In this article, I’m going to show you five principles from psychology that will help you stick with your New Year’s goals.
These are the same ideas I use with clients in my clinical practice. And over the years, they’ve helped hundreds of clients set and stick with meaningful and realistic goals.
Okay, let’s dive in!
1. Choose a Goal but Commit to a Routine
Here’s the single most important thing you need to know when it comes to setting good New Year’s goals and actually sticking with them:
You can’t do a goal. You can do actions that eventually lead you to your goal.
Think about it…
You can’t just lose 20 pounds. But you can commit to not taking a second helping at dinner each night which will eventually result in losing weight.
You can’t just write a novel. But you can commit to writing 300 words every morning which will eventually lead to getting a novel written.
You can’t just improve your relationship with your spouse. But you can commit to saying I love you each morning before you leave for work which will actually change the nature of your relationship.
This distinction between goals and the routines that lead to them is crucial for many reasons. But here’s the most important one:
Thinking about your goals is a great way to procrastinate on the actions that will actually lead you to your goal.
For example: Thinking about which gym you want to join, researching jogging shoes, and watching inspiring YouTube videos of people who have lost tons of weight feels like work.
But it doesn’t actually move the needle much in terms of losing weight. And worse, it takes time and energy away from the actions and routines that will actually move you toward your goal:
- Running on the treadmill three times a week
- Walking around the block every evening after work
- Scheduling grocery shopping twice a week so you never “need” to eat out
Of course, it’s important to think carefully about your goals initially. But remember:
Once you choose a goal, you actually shouldn’t think that much about it because it can very easily turn into a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.
When it comes to New Year’s goals take a set it and forget it approach so you can stay focused on the real work of building good routines — the only things that actually lead to goals being met (and maintained!) in the long run.
2. Pick Goals You Actually Enjoy Working Toward
You would think this one would be obvious…
It’s a lot easier to achieve your New Year’s goal if it’s something you at least kinda enjoy!
Unfortunately, many of us aren’t very creative about our New Year’s goals and end up choosing goals based primarily on what we think we have to do rather than what we want to do.
Well, yeah… Nobody LIKES exercising every day, but we have to do it to get in shape, right?
Okay, I admit that often our goals (and the routines that lead to them) aren’t always going to be 100% fun, exciting, and pleasurable. But they probably can be a lot more enjoyable than you think if you’re willing to get a little creative about how you work toward them…
I’ve worked with hundreds of people on goal-setting and if there’s one theme that stands out among the people who actually stick with and accomplish their goals it’s that they figure out a way to make them enjoyable.
Say your goal is to lose 15 pounds. And the routine you’ve committed to getting you there is working out in the gym five days a week. Well, running on the treadmill isn’t the only way to exercise. And it’s actually a terrible idea if you really dislike running.
The reason is pretty straightforward: You’ll never have much intrinsic motivation to do it if you hate it. You’ll always be “pushing” yourself and relying on willpower to make it happen. Which in the long run is not a sustainable strategy for doing anything (will power is a last resort!).
On the other hand, when you choose an exercise that you at least partially enjoy, there will be some intrinsic motivation to do it, which means less effort and discipline required. So you might, for example, join a Zumba group if you like to dance, or a spin class if cycling is more your thing. Or maybe you try something like CrossFit that mixes and matches a lot of different exercises if variety and novelty are important to you.
Only intrinsic motivation lasts in the long run.
So be smart and creative about choosing goals where there’s at least some amount of enjoyment in the process leading up to them.
3. Align Your Goals with Your Values
Sticking with New Year’s goals is a tug-o-war between your aspirations and your feelings:
You aspire to start going to the gym after work, but you feel like watching Netflix.
You aspire to practice the guitar, but you feel like browsing Facebook.
You aspire to be more patient with your kids, but you feel like yelling at them.
I use the tug-o-war metaphor because this is how motivation actually works:
Your long-term aspirations move you in one direction, but your short-term feelings and desires often pull you in another.
And while there are plenty of tips and tricks for resisting the pull of short-term desire, the better approach is to strengthen the motivating force of your aspirations.
I mean, think about it:
Wouldn’t it be nicer if your goals and aspirations pulled you toward them instead of feeling like you have to push yourself toward your goals all the time?
Sticking with challenging goals and aspirations is unlikely to ever be easy. But you can make it a lot less hard on yourself by increasing their motivational pull. And the way to do that… Aligning your goals with your values.
Values are your guiding principles — the why behind the goals.
Your goal is to lose 20 pounds. Your value is being healthy.
Your goal is to write a novel. Your value is expressing your creativity.
Your goal is to be more honest with your partner. Your value is honesty.
The thing is, most of us are pretty vague about our values. And when values are vague, they don’t really help pull us toward our goals. On the other hand…
The more specific and concrete our values, the more motivating force they exert on us in service of our goals.
