable. (Latham & Locke, 1991).
And to make it easier – we asked our experts to share their top tips for success:
1. Don’t treat your goal like a resolutions
First, it’s important to remember there is a difference between making resolutions and setting goals. (Especially when made at 12:01am on January 1 with a celebratory glass in hand).
Let’s be honest, resolutions are generally non-specific – a broad intention to do (or not do) something. Goals are much more structured, usually involving some sort of plan and outcome – and are much more likely to succeed (Kleingeld, et al, 2011).
Importantly, setting goals is linked with better self-confidence, motivation, and autonomy (Locke & Latham, 2006).
“Whatever you do, don’t set your goal on New Year’s Eve – it’s like doing a supermarket shop when you haven’t eaten for 24 hours,” said Simon Brown-Greaves, organisational psychologist and CEO of the FBG Group.
“Instead, set them in the first weeks of January whilst sober and calm.”
2. Know why you want to achieve your goal
“It’s critical to stop and think about why you want to set this goal,” says Beulah Joseph, principal psychologist at Assure Programs.
“Carefully consider what is driving you toward this desired state, and in particular, which of your needs aren’t being met today. Also think about your values – how can you align your deeply held values to your goal?
“For example, if one of your values is on supporting your community, and your goal is to run 5k, you could combine those into a goal of running in a 5k event for a local charity,” Beulah added.
3. Identify the barriers to achieving your goal
This step isn’t to let us make excuses – in fact, it is the opposite.
It is important to take time to reflect on what might stop us from achieving our goal, so we can put in place strategies to address them or figure out how to work within what is possible.
“Try to be objective, if you can,” Beulah suggests.
“Take a step out of your day-to-day life and evaluate the ‘lay of the land’.
“If you have small children, is it going to be easy to get to the gym every day? If you want to get back into the workforce after a career pause, have your skills gone out of date?”
4. Be honest and real with yourself
It is important to identify where we are starting from, and to be truly honest with ourselves about where we are in life and what we can realistically achieve.
From there, we can evaluate what is a realistic and achievable goal – we may need to do some research and talk to some experts in the field about this.
Setting a goal to climb the Dawn Wall in three months’ time, when you haven’t been rock climbing in 15 years, is just plain unachievable.
“You might like to look at forming your goals in such a way that they are a stretch, but achievable, and can be measured in some way,” said Maria Galani, Psychologist with CiC.
5. Measure and track your progress
“You should definitely set your ‘data points’ at this stage,” Beulah said.
“Think about how you will measure progress and make a record of where your starting point is."
“If you want to lose weight, you might think about measurements such as BMI, weight, ranking your daily energy levels, or how your clothes feel."
“This way, you can start to track and measure against multiple points,” she added.
Maria from CiC also emphasises the importance of measure our success.
“There is no point in setting a target or a goal if you don’t realise when you get there!” she said.
6. Be SMART
You’ve likely heard it before as it is commonly held that using SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-framed) is a simple way of making goal setting efficient and productive.
“SMART is definitely the best mechanism for goal setting. Sometimes though we tend to forget the A (achievable) and the R (realistic) in the acronym."
“It’s great to have something to always strive for and achieve. It’s simply not always possible however to do everything,” said Denise Meyerson, Founder and Director of MCI.
“It’s not possible to eat every correct fruit and vegetable with zero fat or sugar AND go to the gym every day AND swallow all your vitamins AND walk your 10,000 steps and so on."
“Be kind on yourself and create targets that are within reach with a good dose of motivation and perseverance.”
7. Be accountable
Recent research by Matthews (2015) identified an alternative approach to setting goals which demonstrated a 33% increase in goal achievement:
- Write goals down
- Commit to goal-directed actions
- Create accountability for actions by sharing your plan
- Report on your progress
“Having a buddy – someone you are accountable to, but also someone that can support you during challenging times, and to celebrate success with you – is so important,” Beulah added.
Though as Simon from FBG Group advises, it can be difficult if they’re your partner too.
“Reconsider having a romantic partner as a buddy for challenging or possibly unrealistic goals – it can put a lot of stress on your relationship,” he added.
8. Break it down
We shouldn’t just set one big goal and be done.
