Americans love a good comeback story—people can’t get enough of New Year’s resolutions as a way to improve. But that crowded gym in January will have lots of extra room come May. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology indicates experts estimate that even though half of us make one or more goals for the year on January 1st, only 8 percent are successful. “Resolutions are a great chance to reimagine ourselves, to dream about who we want to be,” said Tara Newman, a Commack-based organizational psychologist who specializes in goal setting as a life and career coach. But common mistakes derail even those with the best of intentions. Follow these tips for staying on track with goals.
1. More walk, less talk
Choosing resolutions carefully is the first crucial step toward escaping the statistics. Resolvers should pick something actionable and realistic. Deciding to “get healthy” is too vague and abstract. A better goal might be: “Exercise five times per week,” because it’s action-oriented and specific. Make sure to build in mini-goals along the way (each exercise day can be different, less or more intense, etc.) and no matter what the overall goal is, break it down into smaller steps that are things you can do every day or week. “The biggest mistake I see,” counseled Tara, “is that people fail to make a plan.”
2. Honesty is the best policy
Ultimately, if someone makes a goal they aren’t intrinsically motivated to accomplish, all the best plans will be for naught. “We have a tendency to not want to accept ourselves—and that we have fundamental flaws we need to change. We may acknowledge our faults by setting a goal to do better, but until we are honest and accept our flaws, we won’t be successful.” External motivation—a spouse, an employer’s demands, bill collectors or the doctor’s admonishment to stop smoking—will only take a resolver so far. In the end the resolver has to be truly ready to make a change.
3. Check yourself
Tara recommended setting monthly or weekly check-ins to review performance. Just like performance reviews at work, these are opportunities to reflect on progress and make needed adjustments. Schedule these reviews on a smart phone’s calendar app and use them as an opportunity to take stock. Remember to avoid black and white thinking, as that often leads to throwing in the towel. Just because you spent too much money this week it doesn’t mean you should give up, think “why bother” and spend even more. Success happens in increments and those who reach their goals tend to have a backup plan for inevitable setbacks along the way.
4. Write it down
Keeping a written record of efforts is a powerful tool for change. Countless studies have shown daily writing can help with everything from weight loss to physical healing of injuries. One study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine documented that a group who kept a diary lost twice the amount of weight than a group who did not. Tara said even writing down affirmations related to goals can be an effective reminder. If the goal is to stop being late, write “I am a conscientious, punctual person.”
It may sound Stuart Smalley, but it works.
5. Get help
No one lives in a vacuum and life changes shouldn’t be made in one either. Find what Tara calls an “accountability partner,” someone who has similar goals and who can help you keep your goals on track. Enlist the support of family and friends. “In general, people are bad communicators of what they need and are under-supported. If you don’t tell others what you need from them, obstacles to your goals will arise. You have to see your life globally—your work, your family obligations—everything that’s going on affects your ability to reach your goals.”