Here’s a specific example:
I had a client once who’d been trying to lose weight for years. He’d make a little progress for a while, but then quickly fall back into bad habits that kept his weight at an unhealthy level.
One of the problems I saw was that his values — the why behind his goal — were pretty vague. He told me the reason he wanted to lose weight was because he knew he needed to “get healthy.” Of course, getting healthy is indeed a good reason. It’s just not a very compelling one.
As I explored more reasons why he wanted to lose weight, we eventually struck gold: He told me that one of the reasons — which hadn’t occurred to him until now — was that because he was so overweight, he wasn’t able to play much with his grandson. He got tired so quickly that he couldn’t even play catch with him for more than a couple minutes.
But when I got my client to go into detail on how wonderful it would be to be able to play football with his grandson, go hiking, and a bunch of other activities, something clicked. All of a sudden his values had “teeth.” Because he could “touch and taste” them, they really started to motivate him and keep him motivated to do the hard work of losing weight and getting healthy.
When you clarify the values behind your goals, you give yourself a booster shot of motivation.
4. Anticipate Obstacles (and Make a Plan for Them)
When the first of the year arrives and we start setting our New Year’s goals, it’s a time of excitement and hope. So, understandably, we’re all a little resistant to the idea of thinking about the negatives — how things might go wrong with our best-laid plans.
But here’s the thing:
You’re making a huge mistake if you don’t consider all the ways your goals and routines could fail and go wrong.
Everybody runs into obstacles and setbacks with their New Year’s goals, no matter how careful and thoughtful you were choosing and implementing them. But if these setbacks lead to shock and confusion, they’re likely to move from minor or temporary problems to the kind of major blow-up that leads to abandoning your goals altogether.
To be a bit more metaphorical…
You’re less likely to fall off the wagon when things get bumpy if you were expecting the bumps ahead of time.
If you want your New Year’s goals to last, you need to anticipate the most likely obstacles to them and make specific plans for how you will deal with those obstacles.
Let’s say your New Year’s goal is to call your best friend who lives in another state more often. Specifically, your plan is that every Friday afternoon, you’re going to go for a walk and call your friend.
But then unexpectedly, your boss asks you to take on a new project at work and you no longer have Friday afternoons free. Now, if you didn’t anticipate this, you might end up “winging it” and trying to fit a weekly conversation with your best friend in whenever you can… lunch breaks, commutes home, etc. I don’t think you need me to tell you that this is not a great plan.
On the other hand, let’s say you had anticipated that your leisurely Friday afternoons might not last and come up with a Plan C… If Friday afternoons fell through, you could move to the Saturday afternoon spin class and use Saturday mornings at 9:30 to call your friend.
Now, this might sound a little silly: Come on! I’m an adult — if an obstacle comes up I can handle it then and there.
Sure, you’re perfectly capable of handling that in a perfect world. But when things are tough and you’re stressed out, and on top of everything else, you’re feeling bad about yourself for a setback to your New Year’s goal, making even a relatively simple decision like how to rearrange your schedule to accommodate a displaced routine can seem insurmountable. And as a result, can easily lead to just giving up on it.
If you have a history of “falling off the wagon” when it comes to New Year’s goals, I’d strongly urge you to consider taking a little time to anticipate the most likely obstacles to that goal and make a concrete plan for how you will react to those obstacles. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.
5. Practice Gentle Self-Talk
If you’ve set good goals, you probably have more motivation than you realize. But you may be wasting huge chunks of it. And one of the biggest culprits behind wasted motivation is negative self-talk.
Self-talk refers to our habits of talking to ourselves, both what we say to ourselves in our own head and how we say it.
If your habitual, automatic self-talk tends to be negative, self-critical, and judgmental, it’s going to produce a lot of painful emotion like guilt, anxiety, frustration, and sadness — all of which interfere with your natural motivation to reach your goals.
Instead, work to create a new habit of gentle self-talk.
For example: Let’s say you jumped off the treadmill five minutes early because you were just too tired to keep going…
Harsh Self-Talk: You’re so weak you couldn’t even finish the last five minutes. You’ll never get in shape for that 5K.
Gentle Self-Talk: I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t make it all the way to the end, but the fact that I’m so tired means I must be really giving my muscles a good workout.
Negative self-talk is one of the most powerful obstacles to staying motivated and staying committed to your goals.
If you can learn to notice and then re-shape your self-talk to be more constructive and gentle, you’ll be amazed at how much motivation you’ll already have.
All You Need to Know
If you want to actually stick with your New Year’s goals and resolutions this year, remember these five psychological principles:
- Choose a Goal but Commit to a Routine
- Pick Goals You Actually Enjoy Working Toward
- Align Your Goals with Your Values
- Anticipate Obstacles (and Make a Plan for Them)
- Practice Gentle Self-Talk
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Luis Quintero.