Research suggests that 50% of people who make new year’s resolutions fail by the time April rolls around. I am part of the 50%. Let me explain. When I graduated from high school, I had sort of an existential crisis; the magical bubble of high school with all its fun and drama was about to burst, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It didn’t help that I was simply escaping boredom through smoking pot, which only made me more reclusive and introspective. Slowly, I was digging myself into a hole of anxiety and depression as I criticized myself for not living up to my own potential. So, I made a resolution to better my self holistically; my aim was to eat healthier and exercise more, meditate daily, and learn something new every day. I started off motivated with the promise of a new year and a new me; only a month later, I was offering up more excuses than repetitions, and I was still paralyzed by choices of what direction to take for my studies in college. Luckily, I decided to follow my interests in self-development and the mysteries of the human mind by studying psychology, where I learned several reasons why I failed to see my goals through.
1. When It Comes Time to Initiate Action, We Forget to Do It.
Maybe partly a product of the pot, I often would forget things that happened only a week ago. My friends would call me forgetful. Other times, I would forget to follow through on calling my friend back, and they would label me unreliable. The latter example required my prospective memory to set a goal and follow through on it later. Prospective memory requires us to remember to remember. If I say I’m going to get groceries after work, I have to encode that in my head before I go to work, maintain that memory for the entirety of the workday, and then recall it at the appropriate time. It’s easy to forget after a long day’s work when you are tired and ego depleted.
2. We Get Distracted
Even when I remember to initiate action towards my goal, in this distraction laden world, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked or completely derailed from what I should be doing. I often get in front of the computer and work for a few minutes, only to become metacognizant twenty minutes later that I’ve only been watching funny cat videos.
3. We Don’t Feel Like Doing It
The third barrier to goal striving is last minute inhibition due to the fear of trying something new, or more simply due to a bad mood. Motivation is what keeps us going when our current mood doesn’t agree with our original goal. But when you’re depressed and/or stressed, it’s hard to light the fire needed to get up and go.
4. We Don’t Know Where to Start Because Our Goals Are Too Abstract
With depression at an all-time high, it’s no surprise that the self-help industry has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry. When I was clinically depressed, I turned to books like “The Secret”, which told me to simply visualize how it will feel to reach my goal. Without visualization and belief that you can actually achieve a goal, it will never happen-so in this respect “The Secret” is empowering. However, seeing the end result is only half the battle; I was thinking positively but I still wasn’t taking any measurable action. I was visualizing being happy and having a rich social life, but I didn’t know how to change my behavior to actually bring my goal into fruition. “I want to be rich”, “lose 30 pounds”, “meet the love of my life.” These are all commonly held, yet non-specific goals. Now don’t get me wrong, shooting for the stars is what life is all about, but the trouble comes when our ideals are too broad and abstract. A much more reliable technique is known as:
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Psychological research has shown that by breaking large general goals into small specific parts, your success rate for attaining those goals explodes. Think S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.
Specific goals are clearly defined, and explain “what”, “why”, and “how” you will reach them. Instead of saying, “I want to lose some weight,” a specific goal would go something like, “I am going to lose 30 pounds by sticking to the Paleo diet and exercising daily, so that I may live a healthy and happier life.” Now you have a specific intention in place.
What does “being rich” mean? Are you rich once you have a million dollars, two million, or a different number? You must be able to reliably measure your specific goal so that you can track your progress over time. Your long-term goal will most likely consist of many short-term goals. Make these short-term goals tangible. For my goal of bettering myself holistically, I aimed to improve my mind through meditation. I broke this down into the short-term goal of meditating for 10 minutes daily, and measured it by recording the actual amount of time I spent meditating each day.
The third criterion for a smart goal is that it is realistic and attainable. You don’t want to set goals that are so easy that you aren’t progressing, or so difficult that you can’t reach them despite your best efforts. You should push yourself just to the edge of your skill level so that the goal is challenging. As a 23-year-old, 5-9 guy with only a recreational background in basketball, making it into the NBA is not a very attainable goal. Becoming the best three point shooter in my community might be.
This may seem like an obvious one, but make sure your short-term goals are relevant to your long-term vision. Using my example of learning something new every day, I could in theory read the dictionary and memorize a new word each day. However, my vision was to have a more well-rounded knowledge base, so including a variety of activities like reading books, watching documentaries, and meditating daily would be more relevant endeavors.
Lastly, you need to set deadlines for when your goals must be completed. Draft a timeline that shows your long-term goal at the end of a continuum, with the short-term goals broken up by month, week, day, and even hour if you want to get really organized. This way, you will have no excuse to say, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Putting It Into Action
The key to setting successful S.M.A.R.T. goals is not only visualizing the end result and how amazing your achievement will feel, but also visualizing each and every possible obstacle you’ll encounter, and planning ahead of time how you will deal with each one.
This can be achieved by forming “if-then” statements. Once you have a S.M.A.R.T. goal, obstacle number 4 is taken care of. Now you need to identify which of the three remaining obstacles is your biggest sticking point: Initiating goals, getting distracted once started, or folding under waves of negative emotion. It doesn’t matter which point you get stuck at, even if it’s all three; the solution is the same. Form a specific action with a specific cue. If you forget to act, then make your cue an obvious environmental trigger that makes sense. So, “I want to lose 40 pounds” becomes, “If it is 6pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I will go to the gym.”
For emotional barriers and distractions you could say, “If I encounter anxiety, I will initiate deep breathing!” and “If I finish twenty minutes of uninterrupted work, I will tell myself ‘I can do it, I can complete a whole hour of undistracted work!’”
If you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol you might form an implementation intention like, “When I meet up with my friends tonight, if we eat out and the waiter asks me what I’d like to drink, I’ll answer, “water.” The key factor is to create associations or mental scripts.
Why They Work
1. Heightens Awareness of Potential Peaks and Valleys
By visualizing not only how you’ll feel when achieving your goal, but how you will overcome obstacles along the way, you become more mindful of the realities of reaching your goal. Just doing the former gives you the spark you need to start, while focusing solely on the latter will wear you down. By objectively visualizing both, you form realistic expectations and thus can implement more effective solutions.
2. Conserves Mental Resources By Forming Scripts
We live in a choice-laden world. Too many choices can leave us paralyzed, and in the moment, we often default back to the easy route of old habits. By forming If-then statements ahead of time, your brain is already locked and loaded to deal with these formerly spur of the moment decisions.
3. Automates Your Responses
At first, these statements may feel unnatural, and so does forming any new habit. But after some practice, this works to your advantage; the specific associations you form start to become automatized, and goal striving behaviors become your new default mode!
Five years ago, I was a lost idealist with goals so lofty that I felt guilt I wouldn’t be able to really affect change in the world. I craved meaning, but I was paralyzed by questions of how to go about achieving it. By following my interests and setting S.M.A.R.T. goals, life opened up one opportunity after another and I started building momentum, helping me reach escape velocity from many of my self-defeating habits to becoming a healthier and happier person. Now each short-term goal builds my self-efficacy, and even when goals change, I know I have the tools to reach them.
What goals are you striving for, and how can you turn them into implementation intentions?