Advice from our director and CBT Therapist Lisa Johnston who has successfully supported hundreds of people in achieving their health, wellbeing and happiness goals.
The coming of a new year acts as a natural motivator for many to set resolutions or think about our aspirations for the year ahead. It’s that time of the year where we draw a line under the way things have been and consider how we would like things to be. Cast your mind back to this time last year - how did you get on with the goals you set yourself for 2018? Chances are you’re one of the 90% of people who do not achieve the personal targets they set themselves each year.
Typically people target their new year resolutions around diet and fitness aspirations, but people are also placing more emphasis on self-development and improved wellbeing as a priority. These wellbeing goals could look at better managing stress levels, working on self-confidence, overcoming a fear or finally addressing that one thing you have been putting off year after year. The new year often brings with it renewed energy & determination to really go for it, but what happens when work, family life, keeping your house and garden running and life in general takes over? How can you ensure you are still moving toward those well thought through and important goals you had set yourself only so recently?
To give ourselves the best chance of success in meeting our new year goals, we need to do a couple of things, (1) we need to change the way we approach setting the goals themselves and (2) we need to ensure that we create helpful habits and put in place a support framework to give us the opportunity to succeed. The new year motivation and determination is more likely to be sustained if we look at how working toward goals can be incorporated into the everyday, countering the effects of everyday life taking over and the tailing-off of our January motivation levels.
Here are my top tips for achieving your targets for the year & establishing good habits that will help you to reach the levels you set yourself each year:
Know your values well
Before committing to any goal, ask yourself why is this so important to you? Often people chose goals that deep down they know holds no ultimate value to them and in doing so sets them up for failure from the off. Pick targets that really matter to you and where you have a genuine interest in progressing or achieving the target you have set yourself. Then at three month intervals over the year, ask yourself the simple question again “Is this goal still really important to me?”. Doing this regular check in helps you to keep your goals aligned with the values you hold at your core. If the goal no longer seems important to you, simply drop it and re-focus on the ones that do. This is not failure at achieving your goal, this is simply recognising that the goal is no longer of value to work towards.
“SMARTen up” your resolutions
A lot of us are familiar with SMART goals from performance appraisals and annual goal-setting in the workplace, but the process is also used widely in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as the most effective framework in setting oneself effective wellbeing targets. The SMART acronym has a few variations, but generally stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable / Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Specific goals are those that are well defined & have a much greater chance of being achieved than general ones. You should put enough detail down so that there is no indecision as to what exactly you should be doing to succeed. An example of a general goal would be, "Spend less time on social media platforms", but a specific goal would say, "Reduce time spent on social media by putting my phone on charge at 9pm downstairs each evening." The goal should be well-defined & may specify for example, what your behaviour should be, what action should be carried out, where this takes place, how often it takes place and who else is involved.
Your goals should be measurable to allow you to track your progress against them and measure whether the goals have been accomplished or not. This is important because noticing our progress increases our motivation to continue working towards our goals. Your goals might be measurable on a sliding scale between 1 and 10 or they could simply be a hit or miss measure of success. So in our social media goal example, we could say “Spend at least 1 hour a day less on social media” and by knowing the average time spent on social media at the start of the year, we can measure if we have succeeded in our reduction goal.
Achievable / Attainable means the goal needs to be realistic, given our current social, economic, or cultural resources and the time we have available. Reducing our social media time by 1 hour a day should be achievable, but setting a goal of not accessing any social media at all may be less so.
Relevant goals are those that you have chosen in-line with your core values. As I mentioned earlier, value-based goals are far more motivating and far more likely to be achieved.
The Time-bound nature of goal setting ensures we give ourselves a specific timeframe for each goal to be achieved: next month, within 3 months, by the end of the summer or by the end of the year. Setting an end point for the goal gives us a clear target to achieve. It attaches a sense of urgency to our required goal-driven behaviour. Try to set your goals with a shorter time-frame, as immediate goals often see better associated performance than those with longer-term targets.
Less leads to more
Consider setting yourself less goals this year.
With fewer goals to focus on, you energy levels and commitment to achieve them becomes less diluted. Set yourself no more than four goals this year. If you achieve all four before the allotted timeframes you have set, then along with feeling proud of yourself, you can always set some more. Setting too many goals at the same time can lead to burnout, reduced motivation, giving up on all your goals earlier and increase the likelihood of you not achieving them to the level or standard you had aspired to.
Find a goal buddy
Evidence has shown that when we share our goals and how we plan to achieve them (this doesn’t need to be a detailed plan, merely some actionable steps), the process of sharing and regularly checking in with another ensures greater accountability in continuing to move forwards with them. Sharing our goals can also be helpful because it can lead to others encouraging us, prompting us and providing us with information or resources to help us succeed.
Establish a weekly or monthly check in to talk about your goals with your buddy. Even if you aren’t able to find yourself a goal buddy, still set yourself some time (15 minutes max) to consider what you have achieved in the past week or month and what your next actionable steps will be.
Don’t be too hard on yourself!
The most negative or critical voice in our life can often be our own. It is important to keep a check on when these unhelpful thoughts come into our mind but, more importantly, when we begin to listen to them. Self-critical thoughts often surface when we have made a mistake or fallen short of our own expectations. How we talk to ourselves really does matter because it is the strongest and often most repetitive message that we will receive.
Increasing the awareness of what you are thinking about, the way you are talking to yourself and how you are feeling can all help in steering your perspective upwards and away from a negative bias in any given moment. Rather than thinking about the things you should have done better, get into the habit of acknowledging what you have done and celebrating it, however small it may be. In general, look out for thoughts or reflections that contain the notion of ‘should’ – this creates a feeling of obligation – try swapping it for ‘could’ to give yourself the possibility of choice within your life.
Nurturing more optimism doesn’t mean viewing everything in life through unrealistic rose tinted lenses, it is about having more hope in what we do. It can alter the way we perceive ourselves & others and the way we view our opportunities & challenges. One of the best ways develop this optimism is to talk to yourself as you would a friend. Use words of support, encouragement and compassion. Approaching your goals knowing that you are in your own corner will have a marked improvement on the confidence you feel in achieving them.
New year resolutions shouldn’t be seen as the big list of changes that we know we will never get around to completing.
By knowing our values and setting ourselves a smaller number of realistic and well considered targets, we can give ourselves the best chance of succeeding this year.
Make 2019 the year you reach your targets and thrive.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapist
Co-Founder of My Therapist Online