Lose five pounds. Limit time on Facebook. Get promoted at work.
In life, you set goals all the time. You strive to be healthier, more successful, and so on and so on. Essentially, your hope is to be the best version of yourself and to reach your full potential. But as you know all too well, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes planning and patience, not to mention a dose of realism. Setting realistic goals is half the battle; the other half is designing a detailed, manageable plan to attain them.
And what better time to do so than the start of a brand new year?
January represents a fresh start and a time to start over. It’s the time of year when you set New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, many people either set unrealistic ones or have trouble sticking to them. Take fitness goals, for example. Gym memberships often spike in January, but after a few months, or sometimes weeks, many of those memberships go unused.
Why? Well, for one, achieving goals isn’t always easy. But you make it all the more challenging when you set unrealistic goals or refuse to map out the work ahead of time.
In order to reach goals and keep resolutions in 2017, take these five steps toward success:
1. Choose a Goal Wisely
In 1968, Edwin A. Locke, a pioneering psychologist, developed the Goal Setting Theory, arguing that setting a challenging and specific goal, compared to an easy, “do your best” goal or no goal at all, would produce higher levels of performance.
In addition, setting a goal that is meaningful to you will increase your motivation to achieve it. When thinking of a goal, try asking yourself these questions:
- What matters most to me and could it be improved?
- What changes do I want to implement to improve my physical and mental health?
- Do I have any unhealthy habits I want to change?
- How could I improve upon the relationships in my life?
- What new skill would I like to learn?
- What do I hope to experience in the New Year?
- What could I do to improve my life in 2017?
Lastly, create a goal that allows you to measure progress. Think of how you can track any progress made, as well as the end result. How will you know when you’ve reached your goal? What will it look like?
So rather than choosing a goal to “be happier,” which can be difficult to measure, think of something that bring you happiness, such as riding your bike, and centre your goal around that: I will ride my bike for 20 minutes a day, three times a week.
In short, aim to make your goal for the New Year:
- Challenging (while not overly challenging—remember to stay realistic)
- As specific as possible (e.g., I would like to make $300 more this month versus I want to make more money.)
2. Make It Positive
It can be easy to put a negative spin on goals: I need to lose 10 pounds this month or I will stop losing my temper. At times, you create goals out of a sense of urgency or lack and your phrasing can reflect that (e.g., I want… or I must…).
Instead, try phrasing your goals positively. Think of what you would like to gain instead of lose—what you can you add more of rather than remove from your life. For example, instead of working less, choose to spend more time in the evenings with your family. Or instead of eating less junk food, commit to cooking healthier meals at home.
3. Write It Down
Writing down goals is a great tool for holding you accountable and helping you stay committed, as psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews of Dominican University discovered in 2007 when she conducted a study on goal writing.
In the study, participants who wrote down their goals were significantly more accomplished in reaching them than those who did not write down anything at all. Also helpful to participants was sending a written weekly progress to a friend, which helped hold them accountable.
After writing down your goal, keep it where you can see it. Let it serve as a daily reminder to help keep you motivated.
4. Create a Detailed Action Plan
A successful action plan consists of breaking down goals into small, manageable steps. Before taking action, write out each action step you plan to take. Be as specific and detailed as possible.
If a step feels too big or even slightly unrealistic, break it down even further. Remember, the key is to keep the steps as realistic and manageable as you can.
You can even set benchmarks, rewarding yourself once they are met. You may find as you go that steps need to be even further broken down or perhaps you’re moving through them quicker than expected. Simply adjust your benchmarks accordingly. There is no perfect action plan, and more often than not, a little tweaking is necessary.
To help you get started, ask yourself these questions (and even better, write down your answers):
- What actions am I already taking that could help me achieve my goal, and how could I implement more of it into my life?
- How will I track progress? What will I measure specifically?
- What is my timeline for reaching my goal? Is it realistic?
- Who could I ask to help hold me accountable?
Tip: Track progress in a journal. Not only can it help keep you on track, but it can also be used to express any thoughts, feelings, and concerns you may have while striving to reach your goal.
5. Reward Yourself
Have a reward in place for when you accomplish your goal; it can serve as a powerful motivator. If you experience any setbacks (which should be expected), it will be important to remind yourself why the goal is worth accomplishing, not to mention the reward you will receive as a result of reaching it. Setting and achieving goals isn’t always easy, so rewarding yourself along the way and at the very end will be well deserved.
In addition to achieving something you deem important to you, setting goals can:
- Focus your attention
- Lead to greater productivity
- Provide a greater sense of purpose
- Improve self-esteem
When you use valued resources such as your time, energy, and attention to achieve an important goal, you are enhancing your sense of self-worth. You are conveying the message: I value myself enough to take the necessary steps to be the very best version I can be. And the start of a new year is a great time to embrace that.