Do you have a New Year’s Resolution?
Good on you if so. No rolled eyes or comments such as, “I give it three months,” coming from me.
I am strongly in favour of people setting themselves challenging goals to make themselves better in some way or another. Whether it be professionally, physically, socially, academically or any other way, there are myriad ways to we can improve our lives. Aside from the obvious benefit, being the agent of such improvement can have a positive effect on our self-esteem as well.
However we should also accept the reality that statistically, many (more than 90%) New Year’s Resolutions are doomed to failure. And this is where a lot of people’s scepticism and negativity towards New Year’s Resolutions comes from, I suspect.
So if you are hoping to make some improvements in your life this year, let’s consider how to be best achieve it.
If your resolution is something as simple as to eat better, exercise more or study harder, sadly it is one that is going to be hard to turn into a permanent change.
Why? Well firstly, there is no end state when you can say that it has been achieved. You may cut out all sugar for a few months or exercise every day for a while, but if you are just doing it for its own purpose, your motivation for keeping this up will gradually wane and incrementally your old habits are likely to return.
This type of resolution also lacks a clear process to achieve it. Whether it is an all or nothing approach (I will cut out ALL refined sugar from my diet), or the vague generalised approach (I will eat better) neither provides a graduated strategy with indicators to help you track your progress, which are highly motivating.
If you want to make a positive change in your life this year or at any other time, the goal you choose and the way you set it play a big part in your chances of success.
There is a wealth of literature on goal setting and motivation that I won’t bore you with, but anyone who has worked in an education or management setting has probably come across the SMART acronym for describing goals. For those that have been spared a long PowerPoint experience in this area, it boils down to the statement that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-based and Time-limited (there are some minor variations on what some of these letters stand for in different literature, but this roughly captures the intent).
While I don’t subscribe religiously to all of these elements, if your New Year’s Resolution has none of them, it is going to be hard to maintain in the long term.
I think ambitious goal setting is a wonderful thing for self-fulfilment and mental wellbeing, but I feel trying to make your goals fit all the criteria of SMART goal setting is actually quite limiting. I set myself a lot of goals and help others doing the same. Here are some things I try to keep in mind when doing so.
Well-defined and finite.
It goes without saying that if a goal isn’t very important to you, it is less likely to succeed, but aside from that, I have found the most effective goals I have set relate to achieving some kind of measurable output (last year I set the goal of publishing this website for example). It also makes a big difference putting some kind of timeframe to your goal. I don’t believe these always have to be short term timeframes (another of my goals is 18 months away at the moment), otherwise we put off the hard work when it needs to be done.
Successful goal setting also needs to be strategically planned out. You won’t achieve an ambitious goal just by hoping it will happen. You need a way to get there. Usually a set of behaviours you will follow and a series of mini-goals or success criteria to keep you motivated and reassure you that you are on track.
Taking the first two points in mind, a weak goal might be to eat better or exercise more, as they have no strategies attached for how you will do them, no timeline to stick to and no defined end point to assess progress towards. Changing those goals to ones with specific end points such as dropping 5kg weight or 10cm off your waist (I hate this as a goal, but it seems to be a common goal that people struggle with), makes your goal more likely to succeed. Adding strategies such as cutting out certain foods, calorie counting or running twice a week, strengthen it further.
Changing that goal again to being able to fit back into your clothes comfortably in time for a specific event or completing a challenging fun run or similar event will strengthen them further because there is now a timeline that has to be adhered to.
Fallible and renegotiable
One area I strongly disagree with SMART goals language is around making goals achievable and realistic. I make my goals aspirational and fallible, with the understanding that I may revise them if I feel they are too far beyond me. I also understand that I may fail at some of these goals, but I will benefit from attempting to reach them. Indeed, I have written elsewhere that I would hope that I do fail sometimes, otherwise the goals I am setting are routinely too easy.
Cognisant of cost
The most important and fulfilling goals we set will usually be the ones that require the most work, effort and sacrifice. It is worth considering what you will have to give up in order to achieve the things that are important to you. This may mean changes to diet, allocating more money to certain activities or having less time for work, rest, TV, other hobbies or socialising. If you don't anticipate these sacrifices they can come as a nasty demotivating surprise when they become necessary.
So good on you if you are setting yourself some kind of goal in 2016. It is better to try to do something great and fail than to revel in mediocrity, after all. If you don’t succeed, you may well still gain some benefit from the attempt, otherwise there is always your next goal. But when you are setting your goals try to do so in a way that maximises your chance to be successful with them. Have a clear objective you plan to reach and a defined timeline for how you will get there. Also realise you may have to give something up to achieve something you really want.