January is not only a reset of the calendar. For many of us, it is a reset of our goals and ambitions. We look back on what we achieved in the past year, what we want to achieve this year, and enter a period of reflection.
We evaluate our progress – professionally, personally – and in a flurry of excitement and/or existential panic, commit ourselves to the task of betterment. We scribble down goals for the year ahead. We’re going to learn French, and maybe Spanish too. We’re going to lose not just that Christmas weight but a further stone on top of it. We’re going to get the promotion, travel to that beach paradise, eat healthier, take more photos, and just generally, finally become the rich/pretty/happy/smart/loved/well-read version of ourselves we were always meant to be.
Until after about three days of pursuing this idealised final form, we collapse in a heap and decide Netflix and a takeaway sounds like a better idea.
Like Icarus, we flew too close to the sun, got burned, and crashed back to Earth before the New Year’s hangover had even fully evacuated our system. Because the problem with “New year, new me” is it can only ever be half-true.
Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t pursue new goals – we can always strive for more. Rather that we should do so intelligently. Setting objectives is not just doable but recommended. It helps keep us on track, steadies our progress, and offers clarity and motivation.
There’s a story educators often cite that backs this up.
Many years ago, a survey was taken of students in their senior year at Yale University. Researchers asked the students if they had any goals for their future, and if any of them had written these goals down. 3% had. The rest, in much more relatable fashion, had not. Twenty years later, the researchers tracked down this same group of students and found that the 3% who had written down their goals had out-achieved their peers who hadn’t done so financially and professionally, while also being happier and more self-confident .
Now, does this story demonstrate the undeniable power of writing down one’s goals and prove that if you wish to be successful that there is a sure-fire way to do so? No, because the story is almost certainly untrue. A low-rent parable that gets wheeled out by educators all the same because, like all tales that pass into folklore, the heart of its lie speaks to an accepted truth: setting goals leads to progress.
While that specific story may be false, studies have shown that appropriate goal setting, along with timely and specific feedback, can lead to higher achievement, better performance, a high level of self-efficacy, and self-regulation . And yet, when asked “Were you taught how to set goals in school?” 85% of individuals responded “no” .
In other words, we believe in the power of setting goals, we just have no idea how to do it.
The courage to want
Writing in Forbes, Life Performance Coach Julien Fortuit notes that, “Fear is probably the most common impediment to goal setting, even though many people may not admit it. Fear of failure – that you’ll set a goal, but not be able to achieve it, and suffer embarrassment, shame and disappointment in the process – underlies so much foot-dragging about setting and achieving goals” .
Fortuit acknowledges, too, that oftentimes we don’t just fear failure, but success. Applying for that new job, promotion etc. is often accompanied by a sudden spike of dread: What if I actually get this? Will I be able to do it? What will it mean for my life? What if I don’t like it? Is this the right move? It suddenly seems so much easier to put our dreams back in our pocket and settle for what we have.
Some people even fear speaking their goals out loud, or fear admitting to having any in the first place – they deny themselves the evaluation required to know what it is that they want. Fortuit writes that, “Many people are afraid of setting goals “just” for themselves. They fall into a common mental trap of believing that the desire for attainment or advancement is inherently narcissistic, and that settling and being content where you are is somehow ideal” .
All these impediments are self-created: fear of failure, of success, of daring to dream in the first place. And while feeling these things may be totally normal, allowing them to stop you from pursuing a goal is foolhardy.
So, before setting out toward your goal, first examine yourself and decide what it is you really want – to work in a new sphere? A new country? To earn more money? To start your own business? Once you’ve taken the requisite time to self-analyse and understand where it is you want to be, only then can you take the first steps to getting there.
Regardless of the goal, the consensus is that if you wish to achieve it, you must make it SMART. Smart goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Specificity is crucial. “I want to be a better employee” means nothing. “I want my sales record this year to improve by 15% compared with last year” is SMART. It is one clear objective, with a measurable area of improvement, a challenging but achievable target and a clear timeframe.
The primary issues that hold back goals are that the end desire is either too vague or too ambitious. Give yourself something tangible to focus on achieving – it doesn’t have to be an outcome, like the 15% example, rather a process. Say you want to spend 10 minutes a day studying a language rather than saying “I want to be fluent in Korean”, or “I want to run twice a week” rather than “I want to do a marathon.”
