New year resolutions are (in)famous all around the world. Most of us use this symbolic time of the year, when a sense of new beginnings is very present, to set ourselves new challenges and goals, whether they are about something new we wish to start or something a bit older we wish to improve or give up.
In our new-found desire to improve our lives, we promise to give up smoking or eating chocolate, start going to the gym, find a better job, leave that unhealthy relationship, finally move to new city or even date more. Setting and implementing goals is a challenging undertaking, which can be facilitated by a some important elements. There has been much research on these topics over the last few decades but today I will focus on one that I really like, mostly for its apparent simplicity.
C. Rick Snyder (professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas and the father of 'Hope Theory'), would have pointed to at least the following three elements which may be preventing you from moving closer to your goals:
What does he mean exactly?
First, to implement your resolutions effectively, Snyder would have argued you need clear, well-established goals. You need to know what is the destination of your journey. For example, saying you want to start to exercise more is too vague, and it can sound more like a means to an end than the end itself. Why do you want to exercise? Is it really for the sake of doing exercise, or to increase your fitness level, improve your overall health, or meet new people? State your intentions clearly and try to use indicators that can allow you to measure your progress. [It is also very important to define the 'right' goals: research has shown that goals which are intrinsic, flexible, appropriate, activity-oriented, focused on improvement are more conducive to well-being. But more on this in a later article.] Equally important is being able to keep your focus on your goals. In a world that is constantly bombarding us with distractions, our attention can be easily diverted to less important pursuits. Hence, beware of the importance of controlling your 'attention robbers' - whether these are social media tools, watching TV, or simply procrastinating -, which can all sound more tempting than going to a gym at least 3 times per week for a minimum of 45 minutes, so that I can lower my cholesterol levels from x to y*.
Secondly, it's important to know your own willpower (that is your motivation, or your 'fuel' for the journey) and its limits. Every decision, every change, every attempt to resist a habit or an automatic behaviour requires some energy from you. It uses up your willpower. While it is possible to practice and expand its limits, your willpower is not unending. And it needs sufficient time to re-charge itself. So, ask yourself: are you setting yourself to engage in new resolutions at a time of the day when you've already 'wasted' all your energy resisting your boss, or the craving to eat that ice-cream? Make sure to reserve enough of your resources for your new resolutions, or maybe start one at a time so you can pace your willpower usage. In addition, try to reframe any obstacle as a challenge, thus conserving at least some of the energy needed to overcome them, and to consider previous successes who may have had with similar challenges to remind you that you can do it. So, if you want to go to the gym more often, it is usually easier to start a new habit in the morning and to make it something interesting or fun. I, for example, have coupled my visits to the gym with watching TED talks (or sometimes episodes from John Oliver's Last Week Tonight show), so I am always learning something new (and possibly also having fun). Finally, you probably won't be surprised to hear that sleep, nutrition and exercise can all influence our willpower. Our overall physiological state matters.
Thirdly, many people fail to achieve their goals because, even if they have clear goals and enough willpower (they have their destination and enough fuel), they are unaware of the alternative pathways to reach their goals, what Snyder calls waypower. The first steps in a journey are often the hardest ones, but breaking your goals into smaller steps can really make a difference here. Focus on those smaller first steps. In addition, we can often feel demotivated when we try a new strategy we heard worked really well for someone else only to find out it's not working for us at all. Obstacles are generally part of any journey and there are no routes that work for everyone; the key here is to to explore different ways to reach your destination, adjust it to whom you are, and persist in our journey even when one road becomes blocked. There are always multiple routes; just keep exploring and being creative.
Finally, as Snyder also mentions, be willing to ask for help. So many of us feel ashamed, embarrassed or afraid to ask others for support. After all, we're adults so "we should know better", "we should know how to deal with these things". That's the chat in your head! In mine too! Yet collaboration is key to effectively achieve your goals. Others have probably already been where you are now and found some solutions for it. Just imagine if there was no knowledge 'passed forward' and we all had to start from scratch. No books, no schools, no one to ask for help and guidance. Psychologist Adam Grant (author of 'Give and Take') highlights how much asking for help can be a crucial social skill. Ask a friend, a colleague, a mentor, someone from your family; you can even ask a coach ;)
So, if you have set (or are considering setting) up some new resolutions, ask yourself: Are you clear and specific about what it is you wish to achieve? Have you planned it in a way that allows you to have enough energy to actually do it? Have you reflected on the different options that may take you there, even if one road gets blocked? All three components, Snyder would say, are essential to make real the things we hope for.
There are obviously other tips that are useful for goal-setting or when you are considering to start (or change) a habit, but that's the topic for another post :) Stay tuned!
* I am not a doctor and I am not claiming any direct causal relation between these 2 elements. They are used here just for illustrative purposes.
(First published on: 23 January 2020)