There’s something refreshing about January. You clear away the Christmas decorations, wipe the slate clean and, of course, make ambitious New Year’s resolutions to start the year off right. And, given the year we’ve just had, you’re probably itching to make 2021 count.
Between Covid and lockdown, 2020 was a tough year for all of us. But, admittedly, it also gave us time for self-reflection. It pressed the “pause button” on our hectic lives, and gave us the chance to take stock of where we’re going in life. And we may have realised that we’re not quite where we wanted to be. Maybe a relationship has fizzled out, work stress is weighing down on us or we simply haven’t been in a good headspace for a while now.
This is where setting goals could help us get back on the right track.
Let’s face it though: we might have the best intentions in the world but keeping our New Year’s resolutions is easier said than done. Because, more often than not, we set ourselves up for failure. We may struggle to identify our wants and needs, or choose impossibly high goals that we could never realistically achieve.
Some of us might even use our New Year’s resolutions as a way to disguise our own self-criticism. If your inner critic has a habit of bashing your appearance, your resolutions might revolve around restrictive diets or a number on a scale. Or perhaps you set vague, lofty goals to ‘be a better person’ only to tear yourself down at the slightest mishap.
These types of resolutions are harsh, punitive and counterproductive. They fuel that niggling voice inside our head that tells us we’re not good enough and, ultimately, they don’t make us happier, they only serve to hurt us.
Harsh, impractical goals can wreak havoc with our mental health but that doesn’t mean we can’t make meaningful changes in our lives. Drawing inspiration from therapy techniques, here are just a few simple ways you can create meaningful goals.
Pick goals that motivate you
Know you want to make changes in your life but don’t know where to start? You’re not alone. Identifying our goals isn’t always easy. But it’s really important. Because if we pick resolutions that we genuinely care about we might just be more motivated to stick with them.
When pinpointing a New Year’s resolution, it’s important to choose things that truly matter to you. Scrap the goals that you’re indifferent about, and channel your energy into the goals which motivate you. Because if you have little interest in the outcome, then the chances are slim that you’ll put in the work to make it happen.
Sometimes we might feel so far away from where we want to be in life, it can be difficult to imagine how things could be different. If you’re struggling to put your finger on what you need to do, take a moment to reflect on a time when things were better than they are now. What was a typical day like? What were you doing then that you aren’t doing now?
Or, if you’ve been off track for a while now, imagine how you’d like your future to look like. In a few years, what would you like to be doing? What do you need to do to get there? What matters most to you?
Want to create a clearer picture of your goal? The acronym SMART might do the trick. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed. By applying it to our New Year’s resolutions, we can fine-tune our goals and make them more manageable.
If you have a goal in mind, ask yourself if it’s narrow enough. For instance, the goal “I want to improve my relationship with my partner” is perhaps too vague. A better alternative might be “I’m going to have a date night with my partner once a week without the kids”. This makes our goals clearer so we can easily recognise if we’ve met them, or not.
When it comes to creating goals, vagueness is your enemy. So once you decide on a New Year’s resolution ask yourself how are you going to measure it? How will you know you’ve achieved it? Nail this down and you’ll be able to appreciate your successes.
When the prosecco is flowing and the New Year’s countdown is upon us, it’s natural to feel optimistic about the year to come. You might feel like you’re on top of the world. But, when it comes to setting goals, try to stay level-headed. Scrap the airy-fairy New Year’s Resolutions and set realistic goals for 2021. Ask yourself if you have the time, skills, energy or finances to follow through with your goals. And if you don’t, adapt your goals until they seem feasible.
Sometimes we unwittingly take on other people’s wishes for us. That’s because it can be difficult to distinguish between what we want for ourselves, and what a cherished friend or relative wants for us. Maybe your parents want you to pursue a specific career path but deep down you know it’s not for you. Even though they mean well, remember this is your life. Your goals should reflect the things that matter most to you. Listen to what they have to say because they might have valuable advice, but just make sure your goals are true to yourself. Ask yourself: Is this actually what I want to do?