Instead we can break our goal down into smaller steps, or sub-goals.
This helps keep us motivated, on track, and makes the challenge more manageable.
9. Celebrate success
Finally, one we can all enjoy is celebrate our success.
For each milestone, as well as each major achievement, take a moment to celebrate.
A quick coffee with our team, a reward worth working towards or a treat with a friend, sparks the joy and excitement that drives us to further success. As long as the reward doesn’t undermine our goal!
10. Don’t dwell on the missteps
Psychologist Beulah reminded us it’s ok if we miss or are unable to reach a small step or part of our goal.
“It is not a sign of failure, but a sign of being human – of life. It’s part of the process,” she said.
“What is important is that you adapt and be flexible – reset and move on.
“This year, and probably the year to come, has proven to most of us that as humans we are a finite resource, and sometimes there is just nothing left in the tank. And that is ok."
“It makes sense given what we have had to deal with. We are not failures as a result of that”.
Setting goals in a world fighting COVID-19
We move into 2021 with some vastly different contexts at play around the globe, affecting goal setting at an organisational, professional and personal level.
Some of us are getting on with life almost as ‘normal’. Others are in full lockdown. Some have lost jobs and family members. All of us are living with uncertainty.
“Here in the UK, unemployment has risen and people have been facing ongoing lockdowns since March 2020,” said Maria from UK-based CiC.
“Social isolation is an added barrier which has had huge toll on the mental health of many."
“This past year has forced many of us out of our comfort zones and made us question whether it is even appropriate to set any goals.”
“Instead, maybe reconsider what your goals look like in 2021 – perhaps your goal is to focus on becoming more adaptable to change and developing greater self-compassion."
“These are key skills that can help you maintain resilience, appreciate what you have, and not fight against things that are outside of your control,” she said.
Now, more than ever, it is important to heed the advice of the experts when setting our professional and personal goals for 2021.
“Always set goals. It is what makes us human,” said FBG’s Simon.
“You can reduce the context factor by choosing goals that are independent of circumstances - for example, my goal might be to improve my core strength, which can be done through a variety of mechanisms, regardless of any lockdown."
“And be flexible – as circumstances change, re-evaluate but don’t give up. We are remarkably resilient,” he added.
How do our experts achieve their goals?
Simon Brown-Greaves - Organisational Psychologist, CEO of FBG Group
I am a daily/weekly/monthly goal setter and list maker. I have created a routine where I set goals daily, review them weekly and ruthlessly re-prioritise regularly. This sadly applies to work as well as home! My goals go from micro (drinks per week... hours of work per day) to larger, more conceptual ones (I’m working on improving my French for my next European trip). I love having a few 'wishful' goals that are aspirational as well. It’s fun to dream.
Beulah Joseph - Principal Psychologist, Service Excellence Manager at Assure Programs
After a frantic few (many!) years of juggling work, family and study commitments, my goal for this year is to make time to have more fun. I am one of those people who is not used to celebrating my success, but this year I plan to celebrate more – I am creating a plan to help me achieve that goal, and look forward to a really joyful year.
Maria Galani - Psychologist, Clinical Services Co-ordinator at CiC
The best advice ever given to me was that I will never know if I do not try. Facing the new year, my own personal goals are to start being more self- compassionate and accepting that I cannot be perfect - my focus is on developing self-forgiveness when I make a mistake.
Denise Meyerson – Founder and Director at MCI
I am big on setting yourself a purpose. If you adopt a growth mindset, you’ll have the flexibility and agility to change your route along the way. But you will always know where North is and where you want to go. In the good old pre-COVID days, organisations used to set 5 year strategies. If they couldn’t adapt and shift their action plans around, there is little chance that they have survived. The new year is a great time to press the re-set button. Set your purpose clearly but be prepared to modify your journey as you encounter obstacles or challenges.
- CiC’s advice on celebrating every win
- MCI on how to live a resilient life
- Assure on the psychology of New Year resolutions
- Latham, G & Locke, E. 1991. A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Article in The Academy of Management Review · April 1991
- Locke, E & Latham, G. 2006. New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268.
- Kleingeld, A. 2011. The Effect of Goal Setting on Group Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 6, 1289–1304