Real Resolutions: How to Set Achievable Goals

This post is coming a little late for New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve been thinking about this topic since I saw the New Year’s Resolution Rush at the gym earlier this week. I go to a gym on campus at my university about two or three times a week at 6:30 am, right when it opens. As you might expect, most students find it difficult to get up for morning classes, much less 6:30 am workouts, so the gym at this time of the morning is fairly sparsely populated. Except for the first few weeks of January. In January, without fail, there is always a huge crowd of students standing outside the doors to the gym by 6:25, eager to make good on their exercise-based resolutions. Of course, by mid-term time, nearly all of them are gone.

I’m not one to begrudge someone for not making it to the gym, especially not so early in the morning — I myself have been known to re-set the alarm for an extra hour or two of sleep on occasion. What I find interesting about this annual rush, however, (I’ve seen it for the past six years) is what it indicates about the sustainability of any sort of resolution, New Year’s-related or otherwise. Resolutions made on the first day of January are notoriously unsustainable: we’ve probably all had experiences with those promises that don’t last much past January 3rd. The question we should all be asking ourselves, then, is “why?” Why did we fail to reach our goals? This question can have many answers and it will depend on the person and the goal, but most of those answers can be summarized into four main reasons why most resolutions and goals fail to be accomplished. In this post I will outline those four main reasons and give examples of some solutions.

Mistake #1: Lack of Motivation

Lack of motivation is a huge contributor to goal-failure but one that is not often recognized. It’s great to say “I want to exercise more,” but the important question to ask yourself is how much do you want it? Do you want to exercise more than you want to play video games? More than you want to hang out with friends? We have limited time in the day, and any goal that involves doing something is going to require some time out of your day. You probably didn’t have a ton of unfilled time before making this goal, so it is likely that you will have to stop doing something else in order to make time for this new time-consuming activity. If you have a full-time job, a good social life, a couple of hobbies, and a desire to eat and sleep everyday, fitting in exercise can be really difficult: so do you want to workout enough that you are willing to give up something else?

Solution: Consider your level of motivation before making the goal. When you decide that you want to lose fat or get in shape or learn how to play piano, you have to decide whether you care about it enough. Do you care enough about losing fat to stop eating certain foods? Do you care enough about getting in shape to make time in your schedule to walk or go to the gym? Do you care enough about learning to play piano to find time to practice every day? These may seem like obvious connections, but we often don’t think about the connection between the abstract and the practical when we’re making resolutions. If you find that your motivation isn’t enough, then maybe this isn’t the right time in your life for that goal. Amend it or postpone it until your level of motivation is sufficient to accomplish it.

Mistake #2: Ambiguity

I can’t count the number of times that someone has told me about a resolution like “I want to get healthier” or “I want to save more money” or “I want to be more organized.” These resolutions are coming from a good place – a desire for self-improvement – but there is very little chance that this person will be successful in accomplishing any one of those goals because they are too ambiguous. The words “healthier,” “more,” and “organized” are such abstract concepts that can mean so many different things that these goals could be accomplished in many different ways but are therefore unlikely to be accomplished at all.

Solution: Make a concrete plan. First, ask yourself what “healthy” means for you. Does this mean that you want to lose fat? gain muscle? regulate blood sugar? Once you have a more solid idea of your goal, make a resolution that will help you get there. For instance, “I will stop eating snacks between meals” or “I will go to the gym three times per week” or “I will avoid any foods with refined or added sugar” are all good, specific resolutions that could all work towards the end goal of “healthy.” Similarly, saving money could involve getting a new job or it could involve not buying $5 lattes every day of the week. Becoming more organized could mean using an agenda to write down to do lists and appointments or it could mean taking time to sort and file the papers on your desk. By making your resolutions more specific, you are more likely to be able to stick to them for a longer period of time.

Mistake #3: All-or-Nothing Mentality

The all-or-nothing mentality has historically been my own biggest weakness when it comes to making resolutions. I have a tendency to sometimes give up entirely at the first sign of a slip-up. For example, last September, I decided to start meditating for 10 minutes twice a day (morning and evening) to help with stress management. It was easy to meditate in the morning right when I woke up, but I found taking the time in the evening to be difficult: by the time I was getting ready for bed, all I wanted to do was sleep, not spend another ten minutes sitting, breathing deeply. I tried to force myself to do it, but it just wasn’t working for me. It frustrated me that I wasn’t able to succeed with my resolution, and so whenever I thought about meditating, I got frustrated (defeating the whole purpose of stress-relief meditation). As a result, I just stopped meditating entirely, even in the mornings. Because I had failed in part of my resolution, I made myself fail all of it.

Solution: The way to deal with small failures is not to give up, but to address why they happened and how to avoid them in the future. In my case, once I realized that evening meditation was just not working for my schedule, I should have compromised and focused on just my morning meditations, which I enjoyed. The same principle can be applied to things like new ways of eating or exercising. If you have decided to avoid chocolate, for instance, but then you eat a kit kat bar one day when you’re stressed or upset or just craving chocolate, there’s no reason to give up on your resolution all together. Just get right back on the wagon and move on.

Mistake #4: Resolution Overload

The final mistake I see a lot of people making with resolutions is trying to change too much at once. It can be difficult, sometimes, when there are lots of things about our lives that we want to change, to choose just one to focus on, but that can be really crucial to the success of any one resolution. If your goal for the year is to lose fat and gain muscle and regulate your blood sugar and learn to play piano and get organized and and and and ad infinitum, then it is unlikely that you will be able to reach any of your goals, much less all of them. As mentioned earlier, we have only so much time and so much motivation: choose too many goals and those valuable resources will be spread too thinly.

Solution: Stick to one resolution, goal, or habit at a time, then move on to the next one. This can be in the form of gaining a new habit every few weeks (this month I will stop drinking soda, next month I will stop eating chocolate, the month after that I will start going for a walk after dinner every day, etc.) or it could be tackling a bigger goal each year (in 2014 I will lose 3 dress sizes, in 2015 I will bench press my body weight, in 2016 I will learn to speak Spanish, etc.). Each of these goals takes effort to attain: if you focus all of your effort in a given period of time on that goal, you are more likely to reach it.

Even though New Year’s has passed now, it’s never to late to make or revise your resolutions. Good luck!

Posted on January 10, 2014, in Tips From a Student and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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