Finally, set a realistic timeframe for your goal. This makes it more manageable, deters procrastination and allows us to track our progress.
Get clear on your values
Society often tells us that the secret to happiness is to achieve your goals. Maybe dream of getting a high-flying career where you earn lots of money or perhaps you want to settle down and have a family of your own. When we fall short of our goals it can be really disappointing, but will you definitely be happy if you tick them off your to-do list? Not necessarily.
So let’s say you’ve worked diligently to achieve your goal and, after a long grind, you finally made it. You feel an overwhelming sense of joy and pride. But, no sooner than you’ve patted yourself on the back, the feeling quickly fades. Why? Because, inevitably, there’s always another goal on the horizon, something else to strive for. So we convince ourselves that we’ll finally be happy once we get that, and the cycle continues once more. But, if we live our lives constantly striving for goal after goal we can quickly burn ourselves out. Because we’re so laser-focused on the future, we forget to appreciate the here and now.
Goals are an important tool that can help us make meaningful change. But, when we make them the be-all and end-all, it can leave us feeling empty and deflated. So what can we do instead? We could pick goals that are in line with our values.
We can think of values like a compass. They give us direction in life, help us find our way when we get lost, and ultimately, they remind us of the kind of person we want to be. You might value honesty, compassion or adventure, for instance. These aren’t goals you can complete or finish. Because they’re qualities, they’re goals you inch closer to every single day. You might be honest to a friend when they’ve upset you or check-in on a family member who’s going through a rough time, for instance.
By living a life based on values we might find ourselves more grounded in the present moment. And even if we don’t achieve what we set out to do, just knowing that we’re following our inner compass and being true to ourselves might be more than enough.
Build up to big goals gradually
We’ve all been there. We’ve set ourselves an impossibly tough goal, fallen at the first hurdle and then called it quits because we felt like a complete failure. It’s demoralising, stressful and, ultimately, makes our goals seem out of reach. But there are ways we can reframe this sort of thinking.
What if, instead, you set a series of small, achievable goals? Soon enough, that bigger goal you had in mind might suddenly become more realistic. We call this the ‘Domino Effect’ — it’s the idea that small, simple changes can cause a chain reaction with far-reaching effects.
Let’s say, for instance, you want to run a half marathon for charity. Would you sprint out the door and run a half marathon on your first training session? No. Chances are, you’d build up your running distance slowly but surely. Eventually you’d find it easier to run farther and farther, until you’re fit enough to run the race.
The same principle applies to other goals in life. If you need a helping hand getting started, try listening to the ‘Domino Effect’ episode of Self-care, our new audio and video therapy library. It’ll help you break down your grand long-term goals into small, achievable chunks.
Prepare for the obstacles
It might be stating the obvious but making meaningful change isn’t always easy. You’ll probably encounter obstacles or difficult emotions along the way. So what can you do to tackle them? You could try to ignore them or practice self-control in the moment. But a better solution might be to prepare for pitfalls in advance.
Take a moment to predict what kind of problems might show up, and you’ll be better equipped to handle them should they arise. Let’s say you want to go to a weekly yoga class but you struggle to wake up early in the mornings. Laying out your gym clothes the night before might make things a bit easier or maybe you could go with a friend and hold each other accountable?
Don’t wait until ‘you’re ready’
Are you putting things off until ‘it’s easier’ or you ‘feel ready’? Odds are you’ll be waiting a long time. By twiddling our thumbs and waiting for the perfect moment, we’re simply holding ourselves back. Because, unfortunately, there’s never going to be an easier time. The best time to make real change is right now.
Practice self-kindness and remember that mistakes happen
Progress is rarely linear. Chances are you’ll face a lot of ups and downs before you get where you want to be. Some people wrongly think that a step back means they’re right back at square one but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Remember that slip ups are bound to happen but it’s not the end of the world. If anything, we can learn and grow from our mistakes.
Meaningful change takes time so if you fall into a bad habit or take a wrong turn, don’t throw in the towel. Be patient and practice some self-compassion. Remind yourself of how far you’ve come already — and then keep going.