Much as physical landmarks help structure our world, temporal milestones such as the start of a new year, a birthday, an upcoming vacation or other significant calendar dates structure our perception of time, enabling us to organize and plan our lives in segments punctuated by these markers. The start of a New Year, in particular, allows us to put our mistakes and imperfections behind us and provides the inspiration to envision the best of ourselves in the future. As most of us know from personal experience, however, more than 75% of New Year’s resolutions aren’t kept. What to do?
Set a Meaningful Goal
When you set a goal that is intrinsically motivating rather than a “should do,” you are more likely to follow-through. Moreover, research suggests meaning in your life is important for well-being. “Want to” goals that pertain to your passions, interests, and values vs. “need to” goals are more motivating and satisfying to achieve.
Extrinsic goals such as losing 50 pounds, making more money or getting promoted are not rewarding until achieved, and the harder they are, the more easily abandoned because the process of reaching the goal seems uninteresting at best or onerous at worst. And, if you give up before attaining your desired outcome, you’ll beat yourself up for not following through.
Develop a Plan
Having a goal without a plan is like driving to a destination without a GPS; you won’t know how to get there from here. Breaking a goal into pieces makes achieving it more manageable and offers the opportunity to celebrate successes along the way. In her book Presence, psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends “self-nudging,” a process of routinely setting small goals instead of one large one. For example, instead of choosing to run a marathon as your goal, (unless you’re an experienced runner) set your goal to enjoy running instead and measure your progress on ways to make the experience more pleasurable.
Use Emotions Strategically
The research on self-control shows that willpower is in short supply. As much as we try to make ourselves work, study, exercise, etc., the mental effort to stay focused and motivated takes a psychological and even a physical toll.
Research by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University showed that gratitude and pride are motivators for delaying gratification (not eating the extra cookie or sleeping in when you planned to get up early to go to the gym.) In his lab, subjects who were feeling gratitude showed nearly double the self-control of those who were happy or neutral.
DeStefano found similar results when it comes to feeling pride. When people feel proud of skills they have accomplished or relationships they’ve developed, for example, they are more willing to delay rewards and will work harder and longer to solve a challenging problem. Similarly, with gratitude.
So as 2018 begins, set goals that are valuable to you, plan the small steps of achieving them and create opportunities to feel pride, compassion, and gratitude. You might just find that you not only help yourself but others as well.