The New Year can be a fresh start, a magic eraser that lets us sweep the past year under the rug and start anew, feeling like this will be our year. No really, this year is my year. Sound familiar? This practice became so socially ingrained in us because of how comforting it is to believe we can always reinvent ourselves. It prevents us from feeling helpless and stuck in our current situations, and it’s a welcomed reminder that we always have the opportunity to work toward becoming our ideal self. The New Year provides us with a time to figure out what that ideal self looks like for each of us, and to set goals that align with our visions of the future.
Now, the dreamer, optimist and self-improvement addict in me used to set somewhat lofty goals, thinking that was what New Year’s was all about. One year my goals were: run a half-marathon, floss my teeth at least once a day and get at least seven hours of sleep a night. The funny thing is, at the time I thought these goals were realistic for me. “Half-marathon so no problem. Besides, I’m supposed to floss every day and get seven hours of sleep anyway. I’ve got this.” Then I realized I hated running for long distances, I forgot floss in my carry-on and I pulled more than one all-nighter to study for an exam. Okay, but next year though.
With a few more New Years under my belt, I realized one big problem with “new year, new me.” It’s assuming that there is something wrong to begin with. Already, you may be approaching resolutions with a critical eye, finding fault in your daily life that may not even truly matter to you. Suddenly, just because the calendar now reads Dec. 31, you begin to evaluate and analyze what you need to change, generally forming a negative perception about the past and an overly positive view of the future.
In reality, you may be doing just fine. So when setting your goals this year, ask yourself whether you are basing your goals off of things society encourages or off of what you personally believe in. If you don’t 100 percent believe in the goal you are working towards, I guarantee you’ll be slipping up on those resolutions in no time. Ask yourself, “Is this something I think I should be doing or is this something that I believe will enhance my life and am truly committed to working on?” If it’s important, you will find a way. If it’s not, you will find an excuse.
That being said, I am a firm believer that setting goals is necessary for improvement, because without goals we can remain fixed in a certain trajectory, thinking frequently of our “potential” but not taking steps towards reaching it. According to an article from the New York Times, research supports the legitimacy of setting New Year’s resolutions “as long as they’re backed by science, patience and planning.” This article provides seven tangible steps towards setting resolutions smartly. In summary, first you should think big and pick a unifying “theme” for your year. Picking a theme versus one singular habit allows you to remain focused on your intention even if the particular habit doesn’t work for you. For example, with the theme of getting more exercise, you might try running, realize it doesn’t work for you and switch to Zumba classes without losing sight of your overarching theme. Plus, it can also “stimulate your brain to look for additional opportunities to advance your goal,” like also recognizing the opportunity to take the stairs instead of the elevator at work. The article also recommends the following steps:
- Be patient — Try transforming bad habits, instead of trying to break them. Identify common “triggers” and “rewards” and find new habits that satisfy both.
- Break it down — Start small. Try the “two-minute rule” with habits you are trying to form by only completing the beginning of the habit. For example, start with reading one page a day of a book or doing one pull-up – until the behavior becomes second nature.
- Embrace snappy rewards — Habits only stick if you receive immediate rewards. Learn to fall in love with the feeling after a great workout, rather than the cake you let yourself eat after.
- Prime your environment — Surround yourself with people who have the same goals that you do and offer a solid support system. Remove temptations; if you want to start eating healthier, skip the Ben and Jerry’s aisle in the grocery store.
- Plan to fail — If you can learn from your failure, you will be more likely to reach your goal. Try brainstorming potential obstacles so that you can prepare for them.
- Celebrate often — Celebrate every day! This can be sending yourself future thank you notes or telling someone close to you so they can share in your success.
A crucial part of setting goals is that you need to write them down. Seeing your goal physically on a piece of paper or vision board helps clarify exactly what you are working toward and helps you stay accountable. It can also be helpful to visualize yourself achieving the goal. For example, visualizing myself buying a home in the future has helped me stay motivated in school, manage my finances and be smart about my money in the present although that is not necessarily the most fun choice.
Finally, each of us has the opportunity to make positive changes every single day. I like to set an intention every morning which dictates one thing I will focus on for that day, similar to how you would set an intention in the practice of yoga (i.e., clear my head of negative thoughts for the hour I’m here). By doing this, I am able to start each day with a clear goal that I can easily focus on and achieve, such as being a good listener in the social interactions I have that day which can lead to substantial benefits in the long-term.
So set those New Year’s resolutions! But make sure you believe in them and that they are specific, measurable, realistic and have a clear deadline. Don’t feel defeated if these goals fail you or your motivations change throughout the year. Each day is as good a time as any to reevaluate your goals and what direction you want your life to go and how you will get there.