You don't have to make a New Year's resolution. If you want to set a goal, you can do it at any time. But the new year, which prompts us to be reflective and forward-looking at the same time, is a natural starting point. Unfortunately, as you've probably heard, most New Year's resolutions fail. Around half of Americans set a resolution each year, but just 19 percent are successful over time. However, research indicates that New Year's resolutions aren't a total waste: one study found that among people who reported wanting to change a particular behavior, 46 percent of those who made it their New Year's resolution were successful, versus just 4 percent who did not.
The problem with most New Year’s resolutions is that they’re lofty and nonspecific. Be a better person. Sleep more. Get in shape. Big-picture goals sound good, but if you focus only on those things, you're setting yourself up to fail. That's not because you are a failure, but because there’s no clear path toward your goal, and it’s difficult to measure progress. Goals are powerful motivators, but only if they are well-defined.
Here's how to stop making yourself feel bad and start setting better goals using basic principles of behavioral science. Since fitness is my area of expertise (and fitness-related resolutions are among the most popular), the examples I’m using will be fitness-related, but they apply to all kinds of goals.
Make your goal SMART. Various permutations of this acronym are ubiquitous in many fields, and if you're familiar with it, you may be rolling your eyes right now. Fear not, you haven't wandered into a corporate team building exercise. Stick with me! Research shows that successful "resolvers" exhibit less self-blame and wishful thinking than their unsuccessful peers. How do you avoid those pitfalls? By making a solid plan.
Specific: “I want to start running,” or “I want to work out more,” are nice sentiments. But viewed a little more closely, they aren’t very meaningful. Get particular: how often do you want to run, or how far do you want to be able to go? How many times a week do you want to get to the gym?
Measurable: Something I hear a lot from new clients is, “I want to be more fit.” Again, this is a start, but how fit is "more fit"? How will you know when you have achieved that goal? Find a more precise measure. Try, “I want to run a mile,” or “I want to be able to do a pull-up.”
Attainable: Wonderful as you are, you're not Serena Williams (unless somehow Serena Williams found her way to this post, in which case, HI!). My point is that winning a Grand Slam should probably not be your goal.
Realistic: This is the biggest issue I see with many fitness goals, weight loss goals in particular. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten emails from potential clients that say “I want to lose 20 pounds in a month,” or something of the like. Can you lose 20 pounds? Absolutely. Can you do it in a month? Not safely. (In case you were wondering, 1-2 pounds per week is generally considered healthy, sustainable weight loss.) Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets. Your goal needs to be something you are willing and able to work toward. Try losing 5 to 8 pounds in a month. Or, to return to an earlier example, if you’re not a runner now, don’t plan to run a marathon next month. Start with a mile.
Timely: Planning to do something “this year” is awfully vague. A year seems like a long time in January, so it’s easy to put your resolution off. Then, before you know it, the year is over and you didn’t complete your goal. Figure out how long your goal should take to complete (again, being realistic) and set a deadline. “I want to be able to run a full mile without stopping by the end of this month.”
Start small. “I want to be able to run a mile by the end of the month” or “I want to lose 10 pounds in 2 months” might seem like you’re not aiming high enough. In fact, it’s great to start with a smaller, short-term goal. The satisfaction you’ll feel once you achieve it will give you the motivational boost you need to set a new one and get after it. If you break big goals like “get fit” or “have a stronger upper body,” into small, manageable pieces, you’ll get closer to that lofty goal with lots of happy feelings of achievement as you go.
Challenge yourself. On the other hand, you won’t want to work toward your goal if it’s too easy. I’ll use running as an example again: If you want to start running and you’re not doing it consistently or at all right now, working toward a mile is a great first step. It’s a clear benchmark and can be done in a short period of time. But if you already run, push yourself a little. Pick a goal that will challenge you but is within your reach in a few months’ time.
Make it personal. Everyone is different. What challenges someone else could be easy for you, what fascinates you might bore another person to death. Don’t pick somebody else’s goal, make your own.
Focus on the good feelings. If motivation is a big struggle for you, by all means, figure out a reward you can give yourself every time you get to the gym. But working out induces a bonanza of feel-good hormones—don't forget to use that to your advantage. Every time you feel that rush, focus on the feeling and try to commit it to memory. You can come back to that memory on the days you really don't feel like getting out of bed. In the long run, this will work better than an extrinsic (or external) reward. People who are intrinsically motivated to exercise (in other words, people who work out because they enjoy it) are more likely to stick to a routine. Most importantly, if your goal itself makes you feel bad, it's time to pick a new goal. If focusing on your weight makes you excessively self-critical or depletes your confidence, set a goal that isn't tied to weight loss. Work on acquiring a new, exciting skill instead of focusing on what you can't or don't do right now.