For goals that take place over a long period of time, it can be a good idea to set smaller objectives in between so that you can keep yourself on track. For example, if you want to read 30 books this year, it can be all too easy to fall behind early while convincing yourself that things will improve later in the year – that future you will pick up the slack. Except inevitably, as the first firework of December 31st fizzes into the sky, future you is left remonstrating past you for putting them under so much pressure and forcing them to end the year feeling like a failure.
A better approach would be to measure your progress by ensuring you’ve read ten by the end of April, twenty by the end of August etc. Not only does this make the goal more measurable and less daunting, but you get bursts of satisfaction through the year every time you see you’re on track.
Worth trying, too, is making your resolutions public. You will feel – rightly or wrongly – a level of scrutiny as to your progress. It is only human nature. Of course none of us want to feel like failures. But far more terrifying is the prospect of everyone else seeing us as one.
Additionally, ensure that you’ve connected a “why” to each of your ambitions. If our brain is able to link the efforts required to achieve this goal with a tangible, meaningful reward in the future, it is more likely to find the necessary motivation when things get tough. Wanting to hit sales targets so you can earn commission is fine. Wanting to hit sales targets so you can earn commission that you’re putting towards a deposit for a house for your family is better. Of course, it need not be so primal. Wanting to buy those new shoes, to feel more confident, to renew your season ticket or shop at the posh supermarket – whatever motivates you.
The benefits aren’t just in achieving goals but also in what having goals does to our psyche. A study amongst pulpwood producers in the southern United States showed that not only did productivity improve drastically amongst workers once goals were introduced, but that “within the week, employee attendance soared relative to attendance in those crews who were [not set goals]. Why? Because the psychological outcomes of setting and attaining high goals include enhanced task interest, pride in performance, a heightened sense of personal effectiveness, and, in most cases, many practical life benefits such as better jobs and higher pay” .
If you want to make long-term improvements, make habits your best friend.
James Clear’s Atomic Habits is the obvious guide for bringing habits into your life. He shows how micro-changes – getting 1% better every day – make all the difference. Habits take time to form, and there’s no shortcut to making them stick. It takes consistency, showing up every day. In order to do that, Clear suggests starting with a habit that is small and attainable. If you set yourself the target of running 10k three times a week, you may have a great first day, a great first week even, but sooner or later you’re going to struggle to keep it up (unless you’re built like The Hardest Geezer, in which case good for you). Clear’s advice for exercise isn’t about setting targets for runs or lifts, it’s about laying out your gym clothes before you go to bed or leaving your gym bag by the door. Truly the little things.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach for a number of Fortune 500 corporations, says the same. “It usually takes my workshop participants between three and eight tries before they come up with something sufficiently small enough to be considered a micro habit.”
“When I tell them reading for an hour each night is too large, they then change to reading for 45 minutes, then 30 minutes, and so on. Finally, I tell them, “You will know you’ve truly reached the level of a micro habit, when you say, ‘That’s so ridiculously small, it’s not worth doing’”” .
It may sound ridiculous, condescending even, to say “start reading one page a night” or “start doing one pushup a day”, but building consistency is far more important than having an impressive week or month then falling off the wagon. That may mean sticking with your teeny-tiny habit longer than you’d like to, even if you think you’re capable of more. “You’ve stuck with your original micro habit long enough when you feel bored with it for at least two weeks in a row,” Nawaz says. “Then increase it only by about 10%.”
Every year, all over the world, people set themselves goals they have no chance of achieving. It’s a double negative – not only are they not fulfilling the goal, but they’re left feeling like failures because they fell short. To make effective goals, one must first self-evaluate and decide what you really want. You have to know where you’re going before figuring out how to get there. Once you’re set on the destination, in order to make your goals achievable, make sure they’re SMART, making use of habits, linked to a clear “why”, and focused on processes rather than just outcomes.
Resolutions don’t have to be distant dreams we’ll never achieve; they can be powerful motivators that set us on the path to success. So put last year’s missed targets behind you and set yourself goals you can actually reach and truly want to.
More on Goal Setting
How to Achieve Peak Performance
New Year’s Resolutions: How to Make Them Useful
More on Habits
Why Achievement Doesn’t Guarantee Happiness
Boosting personal and organisational performance in the digital age (Podcast)